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Fuentes Keeps His GOP Post, Quits Catholic Diocese Job

Times Staff Writers

Thomas A. Fuentes, who Monday night won his third term as Orange County Republican Party chairman, has left his influential post as director of communications for the Diocese of Orange, it was learned Monday.

Fuentes left the part-time communications position he had held for nearly 13 years. His leaving comes in the wake of concerns that his role as GOP chairman had inadvertently drawn the Catholic Church into a political controversy over the county GOP’s hiring of uniformed security guards on Election Day at polling places in predominantly Latino areas of Santa Ana. Church officials said Fuentes’ departure is not related to the security guard incident.

But Msgr. John Sammon said Monday that the controversy was “not well received” in the diocese because several news stories about it at the time also mentioned that Fuentes worked with the diocese.

“It made us become part of the party, which we weren’t,” Sammon said. He said that many church leaders also hold leadership posts in other areas, but that being the head of a political party and working with the church--"those two are not compatible.”

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Reported to McFarland

While Sammon said he did not think that the security guard flap was the reason that Fuentes left his diocesan post, he added that concern over the incident was expressed to the head of the diocese, Bishop Norman F. McFarland.

According to a news release issued by the diocese, Fuentes said he had requested to be relieved of the “ever-growing, day-to-day communications duties of the diocese. Family, business and civic duties in 1989 will require so much of my time.”

Fuentes denied Monday night that his departure as director of communications for the diocese was the result of his involvement with hiring the guards. Fuentes, whose volunteer position with the diocese including acting as spokesman and editing a monthly newspaper that was sent to more than 50,000 county households, said he urged Bishop McFarland “several months ago” to find a full-time replacement.

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“This is something that has been in the works since long before the November election,” he said.

McFarland could not be reached for comment Monday, but in a statement released by the diocese, he expressed gratitude for Fuentes’ “leadership and service.” The bishop said that Father Lawrence J. Baird, pastor of St. Polycarp Parish in Stanton, will take over the communications duties as well as development of the diocese’s long-range funding programs.

Overwhelming Choice

On Monday night, Fuentes was the overwhelming choice of county Republican Party activists to lead the GOP for the coming year.

He was unopposed in his bid for a third, 2-year term and was selected county chairman by acclamation by the 66-member county central committee, which met to elect new officers at a Costa Mesa hotel.

In his acceptance speech, Fuentes told a crowd of about 150 Republicans that the GOP is no longer a party of “limited ranks,” but a “party of open doors and a party of open participation.”

In a partisan swipe, he labeled the county Democratic Party as “sad and ineffective.” Then, in his only public reference to the controversy, he accused the Democrats, who have filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the election results in the 72nd Assembly District, of attempting to “use the courts to seek revenge.”

Referring to the Republican Party’s decision to post uniformed security guards at 20 Santa Ana polling places, Fuentes said, “We would not let them then, or will not let them now steal” that election.

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Fuentes, 39, has been at the Republican helm during a period of tremendous growth for the party. During his 4 years as party chairman, Republicans have widened their voter-registration lead in the county to 240,000 over Democrats--the biggest margin ever. Fuentes also takes credit for President-elect George Bush’s impressive Orange County showing in November. Bush finished 314,000 votes ahead of Democrat Michael Dukakis, the widest such margin of any county in the country.

Fuentes, a sixth-generation Californian and former county supervisor’s aide, is a senior executive in charge of marketing and public relations for an Irvine-based civil engineering firm.

He is considered by party activists to be a hard worker. He also has proved to be an aggressive political operative, a trait that propelled him into the controversy over the Republicans’ use of uniformed security guards at Santa Ana polling places last November.

Fuentes has said he authorized payment of about $4,000 for the guards, who were stationed at 20 polling places in largely Latino precincts in the 72nd Assembly District in Santa Ana. Democrats have filed a federal lawsuit, seeking to overturn the outcome of the district’s election, asserting that the guards intimidated some voters, especially new Latino voters.

The guards, who were bearing signs in Spanish and English warning non-citizens not to vote, reportedly asked some voters for identification and handled at least one ballot.

After a heated, $2.1-million contest to succeed the late Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana), Republican Curt Pringle of Garden Grove won the Assembly seat over Democrat Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach by fewer than 900 votes of the 66,000 cast.

Also Monday night, central committee members reelected Dennis Catron to a third term as the party’s first vice chairman. Dorothy Hughes, a longtime central committee member, was selected second vice chairman, a post last held by Pringle. Alberta Christy was reelected party secretary and Marcia Gilcrest, chief aide to state Sen. Edward R. Royce of Anaheim, was selected party treasurer, replacing Leon Jones who chose not to run again.

Staff writer Lynn Smith contributed to this story.

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