Robert W. Battin, a maverick Democratic county supervisor during a rough-and-tumble era of Orange County politics in the 1960s and '70s, died Tuesday. He was 78.
The cause of death was a heart attack while recovering from a stroke, said his friend and onetime fiance, Rachel Perry. He died early in the morning at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.
When he was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 1968 after two failed campaigns for the state Senate and Assembly, Battin became the first Democrat on the county board since the Great Depression. His political career ended eight years later when he was convicted on a single count of a seven-count indictment charging him with misusing his county staff to run for lieutenant governor.
Battin said he was targeted for prosecution by an overzealous Republican district attorney because he was a Democrat. He called the district attorney, Cecil Hicks, the "chief soldier of the Orange County Republican Mafia." Hicks died last year.
Despite Battin's conviction -- for which Perry said he served 30 days in jail -- Battin liked to boast that he persuaded the State Bar to let him keep his law license because he had been "persecuted, not prosecuted," as Stan Oftelie, who has been working on a historical record of the county's supervisors, recalled Tuesday.
Battin continued to maintain a private law practice handling small civil matters in Santa Ana, just blocks from the civic center where he once served as supervisor.
In office, Battin, who represented the central county, championed a progressive agenda. It included implementing rent control for mobile home park residents, spurring construction of low-cost housing, limiting the power of real estate developers and banning smoking in government buildings. He led an effort to cancel a plan that would have allowed the development of Upper Newport Bay, which was subsequently designated as an ecological reserve.
"He had a much more liberal agenda than anything they had ever seen in Orange County," Oftelie said.
Said Perry: "There's few guys that were so selfless in trying to help the underdog. He wasn't about money and material things, he was about doing the right thing."
Jerry Patterson, a former Democratic congressman from Santa Ana, said he got to know Battin when they both ran for the county board seat in 1968, and Battin beat him.
"I don't think he was a great friend of the builders, particularly at that point," Patterson said. "I think he was on the environmental side of a lot of issues, so he kind of stuck out, either as a courageous man or a sore thumb, depending on your point of view."
Battin also was an outdoors and athletics enthusiast, pursuing all manner of sporting activities, including fishing, hiking, skiing and running.
Battin was born in Seattle in 1929 and served in the Navy. He attended the University of Washington and earned his law degree at Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley.
He worked for the IRS in Los Angeles and then moved to Orange County to launch his law practice and political career.
Battin lived in Capistrano Beach. He is survived by a brother, Richard; a nephew, Rick; three nieces, Apryl, Jana and Robyn; and a cousin, Yvonne Drues, all of Washington.