Democrats Home In for O.C. Convention

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodney Dangerfield isn't the only one who's long struggled for respect. Just ask Orange County's Democrats.

But that will change later this month, when they get to play a starring role in their party's first-ever convention here, home of the state's third-largest concentration of Democratic voters.

"It is appropriate to have our first convention of the millennium in a county where we have never held it before," state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said.

"Orange County is a popular tourist attraction, but for us, it's a voter attraction. Orange County's changing not only demographically but politically."

Since the 1980s, Orange County has been largely dismissed by the party because Democrats make up less than a third of all voters here. Nothing was more symbolic than the days when local Democrats--pounded by the popularity of Republican Ronald Reagan--met at a Santa Ana eatery called Tiny's.

The GOP currently is home to 49% of the county's registered voters, with 216,199 more Republicans than Democrats, and most of the county's elected officials are Republicans. But the party slipped under 50% in September 1999 for the first time since 1984. Voters declining to state a political party have been the fastest-growing registration group for a decade.

Torres said the shift in Democratic fortunes was demonstrated in 1996 with the defeat of Republican firebrand Rep. Robert K. Dornan by Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), now serving her third term. Democratic Assemblyman Lou Correa and state Sen. Joe Dunn won their Central County seats in 1998.

While the county's Latino population has been strongly Democratic, the party gained support in the Vietnamese community in 1996 and 1998, due to perceived anti-immigrant rhetoric from statewide Republicans, chiefly former Gov. Pete Wilson.

Political observers expect Orange County to gain at least one Democratic-majority Assembly seat for 2002 after the state's Democrats in Sacramento redraw district boundaries this year. The likeliest target is the 68th Assembly District represented by Republican Ken Maddox.

Democrats account for 407,690 of Orange County's registered voters and hold three seats in the state and federal legislative delegations. As a bloc, they outnumber their counterparts in San Francisco County, the state's most Democratic stronghold, by 134,000 voters.

The convention is an opportunity to bring the party's message to nonaligned voters, who will be able to choose among party primary ballots in 2002, Torres said. After California's open primary system was overturned last year by the courts, party officials substituted a system where nonaligned voters can request primary ballots for a single party at polling places.

"We want them to know where we stand and what party ballot to ask for," Torres said.

The party also will concentrate voter registration drives in marginal Democratic areas, including Orange County, the state's Central Valley and the San Fernando Valley.

Among party officials scheduled to address the convention are Gov. Gray Davis and Terry McAuliffe, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Local officials include Sanchez, Dunn, Correa and Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly. Daly is one of three Central County Democratic mayors who represent the county's three largest cities.

State Democrats have invited New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she has not yet indicated whether she will attend.

About 3,000 Democratic delegates will convene in Anaheim for the three-day convention beginning March 30.

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Counting Voters

Orange County has the third-largest concentration of Democratic voters in the state despite its Republicans wide numerical edge. A look at currentregistration figures:

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