ELECTIONS ’88 ORANGE COUNTY : Democrats Winning War to Enlist Voters in Key District

Times Political Writer

A voter-registration battle royal is under way in Orange County. And with only four weeks to go before the rolls close for the Nov. 8 election, something interesting is happening.

Republicans are maintaining a whopping 54.4%-35.3% countywide edge over Democrats, and there now are at least 207,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the county--the largest gap ever. But Democrats have shown an astonishing increase in registrations in the 72nd Assembly District, which they hope to recapture this year.

“We’re killing them,” said county Democratic leader Howard Adler of Laguna Hills. “We’re putting all our efforts into the 72nd.”

“It’s been very surprising how they’ve done,” Greg Haskin, executive director of the Orange County Republican Party, acknowledged. “There is no question they have been effective in the 72nd District.”


The district, located toward the center of the county, is important to Democrats for a number of reasons:

- It is Orange County Democrats’ best--some say only--chance to recapture a piece of the political pie in the county.

It is the only district in the county where Republicans are outnumbered, and this year the Democrats have a candidate who they think suits the district and could win it. He is Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach of Anaheim, a Riverside County deputy district attorney and a school board member in Anaheim.

The seat is open because one-term incumbent Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana) died the day after the June 7 primary. The candidate chosen by the GOP to run in Longshore’s stead, Curt Pringle, 29, of Garden Grove, will need all the GOP financial support he can get to overcome his virtually non-existent name identification in the district.


At present, Orange County has only one Democratic legislator--state Sen. Cecil N. Green of Norwalk, and his district is mostly in Los Angeles County.

* Democrats on a statewide level see a victory in the 72nd District as vital to maintaining control of the Assembly when new district lines are drawn after the 1990 census.

“It’s a major peg in the reapportionment war,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), who is spending much of his time lately in Orange County working with Thierbach’s campaign. Katz said he expected that, in all, more than $1 million would be spent on the race. “It’s an obscene amount of money,” he said. “The stakes are very high.”

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who is expected to put up a sizable amount of the money for Thierbach’s campaign from his own campaign coffers, has a special interest in maintaining a Democratic majority: to help preserve his beleaguered speakership.


* The 72nd District represents the heart of the votes that Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis’ campaign wants to woo to keep his losses down in Orange County. If Dukakis can limit his margin of defeat in the county to under 200,000 votes, it is generally believed, he could win the state’s 47 electoral votes.

It thus should come as no surprise that Democrats have made an all-out effort to register voters in the 72nd District, which includes Stanton and parts of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster.

To maximize their registrations, both parties are stationing volunteers at fairs, shopping centers and anywhere a crowd might gather in the county. And, as the days dwindle before the Oct. 11 registration deadline, the parties are increasingly paying per-registration “bounties” of $2.50 to $4 to workers who search the malls and go door to door looking for new voters. The state GOP also is offering $1 per registration and other bonuses to Republican clubs that register voters.

There are so many registration efforts going on around the county that the overall ramifications will not be clear until all the cards are verified by the county registrar of voters.


Using both volunteers and paid workers, Democrats have registered about 7,000 party members in the 72nd District since early May--more than three times as many as the Republicans.

As of last week, Democrats had widened the gap by which they outnumber Republicans in the 72nd District to more than 17,000--which brought their percentage of all registered voters in the district to 53.6%, compared to the GOP’s 37.3%. That is a margin of almost six percentage points more than the Democrats held in January.

Stabilized Situation

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said, however, that Republicans have now stabilized the situation and are “more or less” holding their own in the registration war in the 72nd District.


Fuentes preferred to focus on the rosier registration picture for the GOP on the countywide level, proclaiming the 207,000-plus gap between the two parties “absolutely monumental . . . the highest ever.”

Republicans are counting on voters in Orange County to deliver California to Vice President George Bush in the presidential election. A poll taken Aug. 25-27 for The Times Orange County Edition indicated that, had the election been held then, Bush would have won the county by nearly 270,000 votes.

“Orange County is numero uno, " Bush’s state chairman, Bill Lacy, declared last week. Lacy and other campaign leaders, including national Bush chairman Lee Atwater, met with about 400 people--"screaming, raging Republican activists,” by Lacy’s description--at the Irvine Hilton on Wednesday and came away elated at the enthusiasm shown for Bush’s campaign.

“Our goal here is to make sure we turn out every possible Republican vote,” Lacy said afterward.


As for Democrats, Tony Podesta, California chairman of Dukakis’ campaign, said, “We will run a very vigorous precinct-based campaign in Orange County.”

Bob Mulholland, voter registration coordinator for the Democrats in California, said that as the election approaches, “Orange County voters will feel like they’re being courted.” He said efforts are being focused on the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” registered Democrats who voted for President Reagan in 1984. Many of these voters live in the 72nd District and other nearby areas of central Orange County.

“We’re more concerned about bringing the Reagan Democrats home,” Mulholland said. “That’s where we have our job cut out for us.”

Not everyone agrees that all the Democrats’ energies should be focused on the 72nd District.


Developer Mike Ray said he is concerned that registration efforts in other parts of the county are being overlooked. He wants to extend the drive into heavily GOP southern Orange County where, he said, “Republicans have a free fire zone with very little Democratic opposition.”

Still, most Democratic leaders want to put the party’s resources where they have the best chance of success, and they believe that Thierbach has a good shot in the 72nd Assembly District.

“We’re asking Democrats all over the county to focus on the 72nd,” Assemblyman Katz said. “We’re going full bore from now until Oct. 11. We’re in the final sprint on voter registration.

“Everyone understands that this is a race that’s winnable.”


VOTER REGISTRATION WAR Feb. 10. 1987 72nd Assembly District Democrats: 50.3% Orange County Democrats: 35.6% 72nd Assembly District Republicans: 39.6% Orange County Republicans: 54.5% Sept. 6. 1987 72nd Assembly District Democrats: 53.6% Orange County Democrats: 35.3% 72nd Assembly District Republicans: 37.3% Orange County Republicans: 54.4%