It was a Halloween party for the reddest Republicans in Orange County, thrown by county GOP chief Scott Baugh.
Into the 2005 gathering strode Mike Schroeder, one of Orange County’s most powerful and enigmatic Republican political players, cloaked as Star Wars’ villain Darth Vader, black helmet and all.
“After we figured out who he was, we all got a good laugh,” recalled political consultant Matt Cunningham. “But I think Mike got the biggest kick of all.”
Schroeder, 50, revels in his reputation as the enforcer of Orange County Republican politics, acquaintances and party insiders say. It’s a role that stretches back at least a decade to the days when Schroeder was climbing in the party ranks, eventually serving as the state chairman.
Working with candidates, often as an unpaid advisor, he has shaped many successful campaigns, formulating broad strategies as well as thinking out every detail. And for the last decade, he has been the power broker Orange County candidates must appeal to if they want the Republican Party’s blessing -- and the big-business campaign contributions that come with it, Cunningham and others say. Schroeder can also be ruthless when crossed, say those who have stepped outside the party leadership’s good graces.
A USC-trained lawyer who made his fortune selling malpractice insurance to chiropractors, Schroeder isn’t hesitant to file lawsuits when he believes he has been wronged. In recent years, he has sued a former landlord, his home warranty company and an airline that lost his luggage. A decade ago, in a dispute involving a family business, he sued his own mother.
Among those Schroeder has helped put into office over the years are Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (now the mayor of Anaheim) and Baugh, who served in the Assembly before becoming the county party chairman.
At the local government level, Schroeder has focused on law enforcement races. Eight years ago, he helped Sheriff Mike Carona and Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas win office. Since then, he has served as a political advisor and sometimes spokesman for both men, helping them weather a series of controversies.
Schroeder’s rise to prominence came with the wave of socially conservative Republicans who briefly assumed control of the Assembly in the mid-1990s, when Schroeder’s protege, Pringle, became speaker.
His supporters say that Schroeder’s critics resent his success. “If you are on the other side, you’re not going to be pleased with people who are effective,” said Doug Boyd, treasurer of the Los Angeles Lincoln Club and a 19-year acquaintance of Schroeder’s. “Mike is effective.”
Despite his many political victories, Schroeder has deeply divided the Orange County GOP leadership, many Republicans say.
Detractors say Schroeder leads a small cadre of party officials who effectively control who runs for office in Republican-dominated Orange County, shutting out credible and respected candidates who aren’t in lock-step with his wing of the party.
Former Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who retired in 1994, is one of many old-line Republicans who view the Schroeder-led “Republican mafia” with distaste. “He can kill you if you are a politician or a candidate,” Ferguson said.
Critics point to Schroeder’s central role last year in maneuvering an endorsement vote by the Orange County Central Committee for Carona, whom he helped put in office eight years earlier.
In March, when the committee first voted on endorsements, Schroeder pushed for Carona.
However, the two-term sheriff’s tenure had been marked by controversy, including allegations of sexual misconduct and political cronyism, both of which Carona has denied. Many Republican leaders thought it was time for a change, and so were backing Lt. William Hunt, a 22-year deputy who also had the backing of rank-and-file deputies.
Hunt’s supporters successfully urged the committee not to endorse anyone in the primary, a clear defeat for Schroeder and Carona.
But Schroeder refused to go down without a fight. He lined up enough votes to secure the endorsement for Carona and called for a second vote the following month. With the committee’s stamp of approval, Carona went on to defeat Hunt and two other challengers in the primary with a 51% vote, thus avoiding a runoff.
The morning after the election, the sheriff put Hunt on administrative leave and later told him he was being reassigned as a patrol officer, with a substantial pay cut. Hunt took retirement rather than be demoted.
“It’s not about whether a candidate is the best candidate,” said Nancy Padberg, an Orange County lawyer who sits on the committee. “Schroeder’s whole motivation is to keep his powerhouse going.”
Tim Whitacre, a committee member who supported Hunt, is similarly critical. “Carona has been a fiasco and he needed to go,” Whitacre said. “But for too long, folks just went along with Schroeder.”
Cunningham, who has commented on the feud on Orange County political blogs, believes that those who disparage Schroeder are frustrated by his success. “He’s smarter than them and he’s better at politics, so they say he must be breaking the rules,” Cunningham said.
Schroeder and his wife, Susan Kang Schroeder, declined to talk to The Times, accusing the paper of bias. Schroeder followed up his refusal to talk by sending out an e-mail asking the couple’s friends and political allies not to talk to The Times for this story.
Repeated attempts to reach Carona and Rackauckas for comment went unanswered .
Schroeder came of age in the 1970s, just as the Republican Party was consolidating its grip on Orange County public offices. Politics has been his passion since he was a teenager, associates say.
He worked on Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and volunteered for local Republican organizations while in high school, stepping up his involvement while getting a law degree at USC.
Schroeder owns a thriving chiropractic insurance firm in Santa Ana, using his legal talents as necessary, associates say. His political work is an unpaid hobby, something he does for the thrill of the game.
“He’s sort of a political chess player,” Boyd said. “He thinks things through several steps ahead.”
Besides volunteering on individual campaigns, Schroeder worked in the California Republican Assembly, a conservative faction that gained power statewide in the 1980s and ‘90s.
During that time, he was co-chairman of a successful recall campaign targeting Doris Allen, a former Republican assemblywoman and first female speaker of the Assembly, who was considered disloyal for working with Democrats.
Schroeder has acknowledged that he plays hard but says he always stays within the rules.
Not everyone agrees.
Wylie Aitken, a Democratic operative, said Schroeder went beyond hardball politics in 1996 while serving first as a campaign strategist, and then attorney, for former Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Santa Ana).
Dornan’s campaign alleged voter fraud in Democratic challenger Loretta Sanchez’s victory over him, said Aitken, who represented Sanchez during the 15-month legal fight that ensued.
At one point, Aitken alleged in court documents that Schroeder and Dornan’s other attorneys falsified subpoenas to obtain records to which the Dornan campaign was not entitled. Dornan’s legal team denied the charges, but a federal judge ordered that the records be returned sealed.
“It took 15 months and a great deal of effort to refute these charges” of voter fraud, Aitken said, adding that the Republican House eventually dismissed the charges. “Loretta was under a cloud all of that time.”
Schroeder became state party chairman in 1997. But the socially conservative Republicans with whom he most closely identified had seen their power crest. Now it was starting to wane.
He was at the GOP’s helm the following year when it suffered crushing losses to the Democrats. Republicans lost seats in the Legislature and their 16-year lock on the statehouse with Gray Davis’ win over Republican Dan Lungren.
Schroeder had more luck on his home turf that year, helping to elect two of Orange County’s most powerful politicians, Carona and Rackauckas.
Schroeder still serves as a political advisor to both men and has greatly expanded his influence in their offices, former allies and employees say. According to campaign finance reports, he is not paid by either man.
Shortly after taking office, Rackauckas hired Schroeder’s then-fiance, Susan Kang, as a prosecutor. Rackauckas later selected Kang Schroeder, who by then had married Schroeder, to head up his media operation, a $127,000-a-year position she still holds.
The couple live in a $1.3-million Corona del Mar home, where they “eat, sleep and dream politics,” associates say. Both are sports fanatics who try to attend every USC football game. He drives a black Hummer, and the couple eat in the best restaurants and order fine wines.
Kang Schroeder, 38, immigrated from South Korea as a child and graduated from Mission Viejo High School. She dabbled in journalism at USC before getting a law degree at the University of San Diego.
Associates say that she is just as passionate about politics as her husband, and that both are frequently seen at Republican Party events. She drives a black Porsche and has a ribald sense of humor, acquaintances say.
Friends and associates say Schroeder wields his political skills most effectively on the campaign trail. He is good at pulling people together and organizing the nuts and bolts of a race, several acquaintances say.
Even Hunt, Carona’s challenger, said he admires the man’s political chops. What he and others object to is what happens when someone bucks the system. “You can do what you want to manipulate the system,” Hunt said. “But misuse of power can only go so far. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.”
Wally Wade, a former prosecutor who twice challenged Rackauckas, knows what it’s like to feel Schroeder’s sting. He was demoted and ultimately transferred out of the district attorney’s office after his unsuccessful runs.
Schroeder made sure that Wade knew who was responsible for his defeat, Wade said.
The morning after he lost to Rackauckas, a messenger delivered an envelope to Wade’s home. The only thing in it was Michael Schroeder’s business card, he said. “Nothing else,” he said. “It was like something out of ‘The Godfather.’ ”