It was a nervous time for Marilyn C. Brewer, who had just won a three-way slugfest in the June primary to become the Republican nominee in the 70th Assembly District.
There she was in the state capital, not yet knowing when, or if, her “mainstream Republican” views would ever be embraced by the party’s archconservatives.
They did not like her position in support of abortion rights and were angered when she refused to denounce pending legislation expanding the rights of gays.
Now, at this political orientation session designed to introduce the GOP nominees to their party’s legislative caucus, Republican Assembly Leader Jim Brulte, an opponent of abortion rights, decided to break the ice with humor.
According to an often-repeated account of the dinner party held at a Sacramento hotel, Brulte introduced Brewer as “the baby killer from Newport Beach.”
Sure, it was a joke, but Brewer, 57, was thrown for a loop.
“My head kind of went back,” she remembers. “I had just come through a very contentious primary, and there was a congressman from this area (Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove) sending out letters addressed to ‘Dear protector of the pre-born, watch out for this wicked witch of the North that kills babies.’ And nothing could be further from the truth.
“That was a sensitive area because, while I am pro-choice, you could almost call me pro-life.”
Brulte later said those weren’t his exact words, but he conceded he gave Brewer and other newcomers an initiation intended to welcome them to the GOP team.
But the fact that the story has been so widely circulated by her critics calls attention to the political oddity that Brewer is a fiscal conservative who leans toward the center on social issues, nominated for office from what many consider to be one of the most conservative counties in the nation.
If this political novice thinks the campaign against two conservatives was grueling, wait until she gets to the Assembly, her political rivals have warned her. They have not let her rest on the laurels of her primary victory.
Should Brewer win the Nov. 8 election against Democratic underdog Jim Toledano, which is likely because of the overwhelming Republican registration in their district, conservatives said they will watch every vote she casts and write down every word she utters, with hopes of taking her on again in two years.
The conservative activists don’t just disagree with her--they don’t believe what she says.
They claim Brewer was a “stealth” candidate--a liberal cloaked by Republican-sounding policy themes that will quickly be shed once she settles into office.
If she is compared to Gil Ferguson, the incumbent Newport Beach Republican who is giving up the seat, “she might as well be a Democrat,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, who heads the conservative Traditional Values Coalition.
Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Garden Grove), who endorsed one of Brewer’s opponents, said after the primary conservatives were turned off by her gleeful, post-election announcement that her primary victory signaled a change in local politics.
“They are offended with her Barbara Boxer routine,” Conroy said, referring to the Democratic U.S. senator from Northern California. “Savor your victory and be quiet.”
But Brewer may have a key ally in Brulte, a coalition builder, who contends that the coastal Orange County district is not as conservative as some claim. Except on the abortion issue, he added, Brewer is a conservative.
“When it comes to business issues, when it comes to taxes, when it comes to regulations, when it comes to local control, when it comes to welfare reforms, when it comes to illegal immigration, I don’t think there’s a dime’s worth of difference between Marilyn Brewer and Gil Ferguson,” Brulte said.
Although Brewer is always careful not to say anything that might offend the local party leadership or its most conservative members, she also vows not to wring her hands with worry for the next two years, should she be seated in the Assembly.
“I am not going to spend my time looking over my shoulder,” Brewer said. “By virtue of the fact that I put so much money into my own campaign, I go to Sacramento owing no one and I do what I believe is the right thing, based on my values and principles.”
Those values were grounded in the middle-class home of her Italian American parents, who voted for Democrats while she was growing up.
Her father, Amerigo Cerolini, worked as a crane operator in Pennsylvania and Michigan and taught Brewer and her two younger sisters the value of an education and a strong work ethic. Despite the modest income, a Catholic school education was a top priority in their household, she said.
Brewer swears that her Republicanism emerged when she was 11 years old. She begged her father on Election Day to vote for Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey instead of the Democratic incumbent, Harry S. Truman. “Did you vote for Dewey?” she remembers asking when he returned from work that evening. “No,” he replied. “I voted for a True-man.”
In 1949, the family moved to Compton, where her father joined his brother in establishing a restaurant and bar.
Instead of going to college, she married Chuck Brewer, the “boy next door” who was two years older. By the time she was 29, the couple had four sons and a yearning to start a manufacturing business of their own. Her husband had the technical expertise, and she became the secretary, bookkeeper and floor sweeper.
The company, now 28 years old, produces plastics that are used in computers and medical laboratories, including the blood oxygenator machines used for open-heart surgery.
Throughout most of her adult life, Brewer said she watched politics but never imagined running for office. She was a registered Democrat until 1985, but says that President John F. Kennedy was the first and last Democrat she voted for on the national level.
“My husband was always a Republican, and I realized very early on that my philosophy was aligned with the Republican Party,” Brewer said. “Given the era I was raised in, it was a matter of maintaining my independence by staying a Democrat even though I agreed with my Republican husband.”
Satisfied with her contribution to the family business, Brewer quit work, went back to school and became involved in charities.
Out of curiosity, she said, she applied for and won appointment to an Orange County grand jury. It opened her eyes to the workings of government and led her to seek employment in the office of Supervisor Thomas F. Riley in 1986.
At first, she worked for no money and answered constituent complaints about barking dogs and broken street lights. Eventually, she would become a senior staffer earning $40,000 to $60,000 a year (she refuses to disclose her salary) and be placed in charge of criminal justice and related budgetary issues.
County Administrative Officer Ernie Schneider credits her with aggressively doing her homework on issues, while avoiding the internal political conflicts that are often a part of county government. “She was not a real flashy, ‘I have to be the center of attention’ kind of a person,” he added. “But I found her to be thorough and a good person to work with.”
Ron Coley, a county employee who worked regularly with Brewer on public safety issues before she quit this year to run for the Assembly, said she was always concerned about wasteful spending and making sure that services were equally distributed. Logic and fairness, not politics, guided her work, Coley added.
“I felt comfortable that I could go talk to her in a candid way and not feel that I was going to be compromised or that she was going to abuse that relationship and trust,” he said.
Given that she was not considered a “political animal,” other co-workers and Riley, her boss, said they were a little surprised to hear her plans to seek the Assembly seat. “And then I knew that she would probably do an outstanding job. I knew she would be very aggressive,” Riley said.
Brewer had begun considering the race after watching Costa Mesa Mayor Mary Hornbuckle get clobbered in the 1992 election by Ferguson. When Ferguson announced he would not seek reelection but instead run later for the state Senate, Brewer jumped into the race, not really mindful of what the rest of the candidate pool would look like.
“In my naivete, I had not thought it through enough to realize that if it was me against only one of (the conservative candidates), that it would not work,” Brewer said.
Her two opponents in the primary election, Irvine Councilman Barry J. Hammond and attorney Thomas G. Reinecke, split the conservative vote, making Brewer the nominee with 34% of the vote.
It was a costly win. Brewer lent her campaign about $240,000--more than twice the amount she and her husband had initially budgeted.
Her victory also caused division within local Republican ranks. Conservatives, unwilling to accept defeat, briefly considered waging a write-in campaign during the November election.
Frustration with Brewer among local conservatives stemmed from the “mainstream” label she gave herself during the campaign, which she defines as “to the right of center.” She said she is more conservative than Gov. Pete Wilson, but more moderate than former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
Engaged in discussion, she concedes not really knowing the difference between a moderate and a “mainstream” conservative.
“I don’t know because I didn’t come into this politically savvy,” she said. “When (conservatives) begin to know me and look at me a little closer, they are going to find that we align probably on 85% of the issues.”
Conservatives, however, have not been convinced.
For example, they noted that she opposes the political “agenda and tactics” of the National Organization for Women and her tendency to favor “parental consent” laws that would require minors seeking abortions to have their parents’ approval.
But Brewer also has stated that it is not “government’s place” to be involved in a woman’s right to have an abortion. She also helped form a bipartisan group that helps elect moderate, abortion-rights women. And she is scheduled to be a guest speaker at an upcoming meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus of California.
“Some people try to have it both ways. You can’t do that,” said Mike Spence, vice president of California Pro Life Council Inc.
On another issue, Brewer said she has no position on a pending bill that would allow domestic partners to officially register their relationships with the state and share rights now enjoyed by married couples. Conservatives believe she would support it because she received strong campaign support from members of the gay community.
Brewer’s general position on gay rights is: “I don’t believe in special rights for any group, but I believe in equal rights for all of us.”
Slowly, the roar of criticism is being replaced by calls for party unity. Except for Conroy, all of Orange County’s GOP Assembly members have signed a letter endorsing Brewer. Ferguson, who backed Reinecke, said “it would be wrong not to endorse a Republican candidate.”
Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), the Assembly’s assistant minority leader, said it’s up to Brewer to define her role within the state’s mostly conservative GOP caucus.
“She can emphasize those areas where she’s in agreement with most members of the caucus, or she can emphasize those areas where she is not,” Pringle said. “I think that’s going to be her decision.”
Profile: Marilyn C. Brewer
Hometown: Momesson, Pa.
Resides: Newport Beach
Education: Associate of arts degree from Cal State Fullerton
Family: Husband, Chuck, and four sons
Business background: With husband founded the C. Brewer Co., a 28-year-old manufacturing business with 200 employees at locations in Anaheim and Irvine.
Political path: Joined the staff of Supervisor Thomas F. Riley in 1986, first a volunteer and later a full-time senior staff member. Left the county office in March to seek election to the 70th Assembly District.
Attitude: “I never believed I was going to lose (the Republican primary). I believed that I had a good opportunity to win.”