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Rumblings in the GOP

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

A group of GOP officeholders from around Orange County is rebelling against the local Republican Party to remake it into a broader-based organization, creating what could be the most serious challenge to party leadership in a decade.

The group, which includes Supervisor Charles V. Smith as well as city council members and school trustees, says party officials are narrow-minded and intolerant, and are out of touch with most Republicans.

The insurgent organization, called Republicans for New Directions, believes party leaders are alienating the GOP from its base by applying right-wing litmus tests to candidates.

New Directions has sought the support of Sheriff Brad Gates, the county’s most popular elected official. Gates, who has not endorsed the effort at this time, said he too is “unhappy with the exclusionary nature of party leaders.”

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“I have concerns about the health of the party,” said Gates, who attended one of the group’s meetings. “The reason movements like this arise is that leaders aren’t listening.”

The split between the party’s leadership and the group mirrors tensions in the GOP nationally and statewide, where social issues such as abortion, gun control, and school vouchers have divided otherwise like-minded conservatives.

Local Republican Party officials dismissed the insurrection as inconsequential, saying that group members have done no work for the party and can’t win GOP primaries.

“Every two years, these people pop up,” said Bill Christianson, the party’s executive director. “It is mostly school board members ticked off that conservatives ran against them.”

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The New Directions group is running 30 people for seats on the Republican Central Committee, the decision-making arm of the party. More importantly, half the slate consists of local elected officials well-known in their communities; among the others are former officeholders.

The group includes some well-to-do residents, including Robert and Martha Fluor of Newport Beach. Martha Fluor is a New Directions candidate for a committee seat. A political action committee has been formed to raise money, she said.

“In our group, we have Republicans of all stripes, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, gay and straight, and pro-private school and public school,” she said.

New Directions isn’t supporting candidates outside its central committee slate, but members say that ending the social conservatives’ stranglehold on the GOP apparatus would invigorate the party.

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“It is not a broad-based party anymore but has become a party of pro-life and pro-extreme Christian groups,” said Frank Ricchiazzi of Laguna Beach, a New Directions candidate and party member for 30 years.

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The disagreement reflects a struggle for political power as well as resentment that some party leaders--such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)--have recruited and backed ideological candidates to run in local nonpartisan city and school races against established Republicans.

“We are sick and tired of the party telling us who can be a candidate and who can’t be a candidate, and whether you are one of us or not,” said Smith, a former Westminster mayor who was opposed by party leaders in 1996 when he ran for supervisor. “This thing we are doing started quietly, but it has exploded.”

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GOP Vice Chairman Jo Ellen Allen objected to the group characterizing actions by party leaders as those of the party itself.

“Individual party leaders can do what they want,” she said. “That is called free speech and free association.”

While Republican outsiders for years have carped about the extremely clubby nature of the local party organization, the apparent broad-base behind this year’s discontent makes it different.

The group has held about a dozen meetings, including two fund-raisers, and counts some 40 elected leaders among its backers, said William Dougherty, a retired Marine colonel who is one of two New Directions members already on the central committee.

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“People are running from around the county because they are finally saying, ‘Enough,’ ” said Brea Councilwoman Bev Perry, president of the county branch of the League of Cities. “We need to be more inclusive and allow lots of people to run and let the people choose.”

The insurgents want the central committee in the hands of “mainstream Republicans” instead of what Smith called “a small clique” that has included “the wives, girlfriends and staff of elected officials.”

New Directions supporters said placing ideological limitations on candidates and colleagues--and a general antipathy to women candidates--could hamstring the GOP.

“Right now, they are riding high, but if you don’t maintain responsiveness, you are going to see the Republican Party atrophy in Orange County,” said Huntington Beach Councilman Ralph H. Bauer, a founder of the effort.

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He and others said the need to open up the party is underscored by changes in the county’s ethnic makeup, the growth of voters registering as independents as well as the UCI annual survey that shows people increasingly defining themselves as moderate.

In addition to ideological differences though, New Directions’ challenge reflects a bolder view of the role of local elected officials in party affairs. New Directions members say the party should be listening to Republicans who hold local public office, not ignoring them or running candidates against them in nonpartisan races.

Several criticized Rohrabacher for recruiting and backing young activists or short-term residents against longtime Republican city council or school board members in Huntington Beach.

Rohrabacher could not be reached for comment, but Jim Righeimer, his campaign director, called it “just good politics.”

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“Most legislators don’t want to bother with the local stuff, but Dana cares about it,” he said. “He should be involved in doing whatever he can to help candidates who have the same ideas [about education and local government] as he does.”

The New Directions movement started in Rohrabacher’s district about six months ago, then spread north and south. Among the first involved were Bauer and former Huntington Beach Mayor Ron Shenkman.

Shenkman said the group kept a lid on publicity about the effort for months. It even filed candidacy papers for all 30 members without drawing any notice until a Newport Beach columnist wrote a short item in mid-April about a meeting at the Fluors’ Newport Beach home.

"[GOP Party Chairman] Tom Fuentes called me and said: ‘What are you up to?’ ” Shenkman said. “Fuentes’ voice had an edge to it, and he asked me: ‘Have you ever made a contribution to the Republican Party? Are you a Republican?’ ”

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Fuentes was out of the country and could not be reached for comment, but GOP Vice Chairman Allen said he “has a right to call up anybody he wants.” She added that “politics is about disagreement and compromise and running and winning and losing, and the people of this group have a right to run.”

Shenkman and others emphasized that they don’t quarrel with Fuentes or his views. “It is the power structure that is the problem and he is part of it,” Shenkman said.

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The force of New Directions could come from its electoral strategy. There are seven assembly districts in the county; each elects six central committee members. The group is running four to six candidates as a slate in six of the districts. The candidates in each assembly district were selected for geographic diversity and will campaign to their own constituents for the entire slate. Eleven are school trustees and four serve on city councils.

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In a race where obscure party functionaries often win with fewer than 10,000 votes, New Directions is banking on voter recognition of current and former elected officials to carry some to victory.

“The idea will sustain itself if the voters want it to happen,” Bauer said. “If it dies it dies. Let the voters make the choice, not a small group of people serving in a room somewhere.”


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