A behind-the-scenes look at Orange County's political life : 'Caveman' Political Label From the 1980s Was Unfair, Johnson Says

They were called the "cavemen" back in the 1980s for their staunch, ultraconservative politics and their pledge to vote no on all government spending. Among them were former Republican Assembly members Gil Ferguson of Newport Beach, Dennis Brown, who represented Huntington Beach, and the late Dick Longshore of Santa Ana, as well as current state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) and Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia).

Although many Capitol insiders say they wore the "cavemen" mantle proudly, that's not so, according to Johnson, the GOP candidate in a runoff election May 9 for the vacant seat in the 35th state Senate District. He will face Democrat Madelene Arakelian.

Johnson now says he is not conservative enough for the caveman label and never liked it.

"I've never felt that label was fair," said Johnson on the night of the election last week. "I think it's a mistake to attach labels. I'm a mainstream Republican and represent the views of the majority of voters in Orange County."


Too special: Another thing that's not fair is the entire exercise of special elections in non-election years, according to Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), who finished third in last week's primary election for the state Senate behind Johnson and Ferguson.

Allen maintains that special elections are too easily bought by the politician with the most money. And too few people show up at the polls, she said, pointing to the fact that only 14.6% of the 400,000 registered voters in the affluent 35th District--which represents nearly one-third of the county--turned out last week.

"I think it's a shame for the people that 17,000 votes (the amount Johnson tallied) out of a district of 800,000 people is what likely determined our state senator," said Allen, who says Johnson spent upward of $500,000 for last week's race. "It makes you realize there is something terribly wrong."

Special elections are certainly expensive for taxpayers. County Registrar of Voters Donald Tanney estimated that last week's election cost $350,000, and the runoff will cost about the same.


Convenience voting: Last week's special election also revealed the growing interest of the public in absentee ballots.

Nearly 28,000 absentee ballots were cast in the election, a total representing about 50% of the 58,000 votes cast in the election. Candidates are now helping their constituents get the ballots at home, Tanney said.

"Predominantly, it's a convenience," Tanney said, adding that voters can spread the ballot out on their dining room tables and take some time thinking about how to cast their votes. "Candidates are encouraging it."


First up: Johnson has not been elected to the state Senate yet, but already former Fullerton Mayor Richard C. Ackerman, a Republican, attorney and councilman for 12 years, announced his candidacy for Johnson's seat.

Ackerman, who was on the Fullerton council from 1980 to 1992, made the newspapers last summer when he actively campaigned against the local recall waged against three council members who had voted for a citywide utility tax.

"I was opposed to the utility tax, but I felt people who had served on the council for 12 years shouldn't be ejected for their vote on one position," said Ackerman, 52, a Fullerton resident for 25 years.

Now, he says, he's "switching gears" to run for state office.

"I had thought about it at various times . . . but you have to wait for an opening," said Ackerman, who has been endorsed by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).


Odd match: The plight of the financially imperiled Irvine Unified School District has created an odd pair of political bedfellows.

Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, co-host of the TV's "Life and Times" public affairs program, has joined with liberal UC Irvine political science Prof. Mark Petracca to lobby fellow Irvine residents in support of a parcel tax to save Irvine schools from insolvency. Hewitt and Petracca plan to make the case for a proposed parcel tax at the Tuesday school board meeting.

"Not only the future of the schools, but the future of property values and business life in Irvine is on the line. As a result, I view this as not simply a school district issue," Hewitt told City Council members last week. "Tough as it is for me to say, there are times when tax increases are appropriate, and there are times even when I can work with Mark Petracca, although this will be a first."


William and Willie: After visiting the White House Wednesday morning, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown--in Washington on an annual bipartisan state delegation lobbying trip--said the Orange County bankruptcy was barely discussed.

"We talked a lot about natural disasters," Brown said, referring to the recent flooding in Northern California.

He also said that William J. Popejoy, the county's chief executive officer, had placed an "urgent" call to him on Wednesday morning that he had been unable to return. Brown did not know the reason for the call, but took a wild guess and assumed it had to be about an unnatural disaster--the bankruptcy.

"Popejoy and Brown are not exactly . . . (well), we don't swap stories about ice hockey," Brown said.


* Today: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) is holding a St. Patrick's Day celebration from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Harp Inn in Newport Beach. For information, call (714) 969-7457.

* Monday: Republicans are invited to the central committee meeting at 7 p.m. at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel. Call (714) 556-8555 for details.

Compiled by Times staff writer Len Hall, with contributions from staff writer James Bornemeier and correspondent Russ Loar.

Politics '95 appears every Sunday.

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