Where's the Party? : Being a Democrat in Orange County Constitutes Something of a Social Disease

Times Staff Writer

Molly Lyon, a self-described political activist from Newport Beach, has seen the stares and felt the cold shoulders from the gentry. It's not that she's socially unfit; after all, she has the Linda Isle address and her husband, Leon, is on the board of the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

No, it's not that Lyon is boorish or uncivil. It's just that she's, well . . . a Democrat. And in Republican-dominated Orange County, being a Democrat won't get you thrown out of restaurants, but don't count on a table with a view.

"I have a Dukakis (for President) button that I'll wear sometimes when I go to Gelson's (an upscale Newport Beach market)," Lyon said. "I get different reactions. Some are really positive. Or I'll get stares, particularly from women. They'll look at the button and freeze, as if they just smelled something. Then they look the other way."

Apparently, that kind of treatment starts young. Four years ago, during the 1984 presidential election campaign, a 9-year-old boy went to his Yorba Linda elementary school with a Mondale-Ferraro sticker on his notebook. When some of his schoolmates teased him about it on the playground, the boy's mother complained to his teacher. The teacher, trying to explain the taunting, said: "You have to understand, you're in Orange County now."

Whether the child had unwittingly stumbled into a chapter meeting of the (Very) Young Republicans is unknown, but he wasn't the first, or last, to feel the social sting of being a Democrat in this county.

"I'm sure there's a Freudian term to apply to the fact that people remain Democrats in a society where even some of the Democrats border on being Republican," said J. (Walkie) Ray, a Democrat who lives in Irvine and is president of J. Ray Construction Co. "When I go to vote, there's this sheaf of papers that contain the Republican electorate. I think there's one page that contains the Democrats, and I think my wife and I are probably a third of the page."

Nora Lehman, a writer and former publisher, remembers the first time she voted on Lido Isle, in the 1960 California primary. Her mother-in-law, also a Democrat, went earlier in the day and asked for the ballot. The polling officials gave her the Republican ballot. "She didn't look at it until she got in the voting booth, then came back out and said she needed the Democratic ballot," Lehman said.

"They leaned under the table, practically blowing the dust off the Democratic ballot and handed it" to her, Lehman said.

Her husband, Hal, also a Democrat, went in later in the day and had an identical experience.

"By the time I got there and told them my name was Nora Lehman, they just looked at me and said, 'She's probably one of them.' So they leaned down and gave me the correct ballot. I didn't know what they meant until dinner that night."

Throughout its modern history, the county has been synonymous with conservative Republican politics, and not just because the airport is named after John Wayne. The image has been burnished over the years at the ballot box, with the election of a succession of ultraconservatives to Congress--a lineage that runs from James B. Utt through John G. Schmitz to Robert K. Dornan. It is a county that gave Ronald Reagan 67% of its vote in 1980 and 73% in 1984, both significantly higher than the national average.

This weekend, 15 delegates and five alternates from the county will carry the sometimes-tattered banner of the county's Democrats to the party's national convention in Atlanta.

Lehman, who lives in Newport Beach, said she and her husband's Democratic politics seem to amuse their Republican friends. "I think they've accepted us socially in spite of that," she said, laughing.

"But it's like they've said, 'Well, they have this one odd thing, like a handicap of some kind. They do all the proper things, but they have this curious (problem). But let's accept them anyway. They're good kids. They can't do any damage, God knows.' "

The result, Lehman said, is that Republican friends "can afford to be a little more condescending and pat you on the head."

The Republicans have the force of numbers on their side. Figures before the June primary showed that 54% of the county's registered voters are Republican, with 35% registered as Democrats. The trend is moving the wrong way for Democrats: in 1980, 46% of the voters registered as Republicans and 41% Democrats.

Those kinds of numbers make Lyon say, "Sometimes I do feel like a voice crying in the wind."

James Roosevelt said he has had his share of give-and-take with his Republican friends in Newport Beach. "I've had no really embarrassing moments that I can remember," said the son of Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Occasionally, they (Republican friends) treat me like a rather rare animal that needs protection."

Every so often, Roosevelt said, "people will say, 'I understand you're a Republican now that you're living down in Orange County.'

"I said, 'Where you live doesn't make your political persuasion.' I said, 'I've always enjoyed being in the minority.' "

Roosevelt said that the county has become more liberal over the years despite the GOP registration gain and that "it seems that while (the county) is renowned as being a bastion of Republican reactionism, it just isn't so."

As president of the Santa Margarita Co., Richard O'Neill doesn't have to worry about his social standing. But as one of the Democratic Party's longtime stallions in the county, O'Neill has felt the breeze of a social brushoff.

"The society makes the politics of the county," O'Neill said. "Whatever society is, that's what the county or area is. If you look at the (San Francisco) Bay Area, top society there is Democratic. The same in Los Angeles. Here, society is Republican."

A former county and state chairman of the Democratic Party, O'Neill said of his dealings in high society: "There was a problem at one time, but it never bothered me, because I didn't associate with them. They used to have barbecues and parties down here, and I didn't get invited. When they found out I was a Democrat, I stopped getting invited.

"I think they were kind of planned political things in the first place. You go to enough of these things, and it always sort of turns out they have gags about Jerry Brown or Jimmy Carter. Every little society thing always leads somewhere to the Republican Party, so if they know you're involved in the Democratic Party, why bring me along?

"I just didn't understand it at first, but I found out pretty fast."

John Rau, a veteran of many Republican campaigns in the county, suggested good-naturedly that O'Neill has it all wrong. Rau, known for his wit as well as for his civic and political efforts, said O'Neill "is not active socially because he has no use for it and because he wears a blue coat with brown trousers and a spotted tie to a black-tie dinner.

"To be serious about it, a lot more is put on labeling than is actually the case," Rau said. "If you want to talk about social circles or power circles . . . there is a whole bunch of Democrats who are nice-thinking people who don't wear it on their sleeves any more than Republicans do. . . . You certainly can't be more prominent than Raymond Watson (vice chairman of the Irvine Co.) or Walter Gerken," retired chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co., both of whom are Democrats.

Rau conceded that some "closet Democrats" may give to Republican causes or even change party affiliation to enhance their social standing. However, he also noted that Democrat Larry Agran is the mayor of Irvine, where Republicans hold a 60% to 30% registration edge--but Democrats hold three of the five City Council seats.

That, of course, has only led to other jokes, Rau said, one of which is that some refer to Agran's domain as the "People's Republic of Irvine."

Kitty Leslie, a consultant for the Fashion Island Merchant Assn. and the owner of a special events company, first registered in California in the early 1950s. She went in to register with her sister-in-law in Los Angeles.

"They (election officials) asked me if I wanted to declare a party and I said, 'Yes, Democrat.' My sister-in-law said, 'Kitty, this is serious, come on now.' I said, 'I am serious.' "

Leslie's brush with Orange County politics comes mainly through her involvement with the Gentlemen's Haberdashery Show, a benefit fashion show that attracts many of the county's most influential businessmen, most of them Republicans.

"I think I had done two or three of them before it came to light when we were bantering about politics," Leslie said. "I said to someone, 'Don't look at me, I'm a Democrat.' "

Leslie said that she used to encounter outright animosity when she lived in Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County but that her politics "have never been a problem down here, except that I'm an embarrassment to some of my friends. In Palos Verdes, I actually had antagonism as I walked into the polling place. You'd see that people would suddenly stop being my friend. They'd say, 'Oh, here comes Kitty.' "

Leslie jokes that she attends the same church as Tom Fuentes, the Republican county chairman, and that "every Sunday he tells me he's praying for my conversion."

While Fuentes is joking, Leslie has had other experiences that aren't so amusing: "I had one instance recently where a citizen from Orange County literally dropped me at a party when I announced I was a Democrat."

Leslie said she was in Washington lobbying for money for juvenile diabetes programs. At a dinner, she was introduced to an Orange County man. "Somewhere in the conversation, I said (that) I was going up on the Hill to call on Republicans and that I was a Democrat. He said, 'Oh, one of those bleeding liberals that there are still a few pockets of in Orange County.'

"Up until then, he was all but pinching me on the fanny. But he backed away from me like you wouldn't believe."

It is John Hanna's job to defuse jokes about Democrats. As county Democratic chairman, Hanna must be the straight man even as others may see the party as a sight gag. "There are more Democrats in Orange County than there are in some states," said Hanna, a lawyer.

While he concedes that the county will probably remain Republican for at least the next 20 years, Hanna believes that Democrats can make significant inroads. He noted that more than 366,000 county voters are registered Democrats.

But the '80s have been dark days for county Democrats for four major reasons, Hanna said:

Weak national leadership.

The immense popularity of Reagan, a Westerner and Californian to boot.

The escalation in county home prices, catering to people in the upper economic strata, who tend to be Republicans.

A breakdown in the county's Democratic Party leadership since 1978.

Indeed, many newcomers to the county, mindful of the area's reputation for conservative politics, are surprised to learn that as recently as 1978, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the county.

But since 1978--the Democrats' high-water mark in the post-Watergate era--Republican registration has exploded. Voter registration figures in Orange County show the GOP has jumped from 404,653 in 1978 (3,000 fewer than the Democrats) to 563,000 before this year's June primary, and now outnumber Democrats by nearly 200,000. So while the Republicans have added nearly 160,000 voters to their rolls since 1978, the Democrats have lost 40,000.

Hanna is counting on the pendulum effect of historical voting patterns to bring Democrats back into the fold. He also believes that Michael S. Dukakis is a stronger candidate than Walter F. Mondale was and that Reagan's absence from the presidential ballot will make a big difference.

O'Neill is less optimistic than Hanna. Asked whether it will remain stigmatic to be a Democratic in polite county society, O'Neill replied: "Yes, it will. If you ever want to advance socially, it's impossible if you're a Democrat."

The tradition of conservative politics predates the county' modern-day economic boom, O'Neill said. Even when Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the 1930s in the county's rural heyday, he said, they were conservative Democrats. Since the '30s, Democratic registrations outnumbered Republicans only in 1960 and 1978.

Through forums and other sponsored events, O'Neill said he and others hope to make the party more "social." Preliminary signs are encouraging, he said: "People come to different things we throw, and they keep saying, 'I never knew there were Democrats down here.' They're really surprised. You can see the looks on their faces. They're rattled."

Perhaps, loyal Democrats say, this is how the Republicans in Massachusetts or Chicago or San Francisco must feel. And while many of those interviewed admitted to a few pangs about being surrounded by the enemy, they remain philosophical.

"It's fun fighting the tide," Lyon said. "There have been times when I've threatened to move to the Westside of L.A., because it is discouraging when you lose races time after time.

"But it's challenging, and that's what keeps you young. Plus, I've decided they (Democrats) need me here."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World