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In newly blue Orange County, an elementary school librarian thanks President Trump

In newly blue Orange County, an elementary school librarian thanks President Trump
Honour Del Crognale, a Tustin elementary school librarian, is a first-time Democratic activist who threw herself into Katie Porter's campaign against Rep. Mimi Walters in California's 45th District. It's no longer so lonely to be a Democrat in Orange County. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The big orange “Katie Porter” sign is gone from the frontyard of Honour Del Crognale’s home in Tustin.

It’s been replaced by four big vintage light-up Santas, clustered like a choir near the front door.

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“I think one is tacky, but a bunch of them make a statement,” Del Crognale told me when I visited her on Wednesday.

Del Crognale, 54, is an elementary school librarian and mother of two, who loves to help kids get excited about reading. She collects ABC books and vintage toys, and displays them in her entry in a tall glass china cabinet.

She grew up in a Republican household in what she described as “Reagan Country” — the Balboa Peninsula, near the legendary Wedge surf spot in Newport Beach.

“Republicans were different back then,” she said. “They were socially liberal, and not evangelical at all.”

We met on election day at Porter headquarters in a Tustin industrial park.

The polls had run more or less consistently in Porter’s favor, so her supporters were confident that the UC Irvine consumer law professor would topple the two-term incumbent, GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, a former investment banker who was the only Orange County Republican in Congress to vote for President Trump’s tax cut.

As excited as all those Porter volunteers were that day, there was something even more revved up about Del Crognale. She was practically bouncing in her shoes as she gave canvassers information about where to knock on doors in a last-minute attempt to get out the vote in the 45th Congressional District, which includes Irvine, Tustin and Mission Viejo.

She’d been a very quiet Democrat who had always watched with interest but hadn’t participated.

After Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, and Del Crognale’s college-age daughter called home sobbing that night, she felt she could not sit on the sidelines anymore.

The day after Trump’s inauguration, she marched for the first time in her life, at the Women’s March in Santa Ana. It was a revelation.

“Democrats are very quiet here because you don’t want to get yelled at or have a confrontation,” she said. “It was so wonderful to see so many people out there from our own town, people you didn’t know felt the way you did. That was the gobsmack.”

It was almost like the coming-out party for a secret society. Recalling the experience, she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper: “You are one of us.

::

Election night was fraught for Porter and her volunteers.

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They gathered at the Irvine Hilton for what was to be a celebration, but it soon became clear that Porter was trailing her opponent.

At the end of the night, she was behind Walters by more than 6,000 votes.

“Katie got up to speak and it sounded like a concession, but I don’t think it really was,” Del Crognale said. “It was our first campaign and we all felt like we saw so much enthusiasm, so how could we lose? No one wanted a drink.”

Deflated, she and her husband, Greg, went to In-N-Out, where they ran into a bunch of other Tustin Democrats, including activist Lee Fink, who calmed them down.

“He told us there are still a lot of votes to count and it’s not over yet,” Del Crognale said.

When she got home, though, she yanked out her Katie Porter sign and stuck it in the garage.

A few days later, as counting continued and the race started to tighten, she put the sign back out.

On Nov. 15, Porter was declared the victor. In the end, she held 52% of the vote to Walters’ 48%.

“I did scream,” Del Crognale said. “I’m always screaming. To be truly candid, I did it as much for me as I did to get Katie elected. It was such a positive experience, and it makes me want to keep doing it. There is so much to fix.”

::

It always makes me a little sad when I hear people say they are afraid to reveal their true political feelings. For years, though, I have heard from suburban Democrats in Orange County that they feel isolated. It’s the flip side of the complaint that conservatives feel muffled in liberal places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, college campuses or that amorphous community called “Hollywood.”

In California, Republicans really do have reason to feel lonely. As of November, Democrats had a 20-point registration advantage over Republicans, who are outnumbered even by voters who decline to state a party preference.

GOP political power is shrinking like wet cashmere in a hot dryer. Among California’s 53-member congressional delegation, there are only seven Republicans — not even enough to field a softball team, as my colleague Mark Z. Barabak pointed out.

And not a single one is from Orange County, which was so red for so long that victorious Democrats seem almost too shocked to crow.

“I still feel like I am living among Republicans,” Del Crognale said. “It’s still hard to talk about politics. I’ve been friends with people who are Republican my whole life. But if you know someone is a big Trump supporter and it’s someone you really like, you can’t unknow that.”

She is especially appalled by the dark undercurrents of racism and intolerance that Trump has not just unleashed but normalized.

“Do you remember Strom Thurmond? You think, no one can ever be that racist. And when he dies, that school of thought is going to die with him. And then it doesn’t.”

As we sat in her cheerful kitchen over a plate of chocolate chip cookies, Del Crognale said something I have heard from many Orange County Democrats lately: I didn’t think this could ever happen here. In a perverse way, she credits Trump.

“If Orange County can turn blue — and it does give you a weird thrill to see it — this horrible, horrible, horrible period, maybe, will have a point,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Trump getting elected, people would not have gotten involved in this way. Maybe that’s the silver lining.”

She has a point.

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