Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach knows he has a strait-laced image--a reputation for being the kind of guy almost never seen with his jacket off or his tie loosened. It is an image, he says, that predates his career as a prosecutor in Riverside County by many years.
As a kid in what he termed an “atypical American family,” Thierbach spent his after-school hours helping his parents run a motel near Disneyland instead of playing football in some suburban neighborhood.
By the time he pledged a fraternity at UCLA, Thierbach was well known for his earnestness. “During Hell Week, all the pledges were given nicknames,” Thierbach, now 38, said with a look of chagrin. “Mine was ‘Prim and Proper.’ ”
That, Thierbach said, helps to explain why, as the Democratic candidate in the 72nd Assembly District, he is having trouble adjusting to Orange County’s rough-and-tumble partisan politics.
Used to being taken seriously in his profession, Thierbach said he has been somewhat thrown by the the hard-hitting campaign being waged by his Republican opponent, Curt Pringle, 29, a Garden Grove businessman. Pringle was selected by the county GOP to run after incumbent Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana) died the day after he won the June 7 primary.
Pringle, with financial help from Republicans determined to have a GOP majority in the Assembly in time for redistricting after the 1990 census, has accused Thierbach of being a “carpetbagger” and a lackey for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
Thierbach grew up in the 72nd District but was living in an Anaheim home just outside its borders before he decided to run. He and his family since have moved into a condominium in Anaheim that is inside the district.
Thierbach said he has received contributions from Democratic legislators aligned with Brown but denied that Brown has controlled his campaign. He called Pringle’s charges “garbage.”
“Even though you know the slime is coming, it still affects you,” Thierbach said in an interview last week.
Thierbach has received $286,283 in money and in-kind contributions, about half from elected Democratic officeholders or political groups, including $96,352 from organizations controlled by Brown.
Thierbach has run for office before: twice successfully for the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees, on which he currently serves, and once in 1980 against Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) in the 64th Assembly District. Johnson easily defeated Thierbach in the heavily Republican district.
Voter registration in the 72nd, unlike every other legislative district in the county, favors Democrats over Republicans. A recently concluded registration drive increased the Democratic margin; they now outnumber Republicans in the district by 53.7% to 37.4%, according to figures obtained last week from the county registrar of voters.
After Democrats lost the 72nd District to Longshore two years ago, they began planning a comeback. This year, with Speaker Brown’s troubles with his own party’s recalcitrant “Gang of Five,” the district took on a new importance. When Thierbach agreed to run, Democrats were elated, believing his background as a prosecutor and school board member would appeal to local voters. Money and support from Democratic legislators aligned with Brown have followed.
But some legislators have been critical of Thierbach, saying he has not campaigned aggressively enough. His mail pieces so far have contrasted his credentials with his opponent’s, eschewing more combative attacks against Pringle.
“If it doesn’t work, then so be it,” Thierbach said of his campaign.
There is no doubt that the free-swinging 72nd District campaign is not what Thierbach had in mind when he decided on a career in public service. At age 13, he was deeply affected by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Six years later, he worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in California and was in the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was murdered in 1968.
“The thing that impressed me with Bobby Kennedy was his youthful vigor, his enthusiasm and what I felt was a sincere commitment to get things accomplished,” Thierbach said. “I guess I made the conscious commitment at that point to dedicate my own life to public service.”
Since then, Thierbach has finished college, received a law degree, married, joined the Riverside County district attorney’s office, cared for his ailing parents, fathered two children and embarked on a political course that led him to the current race. He said he would like to conclude his public career in the U.S. Senate.
Thierbach’s wife, Marlene, who also is a lawyer, said her husband almost did not run for the Assembly because the couple’s second child, Alison, was born in March.
“But we hated to pass up the opportunity,” she said. Sometimes the whole family, including the couple’s son, Chris, 6, walks precincts.
In numerous interviews with Thierbach’s colleagues at the district attorney’s office, in the legal community and on the school board, no one said a bad word about Thierbach.
Said fellow Anaheim school board member Tom Daly: “Rick is the most authoritative person on our school board. . . . He zeros right in and analyzes the pros and cons of a particular decision.”
In the district attorney’s office, where he has worked for 11 years, Thierbach was repeatedly described as a strong prosecutor who has worked his way up to handling some of the county’s toughest capital cases.
“He’s done a yeoman’s job for our office and is well respected,” said Dist. Atty. Grover Trask, who laughed and added, “I don’t want to lose him. I hope he loses the race.”
Randall K. Tagami, assistant district attorney, who also is a friend of Thierbach’s, said he is “considered one of the finest trial deputies that we have.”
Riverside defense attorney Jay P. Grossman called him “a formidable opponent” who “does his homework.” Grossman said he trusts Thierbach. “Even though we’re on opposing sides, I know he won’t lie to me,” he said.
About the worst criticism of Thierbach came from a co-worker who bemoaned her own perceived shortcomings, as compared to the “very dignified and professional” Thierbach.
“It would almost be nice if he tripped some time or did something like that,” said Diane Harrison, deputy district attorney. “It would make me feel better about things.”
Thierbach has a memory for all sorts of information. He remembers numbers on a gasoline credit card from a company that has long since abolished credit purchases (8385461564) and can tell you the telephone number his grandmother had while he was a child growing up in suburban Chicago.
“What use anyone would have for that information is beyond me,” he said. Several years ago, however, he put some of the data to use, winning $6,500 on the TV game show “Jeopardy.” His memory also helps when he is trying a case, giving him the ability to recite testimony during closing arguments without taking notes or referring to transcripts in front of a jury.
On the personal side, Thierbach loves sports. One of his biggest regrets about campaigning has been that he has been able to play golf only twice since January. He played first base for the Loara High School baseball team in Anaheim. Later at UCLA, a year on the bench led him to give up his dream of becoming a major league baseball player.
“I get the same feeling when I go into a trial that I used to get before a (baseball) game. . . . It’s a contest,” Thierbach said.
Thierbach prosecuted one of the best known freeway shooting cases during last year’s spate of freeway violence. He obtained a second-degree murder conviction against Harold Harvey Hawks, who was driving on the Riverside Freeway when he fired into another vehicle, killing Patricia Dwyer, an off-duty police officer. Hawks was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
“It was tough because you not only had a whole police department breathing down your neck to make sure you got the conviction, but you’ve got a whole community,” Thierbach said.
As an assemblyman, Thierbach said, he would want to be on Public Safety, Judiciary or Education committees. He said he wants to eliminate “good-time credit"--one day’s credit for each day served--for people convicted of crimes of violence and for certain drug dealers and residential burglars. He also wants legislation allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drive-by murders and freeway killings.
Regarding education, Thierbach said he supports Proposition 98--which would establish a minimum level of state funding for school and community college districts--saying it is a “giant step in the right direction.” He said he would not rule out supporting a tax increase for education.
Thierbach said he is amazed that he ever got into trial law because “by nature, I’m an extremely shy person. When I was a new lawyer . . . I would almost get sick before going into court, I was so nervous, so frightened of the process.”
He said that people sometimes mistake his shyness for aloofness, or even arrogance.
One friend, Joseph E. Cohen, a Riverside County deputy district attorney, said he can understand why Thierbach was nicknamed Prim and Proper by his fraternity.
“He’s the only guy in the office who always has his coat on,” Cohen said, “and it’s got to be very, very hot outside before he’ll take if off in his car.”
But, Cohen added, “he certainly is not reserved and prim and proper on a personal basis. He’s every bit one of the guys.”