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Trouble Hunter : Ambitions of Colorful, Controversial Mayor Reach Beyond Anaheim

Times Staff Writer

In the late ‘60s, future Anaheim Mayor Fred Hunter prowled the city streets in tattered “Frisco” jeans, hair to his shoulders, boyish smile topped by a ferocious Fu Manchu mustache. He also carried a badge.

As undercover narcotics cops, Hunter and his partner William (Wild Bill) Essex bent some rules to make their busts. Essex once rushed into a drug house at 3 a.m. wearing a rubber monster mask, a bloody vinyl hatchet in its forehead. Hunter, perched in a tree outside, leaped down on the terrified dealers as they ran out into the night.

Hunter has followed an unlikely career path to become mayor of Orange County’s largest city. Sailor, undercover cop, personal-injury attorney, Bible-thumping preacher touring the South, Hunter the politician carries with him a colorful past. Now he leads a city where three mayors in the past 20 years have moved on to county and statewide offices. Hunter has his sights set higher: a congressional seat.

But to reach that goal, Hunter must convince powerful critics who call him the “Joe Isuzu of Anaheim,” referring to the TV auto pitchman, that he can deliver on promises. He must bring a moribund city redevelopment plan to life. A lingering lawsuit with the California Angels that has bled the city of more than $6 million in legal fees since 1984 must be resolved. And there is the familiar litany of other urban woes that plague any large city.

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Tremendous Energy

Hunter, his critics and backers agree, brings tremendous energy to the challenges. Poised, a fiery public speaker, he has an engaging personality fueled by burning ambition and determination. But he can also be impulsive, unprepared and inconsistent, some critics say, and a reckless free-lancer.

“He’s a charismatic kind of person who people enjoy being around,” said William D. Ehrle, Hunter’s closest colleague on the Anaheim City Council. “But he can be his own worst enemy.”

Hunter himself concedes, “I will always be in trouble, just like when I was a cop, because I make things happen.”

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Hunter was born in 1941 in a tiny Chicago apartment on a freezing November morning. His mother promptly placed him in a warming oven.

He was the second of three boys born to Charles Darwin Hunter, a baker from Iowa, and Helene Hunter of Oklahoma, a devout follower of the Church of Christ.

When he was 3 weeks old, his parents bundled the family into a car and drove West, seeking work at the Navy’s Long Beach shipyards, booming with the outbreak of World War II. They settled in the low-income housing projects just built in nearby Wilmington.

“We had nothing,” Hunter recalled.

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His mother dominated the family, Hunter said, shepherding her boys to church on Sunday, Sunday night and Wednesday night. His father, who worked in the shipyards, stayed home at church time, baking pies every Sunday afternoon.

“We studied the Bible a lot,” Hunter said. Hunter, a good student in school, said the one thing he never considered was college.

“Nobody went to college from my neighborhood,” he said. “You joined the service or you went to work.” After high school graduation, at 17, Hunter signed up with the Navy.

In the Navy, Hunter drove from his San Diego base to the Church of Christ in Wilmington to preach on Wednesdays and Sundays. The pastor, Milton Anderson, “was a big influence in my life--a dynamite Gospel preacher who took me under his wing,” Hunter said. Hunter spent hours before a mirror, practicing memorized sermons.

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Set Up a Church

After the Navy, Hunter set up his own church in Parker, Ariz. He was 21. Over the next 2 years, he also traveled through Texas, Oklahoma and other Southern states, making his way as an itinerant preacher.

His preaching days ended when he “just couldn’t see myself doing this the rest of my life,” Hunter said. Back in the Wilmington projects, he looked around and on impulse answered a newspaper ad seeking police officers in Anaheim. “Hell, I didn’t want to be a cop,” Hunter recalled. But the $400 monthly salary in 1962 looked too good to pass up.

Ralph B. Clark, who would later become an Anaheim mayor and member of the Orange County County Board of Supervisors, sat on Hunter’s police hiring panel.

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“I was impressed with him at his interview,” Clark recalled. “And he has moved right along.”

Essex, now chief of the UC Davis police, went by the nickname “Wild Bill” then and was one of Hunter’s first partners working undercover narcotics.

“He was a fantastic cop,” Essex said. “He had a knack. He could arrest people and they’d like him. He was just super with people, a great interrogator, really smooth.”

Hated Paper Work

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But Hunter chafed under regulations and hated paper work, his colleagues and supervisors recall.

“He was always in (trouble) around the Anaheim Police Department,” Essex said. “There was always some captain (mad) at him. But he was always clean.”

Former Anaheim Police Chief Jimmie Kennedy, then a lieutenant supervising Hunter, remembers the young officer as “an awfully good P.R. man. We used him a lot in delicate situations that needed a lot of handling.”

Hunter recalled: “We used to do the wildest things. But I liked working dope. You know why? You’re a real loner. I used to make things happen.

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“I was very ambitious. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself. It built up to where I felt like Superman. I could do anything. A rush. That’s what it is. Not ego. A challenge. You go in and outwit and outfox people. It’s being an actor, a good one.”

In the last 5 years of his police career, Hunter went to law school at night, studying torts at stakeouts on 3-by-5 cards. After graduating from Western State College of Law, Hunter failed the state bar exam on his first try but passed the next year, 1975.

Not a Delegator

“I hung up my shingle immediately,” Hunter said. He had no interest in rising through the police ranks. “I’m not a delegator,” Hunter said. “I’ve not learned how to do that. That’s why I’m a sole practitioner lawyer. I do it myself.”

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At first, he rented an office in Fullerton with a former undercover narcotics police friend, Raymond T. Sharp, sharing the criminal defense workload.

“Fred took right off to it,” Sharp said. “He was very effective at trial. A little bit like a poker player, not letting everyone see his cards but backing them up.”

Criminal law soon gave way to a more lucrative personal-injury practice, and Hunter moved to Anaheim, where he set up an office in a renovated old home across the street from City Hall.

Twice divorced by this time, Hunter was married a third time, to a flight attendant with United Airlines. He has four children, who live with him and his wife, Jeanne, in Anaheim Hills.

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Courtroom opponents say he can be formidable foe. “He is aggressive,” said J. Kevin Lilly, of the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Newport Beach, who settled a $150,000 case in Hunter’s favor earlier this year. “Frankly, he’s the best personal-injury lawyer I have dealt with in the past 3 years.”

Caseload of 60 Suits

Hunter said he handled settlements totaling $1 million last year, from which he received more than $300,000. He usually carries a caseload of 60 to 70 lawsuits.

In 1983, the city firefighters union walked into his office for help with a contract, Hunter said. That started his political career. He lost his first council bid in 1984 but returned to victory 2 years later. But how far his career will go depends much on what Hunter can accomplish over the next 4 years as mayor.

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For now, Hunter said, he is reading “Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising.”

Always restless, Hunter aims high. His critics say he aims too high, too soon. But after only one 2-year term as a City Councilman, Hunter ran last fall for mayor and won, beating an opponent who was better financed and backed by five former Anaheim mayors and most of the city and county’s political elite.

Hunter admits the power brokers hold him at arm’s length but says he has his own priority list, an agenda to grapple with the city’s problems. His critics say they wonder if he has any agenda at all and ask what he has done lately.

“Fred can be a very effective politician,” said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant who managed a successful campaign this fall for a City Council candidate who beat a candidate backed by Hunter.

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Up to the Task?

“But he needs to show more substance to be successful. The essence of politics is being able to produce a consensus and a majority, and I’m not sure he is up to that task.”

State Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), now a candidate for lieutenant governor, was one of the city’s former mayors who supported Hunter’s opponent in the fall race.

“I didn’t feel Fred Hunter had an agenda,” Seymour said last week. “In my opinion, the jury is still out on that one. The real question is yet unanswered. Can he lead on a specific agenda and specific issues?”

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But Hunter said Seymour “viewed me as a threat. ‘Let’s kill this guy’s ambition now.’ . . . Was he really looking out for his constituency in Anaheim or was he looking out for his rear at a guy moving faster than him?”

Asked to point to a major accomplishment after 2 years on the City Council, Hunter paused, then named the abolition of a two-tier pay scale for the city firefighters.

It is that professed concern for working people that has built Hunter’s political base of city unions and homeowners’ groups. At election time, Hunter can deploy an impressive and effective army of volunteers.

“Fred’s given us a real voice downtown,” said Bob Horton, board member of the Anaheim Homeowner’s Assn., which claims a membership of 1,700 households. “Fred listens to us. He sees things from the family point of view as opposed to the financial developer side of the coin.”

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‘Compassionate Republican’

Hunter likes to call himself “a compassionate Republican.”

His heroes form an ideological grab bag: Martin Luther King Jr., former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, and Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“Although I am a Republican, I share a lot of Democratic principles, a desire to help people less fortunate,” Hunter said. “I know what the development community and others say, that Fred can’t be trusted. But doing things like they say you should is kowtowing to the special interests. I just don’t like people telling me what to do.”

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Yet even his backers concede that Hunter’s independence can lead him down dangerous paths.

His council colleagues have at times chided Hunter for solo forays into city policy matters. In the months before his mayoral election, then-Mayor Ben Bay removed him as one of the council liaisons with the Angels for free-lancing solutions to the prickly litigation over the Rams football team putting office buildings on the stadium parking lot.

“He tends to want to do things more on his own,” Hunter’s friend and council colleague Ehrle said. “Being ambitious, he has to allow others to be part of a process-building agenda to move things forward.”

Hunter has vowed to serve at least one term in the city’s top job, but once again he is in a hurry.

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A statewide reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts is coming in 1991. One, and maybe two, new congressional districts may fall may into Orange County.

“If I do go on, I’d make a big leap,” Hunter said. “I’m not interested in being on the Board of Supervisors, in the state Assembly or Senate. If I did something, it would be typical Fred Hunter. Congress I would consider. Yes, that’s a probability.”


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