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SILVER ALLIANCE : Far-From-Retiring Activists Make Leisure World a Political Force

Times Staff Writer: Pat Gerber is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

When Vice President Dan Quayle was stumping for votes last fall in a race marred by allegations that he had used family connections to avoid active duty in Vietnam, his campaign managers made sure his itinerary included a stop at Leisure World in Laguna Hills.

They figured he would be guaranteed a warm reception, and they were right. With less than two days’ notice, Leisure World’s Republican Club had no trouble filling a meeting hall with a sympathetic crowd of about 1,000 people.

Herbert Schwartz, president of the Republican Club, grinned as he remembered Quayle’s visit--and the time last year when he asked state Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) to speak at a Republican Club meeting at Leisure World.

He didn’t have to ask twice.

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Although Campbell, whose district extends to the retirement community, was immersed in legislative business, he flew down from Sacramento, gave the speech and flew back, all in one evening.

Quayle and Campbell are among a long list of politicians, primarily Republicans, who have received warm welcomes behind Leisure World’s 6-foot-high walls. Other Republicans have included Ronald Reagan (during his bid for the presidency in 1976), Gov. George Deukmejian, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, state Sen. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach and a host of local politicians.

Ken Khachigian, a San Clemente lawyer who was a chief strategist for the Quayle campaign and a senior adviser to Deukmejian during his last run for governor, said, “I would never think of going through a Republican statewide campaign--or a countywide campaign--without sending the candidate to Leisure World.”

National, state and local Republican politicians’ eagerness to speak to this group of voters is a telling measure of the well-organized political clout the retirement community has amassed to protect its interests and its life style.

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On the eve of the community’s 25th anniversary celebration, residents are more outspoken than ever, with their attention focused on the proposal for Laguna Hills cityhood that will be put to a public vote June 6. If Laguna Hills becomes the county’s 29th city, Leisure World is expected to be its largest, best-organized and most vocal constituency.

For Republican politicians, the logic of choosing Leisure World as a prime stumping ground is obvious, Schwartz said.

Leisure World’s Republican Club--whose membership of 1,200 swells to 2,000 in election years--claims to be the largest in the country. (The community’s Democratic Club has 250 members, but President Helen Mills said membership has been slowly growing in recent years.)

Voter registration within Leisure World is 62% Republican, 32% Democrat--compared to 55% Republican, 35% Democrat countywide, according to the county registrar of voters. (The American Assn. of Retired Persons estimates that about 40% of its members--age 50 and over--are Republican, 40% Democrat.)

And Leisure World residents are more politically active than the rest of the county, with 78% of them registered to vote, compared to 53% of the county population.

“Our generation was brought up to vote,” said Marion Miller D’Onofrio, a past president of Leisure World’s Republican Club and one of five Leisure World residents chosen by lawmakers to serve as delegates to the state Republican convention in February.

Leisure World represents the most formidably organized constituency in the state, said a spokeswoman for Campbell, who recently introduced legislation to increase benefits for retired teachers. The legislation, which is backed by the governor and is now in committee, was the direct result of pressure from some of Campbell’s Leisure World constituency, the spokeswoman noted.

Although residents may contribute privately to candidates or campaigns, the Republican Club does no fund raising. Political fund-raiser Jackie Campbell of Huntington Beach, whose clients include Wilson, said she doesn’t look to Leisure World residents for big political donations. However, she said, Leisure World residents contribute many “invaluable” volunteer hours, stuffing and stamping direct-mail campaign literature and mounting voter registration drives.

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Leisure World was never intended to be a politically active community. Indeed, community rules discourage public displays of political fervor--posting placards, posters or handbills is forbidden.

When it opened in September, 1964, developer Ross W. Cortese envisioned Leisure World as a secure community for people 55 and over who, after raising families or pursuing careers, were ready to settle into leisurely life styles, the developer said in a recent interview at his office in Laguna Hills. Activities in the 2,100-acre compound would center on such pursuits as golf, gardening, horseback riding and social clubs. It would be a planned, self-sufficient community with its own bus and security systems and maintenance facilities. Within the secure walls, life would be quiet, neat and litter free. If residents wanted to turn their backs on the outside world, well, they had earned--and were paying for--that right.

Early on, the chore of governing this unincorporated community of about 21,000 residents was distributed among 80 small mutual associations run by residents and set up to represent different segments of the community. But the multitude of independent governing bodies proved to be unwieldy for a community of this size. They were eventually consolidated into three:

United Laguna Hills Mutual, with 11 directors, representing 6,323 co-op units.

Third Laguna Hills Mutual, with 15 directors, representing 6,102 condominium units.

Laguna Hills Mutual 50, with five directors and 311 units, represents a segment called The Towers, two 14-story, full-service, high-rise buildings where such amenities as three meals a day and maid and laundry service are provided.

From the governing ranks of these mutuals are chosen the 15 elected directors of the Golden Rain Foundation of Laguna Hills, the main governing body that sets policy for all the mutuals and whose role is comparable to that played by a city council. The foundation is charged with maintaining the six clubhouses--including an 834-seat amphitheater--five swimming pools, two professional golf courses, eight tennis courts, equestrian center, bus system and closed-circuit television station. The foundation also oversees a security system that includes 14 guarded entrances staffed by 250 Leisure World residents who work part time and 22 residents who work full time as security guards.

Russell L. Disbro, general manager of Professional Community Management Inc., which is responsible for administering Leisure World’s approximately $63-million annual budget, said Leisure World is best described as a giant homeowners association, where residents pay average monthly fees ranging from $225 to $300. When fee hikes are periodically proposed, residents--whose condos sell for an estimated $60,000 to $600,000 today--tend to protest loud and hard.

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But over the years, as the surrounding pasturelands have been replaced by a bulging, congested suburban community, the residents’ activism has been directed increasingly at changes occurring outside their gates.

Leisure World’s citizens have responded to outside threats to their status quo with a fervor, organization and commitment usually associated with a grass-roots environmental or consumer movement. At some Orange County Planning Commission meetings, for example, they have been reprimanded for booing and being generally unruly, noted Myra Neben, editor of the Leisure World News. She has tracked the residents’ political activities for the past 12 years and considers the community one of the largest concentrations of actively “astute, politically conscious” people anywhere.

“They have the time to be active, the time to write letters, to go to meetings,” Neben said.

Many also are used to exercising their influence, having retired from top-level positions at major corporations.

And not all of the community’s political activists are Republicans.

Minna Liebman, a Democrat, chuckles at the notion that she is an endangered species there. She describes herself as “left of liberal” but also a “pragmatist.”

Liebman recently stepped down as president of the Gray Panthers’ Leisure World chapter, which she co-founded and headed for nearly a decade. She continues to work with the organization, an activist group that lobbies for rights for the elderly and is now pushing for a national health care program that would benefit both young and old.

During the last election, Liebman organized an appearance at Leisure World by consumer activist Ralph Nader, who was campaigning for Proposition 103 to reform the insurance industry. About 700 people turned out for his speech.

Liebman, 76, stands just short of 5 feet, but the energy concentrated into her small frame would be the envy of a college student. She finds the local chapter of the American Assn. of Retired Persons too reticent. “All they want to do is play bingo,” she sniffed.

The activism of people like Liebman has caused developers as well as politicians to take notice. Commercial and residential developers are careful to touch base with Leisure World’s planning review committee on projects they want to build adjacent to the retirement community. And it is not unusual for developers to change building plans to accommodate the committee’s requests or objections.

Carol Hoffman, a senior director with the Irvine Co. who has dealt extensively with Leisure World on the 3,200-acre Laguna Laurel residential and commercial shopping center project, said her company wouldn’t think of not showing the Leisure World review committee its plans for developments that will be adjacent to the community. It would be foolish to get to the Planning Commission stage and have a contingent of angry Leisure World residents show up to object, she said. The Irvine Co., in fact, scaled back the density of its Laguna Laurel project because Leisure World was concerned about increased traffic, Hoffman noted.

Hoffman described Leisure World representatives as “aggressive in forwarding their objectives” but also a pleasure to deal with because they are astute about the review process and do their homework.

Developers have been generous in donating to Leisure World’s 25-year anniversary celebration, which involves a series of special events beginning Saturday and continuing through Sept. 10. The Kathryn G. Thompson Development Co. of Irvine, which is building the Audubon project near Leisure World, tops the list of donors with a $50,000 gift, according to Debby Lamb, director of Leisure World’s recreation division. The Irvine Co.'s $10,000 contribution was the second largest, she said.

Despite its clout, Leisure World doesn’t always get what it wants. Residents have lost a number of battles against proposed utility rate hikes in the all-electric community. And a campaign to stop construction of a mortuary just outside Leisure World’s walls failed. But it takes more than a few defeats to keep the community’s more active members down.

One of the most visible and politically influential people in Leisure World is 71-year-old Herbert Schwartz. As president of the Republican Club and past president of the Golden Rain Foundation, his clout within the walls of this retirement compound is secure. But Schwartz also commands a presence outside as well. He is a member of the invitation-only Lincoln Club, whose members include some of the best-known politicians and businessmen in the county. He is on the national board of governors of the American Jewish Committee and is chairman of the county’s Friends of the Library Foundation. Schwartz recently stepped down as chairman of the board of the Orange County Community Development Council.

But the role that consumes much of Schwartz’s time these days is that of chairman of the Committee on Incorporation, the group that favors giving Laguna Hills city status.

The issue has galvanized residents like no other in recent memory--some say it is the most important decision Leisure World as a community will ever have to make.

Past cityhood efforts involving Leisure World have gone down in defeat. Residents managed to have the community excluded from a proposed city of Saddleback Valley, which voters rejected last November. An earlier Saddleback Valley cityhood effort failed in 1981, as did moves in 1980 and 1982 to make Leisure World itself a city. This most recent cityhood proposal, approved in January by the Local Agency Formation Commission, will be on the June 6 ballot.

The proposed city of Laguna Hills would contain an estimated 45,000 residents on 6,000 acres between Interstate 5 on the east and the Aliso Viejo planned community on the west. The city would border unincorporated Laguna Niguel on the south and the city of Irvine on the north. Leisure World would form the geographic core.

The issue has set up a major political confrontation between pro-and-con factions within Leisure World and has been the source of heated debate.

Al Hanson, 77, a board member of the Golden Rain Foundation, is pro-cityhood and heads a Golden Rain subcommittee that is advancing the cityhood proposal.

“We can’t stay inside of our cocoon and ignore what goes on around us,” Hanson said.

He believes that had Leisure World been a city it could have prevented such problems as the heavy traffic on El Toro Road. He also believes that as a city, Leisure World will ensure its effectiveness in the long-running battle against commercial use of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. (The Leisure World Airport Awareness Committee collected about $50,000 within a few weeks last year from residents to fight commercial use of El Toro.)

Schwartz, a retired accounting executive who religiously avoided politics during his working life, becomes animated when discussing cityhood. He is convinced it is inevitable for the private community in which he has lived since 1978.

“Take a look outside these walls,” he said. “Our places of worship are outside these walls. Shops, doctors, entertainment are all outside these walls. To have a voice in what happens there, you can’t depend on the county.”

Leisure World is now nothing more than a homeowners association divided geographically into separate segments, he said. “A city would speak as one voice.” Schwartz feels so strongly about the cityhood issue that, along with Leisure World resident Jerard B. Werner, he was among the first to enter the race for the five-member City Council to be elected June 6 if cityhood is approved.

Wally Bjornson, 71, strongly disagrees with Schwartz. Bjornson, retired from the Air Force and aerospace industry, came to Leisure World in 1981 to get away from the headaches of the outside world. He doesn’t relish dealing with them again.

“I don’t want to see us involved with the outside city or area,” he said. Cities only generate problems, Bjornson contends. “There’s nothing that (cityhood) could do for us that’s not being done already.”

Whatever the outcome, when the cityhood issue is resolved, some other issue will inevitably surface, with residents making sure their voices are heard.

Schwartz spoke for many of his neighbors when he said, “As long as I have something to say, I want to be involved. . . .”

Said Minna Liebman: “We’re not ready to retire yet.”


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