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GOP Stalwart Takes Over Old Umberg District : Politics: Conservative businessman and party activist Jim Morrissey, a firm backer of Prop. 187, pledges to battle crime and unemployment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Jim Morrissey was virtually a political unknown. But then the Republican leaped into a dogfight for the Democrat-dominated 69th Assembly District seat.

With the same determination he used to run his Anaheim tool-and-die company, Morrissey wore a path in the sidewalks of the central Orange County district to meet the voters. His raw perseverance and a bundle of money from Republican friends helped him overcome a huge Democratic edge in voter registration to win on Nov. 8.

Now the 64-year-old conservative has arrived in the state Capitol for the 1995 legislative year, and once again Morrissey is a virtual unknown. Friends and associates, however, suggest that the same doggedness that helped him on the campaign trail will serve him well in Sacramento.

They portray him as the sort of “citizen-legislator” who can bring a different perspective to an elected body long dominated by lawyers and career politicians.

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“He’s a very solid, salt-of-the-earth guy,” said Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange). “As a small businessman, he’ll bring an important perspective. . . . He’s seen the damage that government can do. I think he sees this as a chance to trade on his life’s experiences. To some degree, it’s almost a ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ type of thing.”

But some critics back home are concerned that Morrissey--white, conservative and a captain of industry--hardly represents the average citizen of the 69th District, which spreads through the heavily Latino and blue-collar neighborhoods of Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim.

“Jim is not a representative of the people, for the people,” said Rueben Martinez, a Santa Ana bookstore owner and community activist. “My fear is, he’ll just be the typical selfish Republican.”

“He’s another bland, conservative old guy who’s going to blend into the woodwork,” said George Urch, who served as chief of staff for the district’s former Assembly representative, Democrat Tom Umberg. “I don’t think he’s going to light the place on fire.”

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For his part, Morrissey has no illusions about his new job. He hopes to work hard, serve the three terms he’s allowed under state law and get out. His biggest ambition is to chair a committee that deals with business or crime issues.

“I don’t want to be Speaker or majority whip or anything like that,” the affable Morrissey said. “I’ll serve my time, then I’ll retire. This is not a means to an ends.”

Morrissey plans to stick to the bread-and-butter issues he ran on--fighting crime, cutting taxes and government spending, and improving conditions for small businesses to help bring more jobs into the state. Those are important matters in the 69th, which has some of the most crime infested neighborhoods and the highest unemployment in Orange County.

He has also promised to donate to charity the $19,500 raise state lawmakers began receiving this year. Morrissey said he will take the money only when California’s unemployment rate dips below 5.5%, where it stood before the state’s economy hit the skids in the early 1990s.

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The new lawmaker was a big supporter of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration ballot measure that proved wildly popular with voters in November. Even so, some Latinos are holding out a modicum of hope that Morrissey can deliver on his promises of more jobs and help against crime.

“Morrissey will have the benefit of the doubt with us,” said Arturo Torres, Santa Ana president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “But you only get one benefit of the doubt. After that, we’ll respect him like we do any of the other snakes in the delegation.”

For his part, Morrissey suggests that many Latinos supported Proposition 187, seeing it as an economic issue, rather than a matter of racism and xenophobia. He remains confident he can win over any doubters.

“The Latino people are good, honest, hard working and their main concern is for their family, and I want to do something to help them help themselves,” Morrissey said.

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Morrissey figures he appealed to 69th District voters because he’s in many respects one of their own. After dropping out of high school to join the Air Force (he later took an equivalency test to get his diploma), he became a machinist at a Hughes Aircraft plant in Arizona. He moved west with his wife, Margaret, in the late 1950s and eventually took a job with Superior Jig, a tool-and-die firm, in 1965.

He worked his way up the ladder to become majority owner and chief executive officer of the firm, which specializes in precision parts for aerospace and electronics. “I kind of think I’m a self-made person,” he said. “I’ve never failed at anything I’ve tried.”

A devout Catholic, Morrissey often makes mention of his close-knit family. He has six grown children, nine grandchildren and two more on the way. Like any proud parent, he brags about the children’s accomplishments. One is a microbiologist, another an airline pilot. “Everyone is a success except the last one--she became a lawyer,” Morrissey quipped. “But there has to be a black sheep in every family.”

Morrissey got into politics several years ago after his wife caught him yelling at a politician on the TV screen and suggested he stop complaining and try to make a change. The couple began volunteering their time for Republican causes and were active with the GOP Central Committee. Morrissey also founded the Irish Republican Club and the Republican Small Business Assn., a coalition of 72 firms in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

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The notion of running for office never seemed part of the equation. Earlier this year, however, Republican leaders recruited the businessman, persuading him that he was the best chance the party had to capture the 69th District seat.

Part of the pitch was simple math: Although Latinos make up 65% of the district, they represent only 35% of the voters on Election Day. Focus groups showed that “a hometown Anglo is what you wanted” and Morrissey “fit that profile to a T,” said Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), one of the dominant forces in Orange County politics.

Although reluctant at first, Morrissey ultimately threw himself into the challenge. This, after all, was a man who a few years back took the time to become a licensed stock broker so he could better manage his own investments. (“I could tell you how to make a small fortune--start with a large fortune.”)

In hopes of better reaching Latino residents, Morrissey boned up on his Spanish by listening to instructional tapes. Morrissey figures he walked more than 500 miles in the months before the election, combing neighborhoods to meet voters.

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“We haven’t had so hard-working a candidate in years,” said Thomas A. Fuentes, county GOP chairman.

Hurtt suggested that Morrissey has “proven his mettle by working so hard” during the campaign. “He walked precincts--and the guy walked and walked and walked and walked. It was unbelievable.”

Critics contend Morrissey will be beholden to Hurtt and other party leaders who helped finance his campaign. But the political newcomer didn’t always hew to the party line. Early on in the campaign, Morrissey hired a local political consultant rather than McNally Temple Associates Inc., the high-powered Sacramento firm Hurtt favors. Those differences were ironed out when Morrissey hired McNally Temple to do his direct mail.

“He’s kind of single-minded,” Hurtt concluded. “He’s his own man.”

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And while Morrissey may lack a college degree, he’s no bumpkin. During a conversation, he can wax eloquent, citing chapter and verse on air quality regulations or the history of California’s much-maligned workers’ compensation laws.

“He has always responded to problems with a lot of horse sense and insightful, genuine logic,” Fuentes said. “I think that’s indicative of a guy who’s made it through the school of hard knocks and puts those basics to work on a day-to-day basis.”

Added Lewis: “He has a Ph.D in real-world experience.”

Profile: Jim Morrissey

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Represents: 69th Assembly District

Affiliation: Republican from Santa Ana

Age: 64

Family: Wife, Margaret; six children; nine grandchildren

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Education: Dropped out of high school to join Air Force, later passed equivalency test and did college-level work.

Past life: Retired owner and chief executive officer of Anaheim tool-and-die firm making electronics and aerospace parts.

Political history: Overcame astronomical 56%-34% registration deficit to win seat. With wife, has been active on the Orange County GOP Central Committee. Founded Republican Small Business Assn., coalition of 72 Southland businesses that have weighed in on air quality issues.

How he sees his district: “A lot of the area is blue collar, and I think they can relate to me as an ex-blue-collar guy and a family man.”

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Sources: Times reports

Researched by ERIC BAILEY / Los Angeles Times


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