Q AND A : Democrats’ New Leader Ready for ‘Good Fight’ : Politics: Elected last week, Dorianne Garcia becomes the first woman and first Latino to hold the county party’s top job.

<i> Times reporter Eric Lichtblau spoke with Garcia last week</i>

Even as a high-school student in El Monte two decades ago, Dorianne Garcia loved a good political tussle.

“That’s when I really got started. I liked a good fight and I didn’t mind taking sides,” she says. Today, she may be in for the fight of her life.

Elected last week as the first woman and first Latino to head the Orange County Democratic Party, the 35-year-old Garcia will try to make a dent in a well-funded Republican machine that holds a 3-2 lead in the county’s voter registration.

In a county as closely associated with conservative politics as any in the nation, local Democrats claim only a single seat at the state or federal level. But the Cypress resident, who works as a communication technician at Pacific Bell and has been active in party politics for years, thinks she can change that.

Garcia has run for office herself twice--for the Cypress City Council in 1988 and the state Senate last year. She lost both times, but she figures she learned a few things along the way about politics, often taking her 15-year-old son in tow to help canvas neighborhoods.


And she thinks her working - class roots--she used to climb poles for the phone company and is now a union steward in Santa Ana--will help attract new voters. As Democratic leader through the end of 1994, she is targeting four high priority races, and she says party activists will make education, the economy, health care and immigration their top themes.

Question: Is it tough being a Democrat in Orange County?

Answer: I don’t think it’s tough being a Democrat. What’s tough is that . . . a lot of people here really do agree with the Democratic philosophy and principles, but Orange County has always been considered the elite of California--you know, this is a more affluent community and people want to blend in, and I think a lot of people become Republicans just because it’s the thing to do. Orange County voters aren’t made up of 100% affluent, upper-class business owners and developers. I’d say the majority of Orange County are working people just like I am, and what’s difficult is that we don’t feel that we’re being represented.

Q: So if the Democrats really do represent the views of many voters, how has the GOP managed to maintain such a stronghold in the county?

A: Money. Money and influence from Washington. There’ve been several campaigns where Washington has gotten involved in Orange County politics, trying to get Republicans elected. And it wasn’t money from here in the county that did it, it was money from outside the county. Orange County is seen as a kind of a jewel in everybody’s cap, and the Republicans do outspend us here so usually they’re going to win because of that.

Q: What can you do to change that as chairwoman?

A: First is to increase registration for the Democratic Party. And secondly, to get out the word about the (Democratic) candidates and what they actually believe in. . . .

Education (is the answer). Getting (political) clubs more active, and just getting out the message to the community--'Do you know that (Republican congressman) Bob Dornan feels this way about you, and do you know that your state senator and congressman don’t represent your views? You don’t? Well, they don’t, and these are the facts.’

Q: You’re the first woman to head the county party, and the first Latino as well. Will that mean more influence for those constituencies, or do you see your views and policies as mostly in line with those people who came before you as chairman?

A: Well, everybody including myself has to remember that my job here is to represent and lead the Democratic Party, and that means all Democrats. But I will have a different slant, a different view of things than say (past county chairmen) Howard Adler or Dick O’Neill or John Hanna, only because I am a different person and not just because I’m Latina, but because I’m a woman, because I’m a working person. You know, John’s an attorney, and Dick and Howard are developers, so I am going to have a different viewpoint on issues than they do.

Q: Why is that the Latino community, despite its growing numbers here, has failed to achieve a more visible role in county politics?

A: I think it’s in the way that we’re brought up. Not so much myself--I was born (in Los Angeles)--but a lot of people who are first generation and new to the country, they came from countries where being involved politically could possibly be a death sentence, and it’s very scary to become involved.

We saw what happened with the poll guard issue (in which Republicans posted private guards outside 20 Santa Ana polling places in 1988 amid rumors that non-citizens would be bused into the area, and five Latino voters later received more than $480,000 in an out-of-court settlement of claims that their civil rights had been violated). People were scared to death to go vote, and they turned away. They saw the guards there and, even though they knew they didn’t do anything wrong and they were citizens and registered to vote, in the back of their minds it’s just not worth it.

People have become complacent, and I’m not talking about just the Latino community but everybody. We’ve had it good for quite a while. Generally speaking, the United States and California and Orange County is a great place to live and everything’s fine, so why vote? For a lot of people, there’s no pressing need to vote. They’re getting by. But I’m not satisfied with getting by. I want things to be better.

Q: What do you see as the big Democratic issues in races coming up here in Orange County?

A: Well, I’ve committed to go after four seats here in this area--to keep the 69th Assembly District that Tom Umberg now holds, whether it’s him or somebody else; to take the 68th Assembly seat that Curt Pringle now holds; the Congressional seat that Dornan holds, and the (state) Senate seat that Rob Hurtt holds.

Q: What’s your target for new Democratic registration (beyond the 400,000 voters now registered to the party in Orange County)? Is there one?

A: No, but that’s a good point. That may be something I want to do during my term, to create a target and a goal.

Q: Is local politics still a man’s world? Do you feel that, being the first woman to lead the party, you’re still an outsider of sorts?

A: I wouldn’t say 100%, but you know there are times when you think, ‘Gee, I thought this was 1993.’ Like all the leaders (of the party), all the chairs are men. Howard Adler was, (state Democratic chairman) Bill Press is a man, and the national party chair David Wilhelm, and here I am down in Orange County. . . . Although it’s really nice when you go to the state conventions because you meet people from around the state and you see that there are a lot more women involved, so you don’t feel like you’re all alone.