As the Democratic chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Ralph A. Diedrich wielded so much power that even Republicans sought his political endorsement.
Diedrich, who died Friday in San Diego at age 64, virtually controlled the county board by force of intellect and personality from shortly after he was elected in 1973 until he resigned 6 years later after being convicted of bribery and fraud.
And although Diedrich was once considered the most powerful man in Orange County, he was so embittered by his long and public legal battle that he vowed never to return to the county. After his release in 1983 from the prison where he served nearly 2 years of a 1- to 14-year term, Diedrich moved to San Diego and worked as a project manager for an apartment development firm.
“Ralph knew what he wanted to do and he knew how to get it done,” said Robert Thomas, who was county administrator for nearly 20 years until his retirement in 1985. “Diedrich’s genius was he knew as much about what was going on in the other county board districts as he did about his own.”
Pushed to Sell Hospital
Diedrich was instrumental in persuading the county board to sell the county hospital to the University of California for $5.5 million in 1977, freeing the county from a growing medical debt. He also spearheaded a reorganization of county departments and persuaded fellow board members to use half of the county’s federal revenue-sharing funds for parks and social services.
Diedrich, nicknamed “Super D,” never went to college. He made his fortune as a building contractor during Orange County’s post-World War II boom. He turned to politics in 1966, when he ran for the Fullerton City Council after a year of world travel. At his bribery trial, Diedrich insisted that public service was an avocation and that he didn’t need the money.
Diedrich was convicted of seeking a bribe from Anaheim Hills Inc., a company that needed county board approval to develop 2,200 acres of land that were designated an agricultural preserve. He voted with the 3-2 majority to remove the property from the reserve in 1974.
He also was convicted of hiding the source of $77,000 in contributions disbursed to the campaigns of political allies, chiefly former Supervisor Philip Anthony, in 1976. Diedrich, who was unopposed for reelection to his 3rd District seat that year, accepted the money from Anaheim Hills Inc. through his campaign chairman, Leroy Rose.
Sentenced to Prison
Rose was convicted of conspiracy to bribe and also was sentenced to prison.
James Riddet, who defended Diedrich during a 6-week trial, described Diedrich as a “a real fighter” who was very shaken by his conviction.
“He never told me he had done anything wrong, and I don’t think he did believe he had done anything wrong,” Riddet said Sunday. “During the trial he was very upbeat and confident. He was a physically and a mentally imposing man, and that is probably why he was so successful as a politician.”
Friends and enemies alike described Diedrich as arrogant and abrasive. But he held sway over the county board and, by extension, other agencies, governments and businesses, like no single leader since.
In an interview in 1976, Diedrich described his often-controversial style.
“I speak from the hip and try to challenge people on an issue or an opinion,” he said. “I’m not a polished speaker, and I know it. But I really try to understand the subject matter. I don’t think I have to take my hat off to anyone on that score.”
Diedrich rarely took his hat off to anyone, but many came calling to his home and office. In the same interview, Diedrich joked about the competition between his fellow Democrats and Republicans for his endorsement in state and county races. When James Sartin, a Republican candidate for the 74th Assembly District, claimed his endorsement without first securing it, Diedrich quipped, “The Republicans down there must be in real trouble.”
And while Diedrich cultivated many friends, he also valued his enemies.
“You learn more from your enemies than your friends, because it is your enemies who make you work,” he said.
It was Diedrich’s style, as well as his political prowess, that longtime friend Frances Wood, former mayor of Fullerton, remembers about Diedrich.
“He had the outside of a tiger and the inside of a kitten,” she said. “He was successful because he was very smart, he worked very hard and he always listened to what people had to say.”
Diedrich’s troubles continued even after he lost several appeals and went to prison in 1982. He was the subject of a widely publicized racketeering investigation while in prison, a charge that later was reduced to gambling in a jailhouse card game. In 1981, the Internal Revenue Service slapped him with a $4.9-million tax bill for unreported income from bribes, political contributions and business deals.
Despite his fall from power, Diedrich never changed, friends said.
“Nobody ever accused him of learning humility,” Wood said. “He was a proud man.”
Services for Diedrich, who had suffered a heart and two strokes within the last 2 months, were scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at El Camino Chapel, 5600 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego. Visitation was set for 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Diedrich is survived by his wife, Inez, and three sons: Patrick and Jeff, both of San Diego, and Timothy, of Fullerton. In addition, he is survived by four grandchildren; a brother, Gene, of Vista, and two sisters, Betty Knesel of Mission Viejo and Ruth Hard of Fullerton.