Congress Loses One of Its Leading Characters
It seemed like he had been with us forever and would be with us forever more, a legend on the political landscape of Orange County and America. He was the good, the bad or the ugly, depending on whom you asked.
Robert K. Dornan, a nine-term Republican congressman from Orange County, has lost his bid for reelection. The final death knell came Friday afternoon, 17 days after the polls closed, as the last scattered ballots from the 46th Congressional District were tallied.
Dornan fell to upstart Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a 36-year-old Latina boosted by Bill Clinton, who once suggested the GOP political bulldog needed “a rabies shot.”
Congress will never be quite the same again.
A former Air Force pilot, Dornan was “B-1 Bob” to foes and even some friends, a nickname that stuck after he became a top pitchman for the 1980s-era jet bomber. He was a conservative icon to legions of Republicans across the country who caught his late-night C-SPAN act from the floor of Congress or mercurial fill-in appearances on the Rush Limbaugh radio show.
Dornan gained a national following in part for his single-minded stands against abortion, gay rights and liberalism and his fervent support of the military, anti-communism and gun rights.
He was electric, a 10,000-volt dynamo, and sometimes just flat outrageous.
He once jostled with a congressional Democrat after accusing him of being a draft dodger; Dornan explained tongue in cheek that he was just straightening the man’s tie. During his successful 1992 reelection campaign he declared that “every lesbian spear-chucker in this country is hoping I get defeated.” Dornan claimed to have nearly drowned trying to swim the waters off Chappaquiddick to disprove Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s infamous story. He called Clinton a wimp who jogged in “girlie-girlie” shorts exposing “white doughboy thighs.”
Despite such antics, Dornan hated being considered colorful, figuring it boxed him in, trivialized his pursuit of what was honest and right. Even bitter foes begrudgingly admitted Dornan called it as he saw it. You always knew where his blunderbuss was aimed.
He traveled the world to witness firsthand the doings of foreign affairs, becoming one of the most die-hard congressional critics of communism. On the domestic front, Dornan clambered atop the most volcanic of causes. He was passionately anti-abortion, doggedly anti-feminist, unremittingly anti-gay.
“Bob Dornan was fearless in taking on any issue no matter what the political tide,” said Brian Bennett, a former top aide for a dozen years. “He has an unbridled passion for speaking out on what he believes in.”
Bennett said Dornan also was “more than a bit player in helping lay the groundwork for the Reagan revolution,” almost single-handedly saved the B-1 bomber--and hundreds of aerospace jobs in the Los Angeles basin--and fanned funding for “freedom fighters” in Cambodia, Nicaragua and other erstwhile Communist strongholds.
Dornan also was a formidable fund-raiser who drew a measure of political independence from a nationwide direct-mail operation that torpedoed “ultra-left liberals” and “radical feminists” to raise millions of dollars from an adoring coterie of conservative contributors. Over the years, Dornan said he raised at least $13 million from the operation, much of it from mom-and-pop donors.
But against Sanchez, he scrambled for dollars. From the beginning, Dornan was off his game. A disastrous long-shot presidential bid--he never got more than 1% of the vote in any primary--distracted him and drained his campaign coffers. He failed to even send out a fund-raising letter for his congressional reelection effort until August. By election day, he had raised at most $400,000. He boasted it was all he would need.
Politics, however consuming, wasn’t everything to Dornan. He loved to talk about his five children and 10 grandchildren.
There were problems. His wife, Sallie, filed for divorce four times, claiming Dornan had physically abused her. But they always reconciled, and today the family unanimously contends the violence never happened. Sallie Dornan says the allegations were the result of her own past problems with alcoholism and prescription drugs.
In this year’s campaign, the grandchildren were a feature of brochures. His children ran the fund-raising operation and coordinated his campaign. His wife was the campaign manager.
Dornan is also a devout Catholic. He once built a shrine to the Virgin Mary in his backyard. Dornan talks reverently and often about how his 100th birthday--he fully intends to be around to celebrate it--will coincide with the 2,000th anniversary of the crucifixion of Christ.
Born in New York, Dornan moved west with his family. His mother was a Ziegfeld showgirl. Dornan’s father was a former military man, New York haberdashery owner and West Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur. Dornan also was the nephew of Jack Haley, the Tinman in “The Wizard of Oz.”
An unbridled showman, Dornan was trained in the theater arts when he was growing up in Beverly Hills. He sharpened his acting and oratory skills at Loyola Marymount University and in community theater. Long before politics, he appeared on the 1960s TV series “12 O’Clock High” and had his own TV talk show.
Dornan broke into politics by sweeping into Congress in 1977, representing West Los Angeles. When the district disappeared in the reapportionment process in the early 1980s, Dornan moved to his Orange County district and was elected in 1984.
A inveterate history buff, his oratory can be long-winded and rife with the most minute detail. Stream of consciousness is his style.
Dornan cautions that no one should confuse his passion for anger.
“I am the guy crying that the cat is naked, that the emperor has no clothes,” he said last week.
How he loved catcalling at the emperor.
His hatred for Clinton was spawned during the 1992 presidential race. Dornan was one of many to push then-President George Bush to attack Clinton on character issues. And the congressman took it upon himself to personally carry the sword against Clinton.
Dornan called him a womanizer, a liar, a triple draft dodger, a drug abuser and someone who gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam War. The latter comment, made on the House floor this year, led to his loss of privileges for the balance of the day.
A vociferous opponent of gays in the military, Dornan sought unsuccessfully in the current Congress to overturn Clinton’s policy on the issue, but his efforts were ultimately derailed. A measure to limit the role of women in combat was softened, as were costly requirements on the federal government to investigate claims of POW/MIA families.
Dornan also had a tiff with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, suffering the ignominious setback of not being named to this year’s House/Senate conference committee on the defense bill. Dornan angered the speaker by backing an anti-abortion congressional candidate in a GOP primary in New York State against incumbent Rep. Sue Kelly, an abortion rights supporter endorsed by Gingrich.
He also irked colleagues by interrupting for an hour the House floor proceedings on the transportation appropriations bill to wage an ongoing feud with Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who is openly gay.
His relentless attacks on abortion and gay rights played a role in his loss, as these groups joined others to coalesce against him. David M. Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian lobby group in Washington, typified the anger. “It’s no secret,” he said, “that Bob Dornan is the most vitriolic, mean-spirited, anti-gay member of Congress.”
Wither now Dornan?
There are murmurs of a talk show on one of the big Los Angeles radio stations. Some supporters suggest Dornan ought to run against Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate. And there are rumblings of a rerun against Sanchez in 1998.
Even foes fear this isn’t the end. Said Tricia Primrose, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: “I don’t think for a minute that we have heard the last of Bob Dornan.”
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Gebe Martinez and Nancy Cleeland.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Loretta Sanchez’s margin over Rep. Robert K. Dornan was 1% of the nearly 95,000 votes they split:
Loretta Sanchez: 47,964
Robert K. Dornan: 46,980
Source: Orange County registrar of voters
Orange County’s most hotly contested congressional race was close throughout election night and into the next morning. Democrat Loretta Sanchez finally overcame Rep. Robert K. Dornan when all absentee ballots were tallied. Here’s how the vote developed:
Date Time Sanchez lead Note Nov. 5 8:33 p.m. -785 10:37 562 10:49 537 11:06 483 11:13 548 11:29 418 11:37 276 11:47 224 11:51 309 11:59 98 Nov. 6 12:33 a.m. 432 1:08 386 3:01 -301 3:17 21 5:11 -233 Dornan declares victory Nov. 12 929 Late absentee ballot partial count Nov. 13 765 Final absentee ballot count Nov. 15 665 Permanent “mail-in” ballot count* Nov. 22 984 Provisional ballot count**
* Ballots from precincts too small to have a polling place
** Absentee ballots requiring signature verification
Source: Orange County registrar of voters; Researched by DICK LEWIS / For The Times
“This is a shock to me and another indication of something fishy. . . . I am loaded for bear. I am going to come back and begin fighting right away.”
--Robert K. Dornan
“It’s not his seat, it’s not my seat. It’s the district’s seat, and that’s what he needs to realize.”
“This was a hard-fought victory for Loretta. I don’t think for a minute that we have heard the last of Bob Dornan.”
--Trisha Primrose, spokeswoman for the National Democratic Campaign Committee
“It is a sad thing but life goes on. We all live with change. We are not sitting here crying.”
--Pat Fanelli, a Dornan aide since 1984
“Dornan was not a consensus builder. He was not a builder of majority coalitions. He was a man out of talk radio and made for talk radio. It’s a style of talking more than listening.”
--Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution
“After channel surfing after midnight at home, I will miss Bob’s outrageous, although sometimes humorous, speeches.”
--Rep. Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico), referring to Dornan’s fiery remarks regularly broadcast on C-SPAN
“Bob Dornan, for those of us who know him and understand him, believes that he fills a unique role on some of the most controversial issues. He stands tall and strong among the sequoias.”
--The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim
“He’s one of the few who have the guts to stand up for what’s right.”
--Carol Hrdlicka, a Dornan friend whose husband was shot down over Laos in 1965
Bob’s Greatest Hits
Rep. Robert K. Dornan’s remarks have repeatedly brought him national attention. Here’s a sampler of controversial statements he’s made during his 18-year career in the House:
On election night, 1996, to a near-empty GOP ballroom, still behind by 300 votes: “Officially, for what it’s worth, at 12:16 a.m., I claim victory.”
On election night, 1996, 4:03 a.m.: “Forget B-1 Bob Dornan. I am Laaandslide Dornan. Laaandslide Dornan.”
On his victorious opponent, Loretta Sanchez, and her campaign, following the Nov. 5 election:
* She “ran a dirty campaign and she is unqualified.”
* “I will not concede to an inarticulate, flaky, nonqualified person.”
* “She’s a liar.”
On Vice President Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and President Clinton, in a “Wizard of Oz” analogy, in 1992: “Gore is searching for a brain. Hillary is searching for a heart. Clinton is searching for Dorothy.”
On President Clinton: “The commander in chief is jogging in San Francisco in his slit-up-the-side silk girlie-girlie jogging pants showing us those beautiful white doughboy thighs of his.”
On the House floor in 1992, during the presidential campaign, Dornan told colleagues he would “discuss the pathetic attempt of Gov. Bill Clinton to avoid his past history as a calculating draft dodger...”
On Clinton, January 1995: “Clinton gave aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam War.” Dornan was censured by colleagues for the remark.
On Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, the Michael Jackson sex scandal and Paula Jones’ allegations against President Clinton, in 1994: “It’s the Year of the Penis.”
On the campaign against him:
* “What beat me was more homosexual money than in any race in history, including from a group called Lesbians for Motherhood.”
* An organized effort to register voters by a Latino citizenship group and the Democratic Party could have led to “the first case in history where a congressional election was decided by noncitizens.”
* “Perhaps we should impound all these ballots, ship them to Washington, then have the House of Representatives run a giant Cray computer comparison on the entire voting list to find out if all these voters are citizens.”
On attorney William Dougherty, a member of the Orange County Republican Central Committee who supported Democrat Loretta Sanchez, confronting him at a meeting on Nov. 18: “You’re a disgrace to your baptism. You’re a poor excuse for a Marine. You’re a pathetic, old, senile man. You’re a slimy coward. Go register in another party.”
On his plans to run against Sanchez again in 1998, in a Nov. 20 article published in the Wall Street Journal: “For the next year, 11 months and seven days, I will be on her case.”
On a book by Steve Gunderson,
the first openly gay Republican congressman, in August: “I don’t think the book has a prayer of selling--totally squat. I’ve watched homosexual books fail and the ones that succeed in the homosexual community have to be, quote, raw, hot sex.”
On Ron Kovic, a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran who had considered running against Dornan in 1990: “If [Kovic] hadn’t been shot, he’d have been strutting about his two tours of Vietnam.”
On his 1992 primary campaign against moderate Republican Judith M. Ryan, who received funding from national women’s groups: “Every lesbian spear-chucker in America is hoping I get defeated.” (He later amended the statement: “I meant to say ‘spear carrier,’ and everyone knows that.”)
* On film director Oliver Stone: “A Bolshevik enemy.”
* On Soviet commentator Vladimir Posner: “A disloyal betraying little Jew,” a statement for which Dornan later apologized.
* On a colleague wearing sunglasses at night on the House floor: “I feel like I’m in a Mexican nightclub.”
* On talk show host Phil Donahue: “A boot-licking wimp.”
Source: Times and other reports; Researched by RENEE TAWA / Los Angeles Times
What’s Next in the 46th District Election
* On Nov. 26, registrar expected to certify election results.
* After county certification, California secretary of state reviews results.
* When state review is complete, results are turned over to the U.S. House of Representatives, the sole judge of elections involving its members.
* House Oversight Committee has power to investigate contested congressional elections and recommend results be overturned. If such a recommendation is made, the entire House would have to vote.
* By end of December, Dornan vacates his district office.
* Jan. 7, Loretta Sanchez scheduled to be sworn in.
WHAT ABOUT A RECOUNT?
An individual or organization seeking a recount would have to pay $358 per day. Officials cannot estimate how long a recount would take. The last one, in 1986, lasted 14 days.
Sources: Orange County registrar of voters, Times reports; Researched by JOHN CANALIS / For The Times
Democrat Loretta Sanchez, 36, a political novice, and Rep. Robert K. Dornan, 63, an 18-year congressman, had clear differences of opinion in their campaigns for the 46th Congressional District seat:
Loretta Sanchez Robert K. Dornan President Clinton Backed by the president Outspoken critic of the president Abortion Supports abortion rights Opposes abortion Death penalty Supports Favors death penalty in rare instances such as treason, rape-murder and torture-murder Gay rights Supports Opposes gays in the military Gun control Supports handgun Opposes ban on and assault weapon control semiautomatic weapons Pet issues Public safety End abortion by constitutional ban
Source: Times reports; Researched by RENEE TAWA / Los Angeles Times