A group of pro-choice Republicans gathered here Monday in what sponsors called the county's first meeting of its kind to unveil a new organization aimed exclusively at electing state and federal politicians who support a woman's right to choose an abortion.
Tricia Hunter, the pro-choice Republican whose upset Assembly victory in San Diego last month gained national attention, rallied the standing-room-only audience with the message that most Republican voters support choice on abortion and that choice is consistent with the party's values.
"The Republican Party philosophy has always been to keep government out of personal decisions," Hunter said. "I was the mainstream Republican; I was the one who was in sync with my district."
State Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who reversed his position and announced in September that he will support choice on abortion, also joined the meeting of about 150 people at the Balboa Bay Club. Seymour is running for lieutenant governor against state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who holds that abortions should be illegal.
Sponsors said the new organization--Pro-Choice Orange County--will be bipartisan in its support of candidates and membership. However, because all but one of the county's state and federal officeholders are Republican, the group's leaders said they will work hard to find pro-choice Republican candidates.
Linda Schwarz, a Democrat and chairwoman of the group, said the leaders have not decided which races they will target next year. Several factors are under consideration, including these:
* A special election will be held, probably in March, for the seat of state Sen. William Campbell, (R-Hacienda Heights), who will resign in January. On Monday, pro-choice Republican Ron Isles, a Brea councilman, announced that he will enter the race. Two assemblymen who hold that abortion should be illegal have already announced their interest--Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) and Frank Hill (R-Whittier).
* Ferguson's 70th Assembly District seat will be on the primary ballot in June. The pro-choice leaders said they may try to find a sympathetic Republican to run against him.
* Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) is one of eight politicians nationally who have been targeted for opposition by the National Abortion Rights Action League. Pringle narrowly beat a Democrat to win his first election last year in a race made controversial by the county Republican Party's hiring of uniformed security guards at several predominantly Latino polling places.
* The pro-choice leaders said they have heard rumors that abortion opponent Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) might not seek re-election next year. But an aide to the congressman said Monday, "That's probably a wonderful dream for them, but there's no reality to it."
Pro-Choice Orange County was formed in answer to the U.S. Supreme Court's Webster decision in July, giving states new authority to restrict abortion.
The group's political strength is untested, but since the Webster decision, pro-choice forces have gained national momentum that has caused many politicians to rethink or modify their positions.
Hunter's otherwise-obscure race was watched nationally as one of the first tests of fallout from the court's decision. Campaigning on abortion rights, Hunter defeated the Republican candidate who had been leading, Dick Lyles, in the primary.
"I think we have tremendous potential," said Schwarz, Pro-Choice Orange County's chairwoman. "Even though we have our work cut out for us in Orange County, I think we're going to see this change."
A score card placed near the speaker's podium Monday showed that in the state Senate, 19 legislators favor choice on abortion; 16 hold that it should be illegal and five have not declared positions. In the Assembly, the group reported 38 legislators supporting choice, 29 opposed and 13 unannounced.
John Rau, former director of the county's Republican Lincoln Club, told the audience: "Our party should not be dominated by a minority and their personal religious beliefs. We should not be giving this issue away to the Democrats. It could make a difference."
Isles, who also attended the pro-choice breakfast Monday, said his state Senate race against Ferguson and Hill next spring could be a repeat of Hunter's San Diego upset.
Because it is a special election to fill a vacancy--as was Hunter's--campaign laws allow Democrats to cross over and vote for Republican candidates, a factor that played a role in Hunter's win.
"I think (choice) is probably going to be a big issue," Isles said. "You can't ignore it, it's already there."
Assemblyman Ferguson acknowledged that "if the issue is emotional enough, a single issue can win."
But, he said, he does not expect the outside interest in the Senate race that there was in Hunter's.
"I'm not worried about it, and I don't think it will be a problem," he said.
But Schwarz said of Ferguson: "I'd like him to be very concerned."