Guiding With an Iron Hand
Tom Fuentes, chief of the Orange County Republican Party, is not Boss Tweed.
He is not running Tammany Hall.
He has no jobs for cronies. He doesn’t fill potholes. And he can’t make the building inspector leave you alone.
In fact, Fuentes says, the big, bad political machine that has sandblasted just about every trace of the Democratic Party from Orange County is really not much of a machine at all.
And he is no political boss.
“I’m a cheerleader,” said Fuentes with a shrug. “All I do is help ensure the victory of conservative political candidates.”
Now in his 12th year as chairman of the Orange County GOP, Thomas A. Fuentes, 47, has presided over a rout of his political opponents so total that it would spark feelings of envy among the grittiest of big city political bosses.
Consider the numbers: With Fuentes at the wheel, the county GOP has increased its lead over the Democrats in registered voters to 232,000--a margin so large it can blunt the liberal strongholds of San Francisco and West Los Angeles in a statewide election.
At the same time, the number of Democrats elected by Orange County voters to federal and state offices has dwindled to exactly zero. But for a few scattered judgeships still held by Democrats, the same would be true at the county level, where every office is held by a Republican.
While the organization Fuentes presides over might not qualify as a full-blown political machine, it is a political phenomenon with few rivals. And while Fuentes is not the only force behind the movement, he is, as he says, its cheerleader.
And its missionary, its public face and its hit man.
“Tom Fuentes bleeds Republican-elephant blood,” said Harvey Englander, a political consultant. “His goal in life is to serve the party.”
Attend a GOP fund-raiser almost any night of the week and you will likely find Fuentes at the podium, proposing a toast. Make your way to a meeting of any one of Orange County’s 60-odd Republican clubs--the Huntington Harbour Republican Women Federated, the Iranian-American Republican Club--and you will, sooner or later, find Fuentes dropping by.
Dan Quayle flying into town? Fuentes will greet him when he lands. Some precocious Republican upstart needs a talking to? Got a Democrat who needs a verbal thrashing? Fuentes is your man.
Not a cigar-chomping political boss, perhaps, but a smiling, irrepressible political animal.
“Managing the Republican Party is like herding a bunch of cats,” said Ken Khachigian, a former aide to Presidents Reagan and Bush who now heads the Bob Dole for President campaign in California. “Tom is the one who brings them all together.”
Yet success has not come without a price.
Fuentes’ hard-line conservative philosophy, and the rough, aggressive style in which he carries it out, has left a trail of disillusioned Republicans. And his practice of favoring some Republicans over others--before the voters have spoken--threatens to open a rift in the party he commands.
“He’s a black-and-white guy in his thoughts,” said Orange County Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville, who has known Fuentes since the 1970s. “There’s no grays.”
At the county GOP’s monthly meeting at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, a candidate for county supervisor, is denouncing his former political party.
“I used to be a Democrat,” Leyes said. “Then the party was hijacked by the militant lesbians, the tree-hugging eco-terrorists and the neo-socialist opportunists!”
The crowd cheers.
Outside, a man peddles T-shirts displaying President Clinton and the first lady clad in bib overalls. The logo: “Hill-Billy Politics.” Price: $10.
Fuentes, a man in his element, steps up to the podium. He salutes the many survivors of the recent GOP primary, like Leyes, who have come to show him deference.
Then he gets down to business.
First, Fuentes reads the names of those donating $1,000 to the party locally. He announces the formation of a new GOP lawyers’ committee. Then come the door prizes, donated by local businesses and raffled off at the monthly meetings.
“We need door prizes to help us underwrite our costs,” he says to the crowd. “Whatever you have, we need.”
Whether talking policy with elected officials or performing the most mundane of political chores, Fuentes is the omnipresent party symbol: ushering fund-raisers, jawing to reporters, stroking volunteers.
By his own reckoning, Fuentes has presided over two or three political gatherings a week for the last 12 years. He regularly visits each of about 60 local Republican clubs. He has hosted fund-raisers for Reagan and Bush, as well as Gov. Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Before Quayle flew in for a fund-raiser in late April, he called Fuentes. Fuentes called Newport Beach businessman John Crean. Quayle was greeted by a $1,000-per-couple affair at Crean’s palatial home.
“He is the toastmaster of Orange County,” says Stan Oftelie, the director of the Orange County Transportation Authority who has known Fuentes since the 1970s. “Tom makes sure every event has a certain style.”
His reach extends not only upward and outward, but into the neighborhoods as well.
As party chief, Fuentes sits atop a vast network of political volunteers, hundreds of neighborhood activists who form the backbone of the Republican cause.
Fuentes, while not the tactical chief, is the spiritual leader.
“He makes you feel like your efforts are appreciated,” said Marcia Gilchrist, who started walking precincts for Republicans 34 years ago.
A few years back, Fuentes invited Gilchrist to attend a reception for one of her political heroes, former GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
At the reception, Goldwater thanked Gilchrist for her dedicated service and presented her a bouquet of roses.
Fuentes set the whole thing up.
Orange County’s volunteer army also provides Fuentes with a ready pool of talent for aspiring GOP staffers and elected officials. The offices of Orange County’s elected officials are dotted with Fuentes’ proteges, like Greg Haskins, an aide to Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), or Bill Christiansen, the party’s executive director.
Chief among those who got their start under Fuentes is Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who stacked chairs at Republican Central Committee meetings in the early 1980s.
“Tom is the encourager,” Pringle said. “He is always on the lookout for young people who want to serve Republican principles.”
But if Fuentes has one primary role as party chairman, it is to raise the money to keep the party going. This year, for instance, Fuentes tapped Crean--who hosted the Quayle fund-raiser--for $25,000.
“I don’t know why anybody takes my calls anymore,” Fuentes says.
Only half jokingly, Fuentes claims to be able to spot fellow Republicans just by looking at the way they keep their homes.
“I can tell you the registration of the people in the house by observing the neatness of the lawn, what cars are in the driveway,” Fuentes said. “And whether there is a leaky oil can in the driveway.”
Leaky oil can--that would be a Democrat.
In speeches, Fuentes rails against the “Westside liberals” and the “San Francisco Democrats” as if they were a disease. He chides GOP volunteers for not sporting Republican bumper stickers on their cars. His office is a shrine to the cause, with photos and statues and autographs of Republican icons such as Bush, Reagan, Nixon and Goldwater.
And he has almost always been that way. Fuentes walked his first precinct at age 12, passing out literature for Republican Rep. Gordon McDonough. He recalls being the only boy in his Catholic school who supported Nixon over Kennedy in 1960.
“I wore my ‘Nixon Now’ button to class,” he said.
Two years later, Fuentes met his idol at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
Fuentes was president of the Young Republicans at both Santa Ana and Chapman colleges and, at 22, won election to the county Central Committee.
Nixon remained a guiding star.
Years later, when the disgraced president returned to Orange County after his resignation, Fuentes greeted him when he landed at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
To this day, Nixon’s spirit seems to animate Fuentes. Close your eyes and listen to Fuentes, and you will hear precisely enunciated cadences of R.N.
“He models himself after Richard Nixon,” said Peer Swan, a Newport Beach businessman who has clashed with Fuentes. “He acts and talks like him, and has those big sweeping gestures like Richard Nixon.”
And politics consumes Fuentes with a Nixonian intensity.
Crean, the Newport Beach businessman, recalls the times he and Fuentes have gone sailing to Mexico aboard his yacht.
“We’ll all be up on the deck, having a nice time, and Tom will be lying up in his bunk reading political tracts,” Crean said. “Always nonfiction. Pretty dense stuff. Not for me.”
The only thing that rivals Fuentes’ zeal for the GOP is, perhaps, his commitment to the Roman Catholic Church.
A lifelong Catholic, Fuentes briefly studied to be a priest after the death of his boss, then-Supervisor Ronald W. Caspers, who drowned along with 10 others when his sailboat sank in 1974. Fuentes was supposed to be on that boat but canceled at the last minute.
After six months in the seminary, Fuentes walked away. He says he missed too much the rough-and-tumble of the secular world. He is married with three children and lives in Lake Forest.
But he did not quit the church. He is a founding member of the Food Distribution Center, a nonprofit enterprise run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society that hands out food to about 180,000 needy people. Each year, Fuentes organizes the No-Lunch Luncheon, a bare-bones fund-raiser for the center. And he carries necessities to poor families in Tijuana.
Father Bryan Walsh, who roomed with Fuentes at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, said Fuentes’ motivations, whether expressed in church or politics, emanate from the same source.
“He is motivated by a sense that what he is doing is making the world a better place,” Walsh said. “Of course, you might not agree that he is, but that’s his motivation.”
In the movie “Braveheart,” the 13th-century Scottish leader William Wallace inspires a peasant army to rise against their English oppressors in the face of overwhelming odds. In the end, the rebellion fails. Wallace is drawn and quartered.
“No one can understand what we are about as a movement until they see ‘Braveheart,’ ” Fuentes told a room full of Republicans at breakfast recently. “If you see the movie, you will see what it is we are fighting for.”
To Fuentes, the comparison is not whimsical. Despite the overwhelming success of the GOP in Orange County, despite its lopsided lead in registration, Fuentes sees the GOP as an embattled minority, as a party under siege by a biased press and encroaching Democrats. The vision is key to Fuentes’ success as party chairman: For 12 years, he has felt the liberals gaining ground, even as he pulled the party farther and farther ahead.
“We may have the numbers, but it is a struggle day in and day out,” Fuentes said. “We are the minority party in this state.”
The siege mentality is also the source of his all-or-nothing approach to politics that, to some, has poisoned public discourse.
Fuentes’ disdain for anyone to his left is nearly legendary, the examples legion:
* On former Assemblyman Tom Umberg, a Democrat: “I have met few individuals with a greater naked ambition and lack of character.”
* On Doris Allen, the former Republican assemblywoman and speaker who compromised with the Democrats: “She demonstrated a level of incompetence equaled by few.”
* On the resignation of Orange County CEO William J. Popejoy, who did the job for free: “We the people got what we paid for.”
* On former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson’s complaints that a “GOP mafia” was manipulating elections: “I feel very sad about Gil’s deterioration through the years.”
* On Democratic voters he says are unaware of the “evils” their party has perpetrated: “It’s a little like good Germans denying the existence of the Holocaust.”
The remark about the good Germans rankled some of Fuentes’ superiors in the Catholic Church. At the time, Fuentes was the diocese’s spokesman.
“I am embarrassed by Fuentes’ official connection with the Diocese of Orange,” Msgr. Wilbur Davis said.
In his drive to reduce the Democrats to political irrelevance, Fuentes has often taken on the role of GOP kingmaker.
The list of people who accuse Fuentes of trying to arm-twist them into abandoning bids for public office includes a host of loyal Republicans: Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer (R-Irvine), former Newport Beach Mayor Evelyn R. Hart, former Superior Court Judge Judith Ryan and management consultant Nathan Rosenberg.
All of them, at one time or another, sought the Republican nomination for public office. None heeded Fuentes’ advice, but only Brewer won the nomination.
“He said my business would be ruined, and that my husband’s business would be ruined,” said Ryan, a challenger to U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan for his seat in 1992. “I was taken aback.”
Fuentes calls Ryan’s charges “ridiculous,” but he does not deny that he tries to dissuade people from running against GOP officeholders.
“I am staunchly loyal to incumbents,” Fuentes said. “I make no excuses for that.”
Fuentes’ actions would seem to contradict his repeated assertions that the GOP hierarchy does not get involved in Republican races until after the party primary--an assertion that even a majority of county Republicans finds unbelievable, according to a Times Orange County Poll.
“I told him I thought he was stepping out of his role,” said Rosenberg, a founding member of the Orange County Young Republicans who challenged incumbent Robert E. Badham for Congress in 1988.
Fuentes’ explanation: Just because he offers advice to would-be candidates does not mean that the party is officially involved.
“I try to be straight with candidates,” he said. “If someone comes to me and tells me they want to run, and they don’t have what it takes, I will tell them. It is important for me not to give them false hope.”
Probably the most notorious of Fuentes’ political stunts involved the hiring of security guards to patrol predominantly Latino polling places in the Assembly district won by Curt Pringle in 1988.
The action sparked nearly universal outrage and led to a lawsuit by a group of Latino voters who said the guards intimidated them from casting ballots.
To this day, Fuentes, a sixth-generation son of Mexican immigrants, waves off the incident as little more than a minor error.
“I look back on it as an effort that was entirely well-intentioned but mistakenly implemented,” he said. “The only concern at the time was to preserve the sanctity of the ballot.”
Fuentes’ hardball style and hard-line views have left some Republicans, including a number of prominent women, wondering if they have a place in the party. His chief critics are Republican women who support abortion rights. Many of them say Fuentes has banished them.
“The party is run by a bunch of small-minded men without very high self-esteem,” said Eileen Padberg, a Republican political consultant who has clashed often with the party chief. “Tom Fuentes is totally out of step.”
Says Hart, the former Newport Beach mayor who supports abortion rights: “The most conservative positions--that’s the party platform. Tom Fuentes does a good job of voicing the party’s philosophy. . . . But it’s going to backfire.”
For Fuentes, politics has not always mixed easily with the other parts of his life. A longtime spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, Fuentes left shortly after the poll guards incident.
Both church officials and Fuentes said the incident had nothing to do with his departure, but some church leaders said they had grown uncomfortable with Fuentes’ dual role.
“It made us become part of the party, which we weren’t,” Msgr. John Sammon said at the time.
Until last year, Fuentes served for nearly 20 years as vice president of Robert Bein William Frost and Associates, a large Orange County engineering firm.
Fuentes performed mostly personnel work for the firm and sometimes lobbied public agencies for contracts. Fuentes had a trademark: a dozen long-stemmed roses for select local politicians.
“Do elected officials take my phone calls because I am party chairman?” Fuentes asked. “Yes. But the overwhelming majority of my work was internal.”
Earlier last year, Fuentes left the firm. He said he did so because he had an opportunity to sell his large stake in the company at a good price.
Company President Bob Kallenbaugh would not comment on the reasons for Fuentes’ departure, but he said the firm and Fuentes are on good terms.
Early last year, while still with the company, Fuentes lobbied members of the Anaheim City Council for the appointment of Tom Tait. Tait was appointed to the City Council in January 1995. Shortly afterward, in March 1995, Fuentes became a vice president at Tait and Associates, an Orange engineering firm where Tait is president.
Both Fuentes and Tait insist there was no link between Tait’s appointment to the council and Tait’s hiring of Fuentes a month later.
“I’m sensitive to what people might think,” Tait said. “There was absolutely no connection.”
So far, Fuentes’ tactics have yet to prompt a revolt within the party’s leadership. His hold on the GOP chairmanship seems as secure as ever.
It is Fuentes’ willingness to take on so many necessary but thankless jobs--fund-raising, schmoozing, speechmaking--that ensures his regular reelection as the party chief.
“When you think it might be time to get some fresh blood in there, you look around and there is just no one who would devote himself as effectively to the job as Tom,” said John M.W. Moorlach, the county treasurer-tax collector and assistant treasurer for the party.
Still, Fuentes says he probably won’t stay in the job forever. The only thing that prevents him from stepping down, he says, is that no one else has stepped forward.
Indeed, many of Fuentes’ friends say what he really wants is to be appointed to public office. So far that hasn’t happened, but Fuentes holds open the possibility that he might someday run.
On this, Fuentes seems uncharacteristically unenthusiastic.
“Any political office is just a brief moment in the sun,” he said. “The cause goes on after the personality is gone.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Making the Switch
Democrats say the pressure to become a Republican can be overwhelming in Orange County. Whether it’s the pressure, or a philosophical change of heart, some Democratic politicians and bureaucrats have made the switch. Most, however, don’t like to publicize their Democratic roots.
Former Democrats who are now Republicans:
Roger R. Stanton, Orange County supervisor (above left)
Switched in 1984 before being reelected to office that same year.
Jan Mittermeier, Orange County chief executive officer (above right)
Switched in 1995 several months before she was appointed to the county’s top job.
William G. Steiner, Orange County supervisor (above top)
Switched in 1984 while serving on the Orange Unified School District board. He was appointed to the Orange City Council in 1988.
Mark Leyes, Garden Grove city councilman
Switched in 1995. He is currently in a runoff for the 1st District Board of Supervisors seat.
Susan Withrow, Mission Viejo city councilwoman
Switched in 1995 before launching an unsuccessful bid for a Board of Supervisors seat in March.
Daniel Griset. Former Santa Ana city councilman
Switched in 1988 before running for reelection that same year.
Daniel H. Young. Former Santa Ana mayor
Switched in 1988 before running for reelection in 1990.
Tony Ingegneri. Garden Grove city councilman
Switched in 1995. He faces reelection this year.
Marilyn C. Brewer. Assemblywoman
Switched in 1987. She ran for 70th Assembly District seat in 1994.
Researched by MATT LAIT / Los Angeles Times