Wieder Relies on Record to Put Campaign Back on Track
Harriett M. Wieder had had a touch of stomach flu all day. She had appeared at a noontime candidates’ forum in Long Beach after drinking only a little 7-Up for breakfast. Later, she had eaten a bowl of soup.
But there she was at 6 p.m., a glass of white wine in her hand, at a Newport Harbor reception for Vice President George Bush’s wife, Barbara. Wieder’s energy--which is legendary--had returned. The “Hello, Dolly!” of Orange County politics was gamely working the crowd, kidding people, introducing them to one another.
It was all the more impressive because Wieder had just undergone the most embarrassing moment of 14 years in elective office. Days before, Wieder, 67, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, had admitted that she was lying when she claimed a college degree on various resumes over 25 years.
The revelation came from former White House speech writer Dana Rohrabacher, 40, one of Wieder’s opponents in the Republican primary in the 42nd Congressional District race for the seat being vacated by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach). The district stretches from Orange County to Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Wieder, the front-runner in the race, apologized for the falsehood, explaining that she had been ashamed that she had never gone to college.
“My skeleton is out of the closet,” Wieder said, sounding relieved as she animatedly talked with friends at the reception for Barbara Bush.
Focus of Criticism
Wieder even managed to poke fun at herself on the subject of scandal. “I never cheated on Irv in 47 years,” she said, speaking of her husband, “and I never smoked pot. I missed all the fun!”
Wieder will need all the resilience and energy she can muster for the remainder of what has already proved to be a rough-and-tumble campaign.
As the perceived front-runner, she has been the focus of intense scrutiny and criticism by Rohrabacher and the other two major Republican opponents: former Cal State Long Beach President Stephen Horn, 56, and former White House advance man Andrew Littlefair, 27.
Horn and Littlefair have repeatedly criticized Wieder for what they say is her failure to get on the fast-moving slow-growth train in traffic-clogged Orange County.
Littlefair asserted in the race’s first hit mailer that Wieder’s recent votes on the Board of Supervisors for development agreements were a “failure to say ‘no’ to developers” because of contributions they have made to her campaigns over the years.
Wieder--who defends the agreements because they require developers to pay for certain roadway improvements and construction--said at a recent candidate forum that she is “shocked when Republicans stand up there who believe in the private enterprise system and say we’ve got to stop growth. . . . That’s the simplistic approach to it.”
Her political problem stemming from the phony college degree worsened last week. It was disclosed that Wieder had claimed to have a degree from Wayne State University in Detroit not only in her resume, but while testifying under oath in a deposition being taken in a civil lawsuit. The deposition was taken in October, and only last month Wieder signed a declaration attesting to the accuracy of a transcript of the proceeding.
Adding to her troubles were complaints filed last week with the district attorney by the author of the county’s campaign financing law, Shirley Grindle. She contended that Wieder should not have voted on certain development agreements that have come before the board because of campaign contributions she has accepted from people identified with development firms.
Wieder said she has done nothing wrong and had been advised by the county counsel that the contributions were legal and that she could vote on the agreements.
To counter her own stumbling and attacks by foes, Wieder is drawing on community relationships she has built during 10 years as the only woman ever on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, as well as her four previous years on the Huntington Beach City Council.
Aside from the false college degree claim, Wieder’s resume is an impressive list of civic and community accomplishments, beginning with volunteer work.
“Harriett has been a do-gooder all her life,” said her husband, who is her No. 1 fan. “She automatically seems to go to the top of the organization.”
A Fixture at Events
Her civic activities got her a job as an executive assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, who said recently that “she always carried out her duties very well.” She was on Yorty’s staff 10 years, leaving in 1973.
With her husband often at her side, Wieder is a fixture at county political events and keeps in close touch with residents of her 2nd District, which includes Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Los Alamitos, Stanton, Cypress and parts of Garden Grove and Westminster, as well as the unincorporated community of Rossmoor.
“She’s a little bit like God in that she watches out for every little sparrow who might have fallen from the nest,” said political consultant Bob Nelson, a former adviser to Wieder who is not involved in her current campaign.
Although her formal talks before groups sometimes seem disjointed, Wieder’s one-on-one interactions are comfortable and confiding. She has a good sense of humor and has a good laugh at the smallest jokes. She is touched by stories about families or friends.
Can Work a Crowd
“She is a very warm person. I don’t think there’s anyone better in terms of working a crowd,” said Bill Hodge, senior staff analyst for the county administrative officer and a former executive assistant to Wieder. “She goes around and says hello to everyone and pats them on the back and wants to hear what their concerns are.”
Political consultant Eileen Padberg, one of Wieder’s longtime advisers and a friend, said she never leaves the Wieder household without a care package of food in hand.
“I go over to her house, and it’s like I’m family,” Padberg said.
Wieder and her husband, who owns an import-export business, live in a large Huntington Harbour home with a boat dock in the back yard but plan to sell it and move into a condominium nearby. They have two grown children and four grandchildren whom they like to take on their boat.
On the job, Wieder is credited with being a crafty politician who knows how to read issues and generate publicity for herself.
“She’s got tremendous instincts,” County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish said.
Wieder is also widely admired for being willing to take on tough issues. Those she focuses on, such as water and air quality, she works doggedly.
Among her biggest accomplishments as a supervisor are guiding the effort to get emergency call boxes along county freeways, formation of the Southern California Water Committee and creation of a “one-stop shop” development processing center for zoning and building permit applications.
Wieder says that in Congress she would focus on local issues such as the Santa Ana River flood-control project. Her campaign literature emphasizes the war on crime and drugs, the need for a balanced budget and improvements in education, as well as her support for “freedom fighters in Nicaragua.”
Many of the same people who admire Wieder’s accomplishments as a supervisor are almost bemused by some of the ways she carries out her official duties. Wieder herself, speaking more of a certain kind of animated conversation, once described her thinking process as “mental popcorn.” The term stuck, but not the way she intended.
One person, an admirer, said when Wieder “doesn’t focus and allows herself to go off in all different directions, all that energy and effort gets dissipated and, in the worst case, it can turn around and bite her.”
“Her attention span could be longer, no doubt about it,” joked someone else on the county staff. “But it’s a mercy to some of us that it isn’t.”
In the ultimate mixed assessment about Wieder, one Orange County Hall of Administration employee said: “The way she works is not typical, that’s for sure. But a person would be a fool to think she is lightweight just because she’s scatterbrained.”
In the most positive interpretation of this multifaceted quality, Pam Zanelli, who worked for Wieder when the candidate first became a supervisor, described her as a “a Renaissance woman” who has “a broad knowledge and broad interest in issues.”
“I think Congress is a big enough scope for her,” Zanelli said.
Advocate for Money
Others agreed that Wieder’s propensity to move from issue to issue with great speed may work more in her favor in Washington than in the Hall of Administration.
“I will tell you this,” political consultant Nelson said. “If Harriett Wieder goes to Congress, I will venture to say her constituents will receive more direct federal money to the district than in any time in history.”
At the very least, she can be expected to speak out aggressively.
As Lungren said with a grin about Wieder: “I never have to worry about where Harriett stands on the issues. She always lets me know in plenty of time. She’s very forceful and effective.”
Wieder said she wants to top off her career with a stint in Congress partly because she believes it is “incumbent on me.”
Briefed on Issues
“Had I not elected to run after having served as long as I have, I would have felt guilty,” she said.
While in Washington last month, Wieder met with several Reagan Administration appointees for briefings on some of the national and international issues she will be dealing with if she is elected to Congress.
“The whole trip substantiated what I understood,” Wieder said as she concluded the briefings. “Whether it be the issues or whether it be being here and thinking, well, this is where I could live, this is what it will be like--that’s a change I’m willing to do.”
Wieder said she has no illusions about what it would be like to be in Congress.
“I think, if anything, being back here (in Washington) is very isolated, very lonely, in a lot of ways,” she said, “because you’re not part of the action, the scene, of your roots. You’re like left out by being here.”
‘Shores of Potomac’
On another occasion, speaking to supporters, Wieder said she was excited about the idea of “expanding my public service to the shores of the Potomac.”
She added: “It’s not often a candidate for Congress presents oneself with the local background, the commitment to community and the service that I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have experienced.”
In the Hall of Administration, Wieder has a reputation for being hard on staff members, partly because she “never sleeps,” as one former employee said, and she does not hesitate to call aides at any hour.
“Harriett works the hell out of anybody who works for her,” said one person who was involved in one of her supervisorial campaigns.
Wieder dismissed these complaints. “It’s not my fault those people can’t keep up with me,” she said.
Others who work with her said Wieder switches gears frequently, leaving those around her confused as to her priorities.
“You sit down with her and she says 20 things, and you have trouble assessing which one she thinks is important,” said one high-ranking county employee.
The person also called Wieder a “phone junkie” who takes phone calls during staff meetings, extending what should be a 15-minute meeting into 45 minutes.
But the same staff member added: “On balance, I think she’s a good supervisor. . . . She knows what she wants. She is as straightforward as heck.”
An informal group called Former Aides Retired to Stud, some of whom worked for Wieder, has gotten together from time to time over a glass or two of Chardonnay and talked about the effective supervisors over the last many years, according to one of the former county workers. “I think Harriett comes out in the top three or four in terms of being effective,” he said.
Outsider on Board
Within the board itself, Wieder has been perceived as an outsider. When it was her turn to be board chairman the first time around, she was denied the spot, although she later served a year as chairman and is now chairman again. She recently described the board as “five total strangers.”
Wieder had one of her better laughs in the congressional campaign when one of her opponents accused her of being part of the “old boys network.”
“Do you know how many years I wanted to be part of the old boys network?” she said. “I love it!”
Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, with whom Wieder has tangled over the years, recently complimented her for sticking to her guns by voting for development agreements that came before the board. They were votes cast at a high political cost in the fever of the campaign for the slow-growth initiative that is on the June 7 ballot, along with her candidacy for Congress.
“I’m very proud of what she did,” Riley said. “That was a tough one.”
But he also complained that Wieder has been unwilling to go along with a basic board tenet that calls for a member to yield to other supervisors in matters concerning their districts.
“I like to look at it almost as protocol,” Riley said.
Wieder does not see this practice as an especially positive one. “I tried to change that,” she said, but “I threw in the towel.”
Another board member, Gaddi H. Vasquez, said Wieder sometimes favors study committees when he believes more direct action is needed, but he added that he has a “good, positive working relationship” with her.
Supervisor Don R. Roth described Wieder’s effectiveness as good.
‘No Criticism Whatsoever’
“We all have our faults in life, but certainly I just have no criticism whatsoever,” Roth said.
Nonetheless, the tensions among the board members are no secret. One county staff member attributed this in part to Wieder’s “changing-the-mind problem.”
There is a tendency to think that “the safest place to be is with Harriett against you and the worst place of all is for Harriett to be your third vote,” he said.
But another Hall of Administration employee defended Wieder, saying some board members have tried to keep her in place by making her the “token woman,” whose eccentricities are highlighted while others’ are never mentioned.
“She’s on the board with some of the least liberated men this side of the Balkans,” he said. “I think it’s been rough on her.”