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Can this Riverside County Libertarian make a fringe party mainstream?

Can this Riverside County Libertarian make a fringe party mainstream?
Jeff Hewitt is the Riverside County supervisor for District 5. He is the most powerful Libertarian ever elected in the United States. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Libertarian Party’s reputation for attracting exotics is infamous in political circles.

There’s the candidate in San Francisco who has run for multiple local offices under the name Starchild. The 2016 presidential hopeful who wanted marijuana taxes to fund “galactic expansion for generations.” The aspirant with purple-blue skin borne from his constant consumption of colloidal silver, a putative cure for cancer.

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But recently elected Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt just might be the strangest Libertarian of them all: a politician capable of winning elections who could move the party from the fringes into the mainstream.

In November’s election, the 65-year-old grandfather and two-term Calimesa council member beat former Republican Assembly member Russ Bogh, despite being outspent 2 to 1. Now, Hewitt is in a position where his party’s gospel — lower taxes, slashed pensions, fewer regulations and more privatization — could get put into practice in Riverside County, which has a $5.6-billion budget and a population larger than those of 11 states.

A swimming-pool contractor by trade, Hewitt is now the most powerful Libertarian ever elected in the United States. Though party members have served as mayors, district attorneys, and even state senators, only two people before — both city council members in a Minneapolis suburb — had represented an area of more than 50,000 residents. Hewitt’s District 5 holds 438,000.

His rise has thrilled Libertarians nationwide, who feel their man can bring respectability to a party long dismissed as being a group of free-market-loving Ayn Rand fanboys with little chance of ever winning anything important.

“It’s huge,” said Libertarian Party of California Chair Mimi Robson. “It shows that a Libertarian is not a crazy, offshoot third-party thing, but a legitimate choice.”

Longtime Republican strategist Mike Madrid said it’s easy to dismiss Hewitt’s victory as a fluke that happened during an election cycle in which California’s Republican Party got clobbered in traditional strongholds such as Orange County, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

But he thinks Hewitt “seems to have the recipe” for how the Libertarian Party can carry the mantle of conservatism in California as the Republican Party continues its decline: Focus on local issues and stop “being a hater.”

“It may be more unique than not, but that’s how these trends start,” he said of Hewitt’s upset victory. “It’s like baseball stats: It’s not a thing until it’s a thing. And then it’s a thing to watch.”

Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, said Hewitt’s success shows that Libertarian candidates could “build a pipeline to higher office” by first winning nonpartisan local races for school boards, city councils and other local positions. Some of those officeholders then could form the next generation of state legislators and congresspersons.

“As the national brand of Republicanism has become increasingly anti-education, anti-science and anti-fiscal responsibility, I find more and more former Republicans who don't want a one-party state,” Balma said. To fill a third-party role, she added, “the Libertarian Party would need to define itself and market itself.”

Hewitt, for his part, still can’t believe his good fortune — but he plans to make the most of it.

“The one thing about being a Libertarian is that you have a delusional optimism that you have a chance to win,” he said.

Broadening his party’s appeal to a national audience, Hewitt suggested, hinges on convincing voters that Libertarians — not Donald Trump or the new crop of activist Democrats — are the torchbearers of liberty and social progress.

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“I offer true conservative values: smaller government and non-interventionism,” he said. “We have real values that are measurable, consistent and not just the flavor of the month.”

Broadening the Libertarian Party’s appeal nationally, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt suggested, hinges on convincing voters that Libertarians — not Donald Trump or the new crop of activist Democrats — are the torchbearers of liberty and social progress.
Broadening the Libertarian Party’s appeal nationally, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Hewitt suggested, hinges on convincing voters that Libertarians — not Donald Trump or the new crop of activist Democrats — are the torchbearers of liberty and social progress. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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Hewitt was sworn into his new position Jan. 8, the first meeting of the year for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Fellow winners Karen Spiegel and V. Manuel Perez had judges preside over their ceremonies. Hewitt went with Nicholas Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee, the party’s governing body, on which Hewitt serves as a representative for California and Nevada.

Before swearing in Hewitt, Sarwark lectured the packed chamber about pension reform — a Libertarian battle cry ­­— and how his candidate was “one of maybe a handful of people around the country” who understood the issue.

Then Hewitt won the room over with an off-the-cuff speech speckled with jokes, asides, and praise of the board’s ethnic and ideological diversity. He didn’t offer much in terms of a vision, saying only that he would bring “fresh ideas” and a promise to always say the truth “the way I see it.” But his audience rewarded Hewitt’s folksy delivery with loud applause.

Born in Redlands, Hewitt is a Libertarian lifer. He enrolled in 1972, the year the party ran its first-ever presidential candidate, USC philosophy professor John Hospers. Hewitt didn’t agree with Richard Nixon’s Vietnam War policy, but believed Democratic candidate George McGovern was “Bernie [Sanders] before Bernie” — too leftist for the mainstream.

He credits his political awakening more to life experience than to poring over dense ideological tracts. From first to fourth grade, Hewitt attended a one-room school in the apple orchard community of Oak Glen, just down the road from Calimesa. His dad ran a ready-mix concrete company and took his family on two-month vacations to Baja California.

“I learned the importance of independence,” Hewitt said of his youth. “Relying on yourself and making it.”

Twice divorced, he has been with his current wife, Wendy, the secretary of the Riverside County Libertarian Party, for 30 years. Her husband, she says, spends most of his free time playing board games with family; he’s a whiz at Boggle, which requires a quick command of words and numbers.

It was Wendy who urged Jeff to run for office after “he’d watch all the political stuff on the news, and I’d hear him complaining,” she said. “Instead of complaining, I told him, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ ”

After a stint on the Calimesa Planning Commission, Hewitt ran for City Council in 2010 and ascended to mayor in 2014 by a unanimous vote of his colleagues. As the lone Libertarian, he quickly learned to work with Republicans and Democrats alike. “I can be the crazy guy on the corner of the council,” he reasoned, “or I can build relationships.”

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(On the current Riverside County Board of Supervisors dais, Hewitt sits on the corner.)

He got reelected in 2014 despite his party affiliation; when Hewitt contacted state Libertarian leadership for help, they didn’t even know he was one of them. They flew down within a week to meet and learn how other candidates could win.

After unsuccessful bids for state Assembly and Senate seats in 2014 and 2016, Hewitt earned national attention in 2017 during a fight over Calimesa’s fire services. The hilly, windswept town of 8,000 on the western edge of the San Gorgonio Pass had long contracted with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hewitt argued that the agreement was pushing Calimesa toward bankruptcy because of over-staffing and pension obligations.

Hewitt gathered the council votes to boot out Cal Fire and replace it with a new fire department.

“People told me that to take on firefighters was political suicide,” Hewitt said. “I responded that political suicide was when you no longer follow your constituents but instead one powerful interest.”

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Riverside County’s District 5 stretches along interstates 10 and 215. Within its boundaries is Moreno Valley, the county’s second-largest city, along with the Morongo Indian Reservation and formerly sleepy towns such as Beaumont and Perris.

Once reliably Republican and working-class white, the 5th is now near-majority Latino and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 41% to 28%, with no party preference at 25% and Libertarians not even clocking in at 1%. It was an area that used to be the GOP’s “red-meat base,” said strategist Madrid. “If you as the Republican Party can’t hold them, that’s it. You’re done.”

Hewitt was the only elected official who ran in the 2018 District 5 race but was dismissed as a long shot from the start. He nevertheless turned into a Libertarian cause célèbre and attracted his campaign’s biggest donor: Chris Rufer, a Central Valley tomato magnate who’s a trustee on the Reason Foundation, a prominent Libertarian think tank. Campaign finance records show Rufer gave $237,000 to Hewitt’s campaign — more than half of Hewitt’s eventual total.

Bogh won the primary, but Hewitt’s second-place finish shook Riverside’s political establishment. Before the runoff vote, Boomer Shannon — a longtime Libertarian activist who headed Gary Johnson’s quixotic 2016 presidential campaign in California — had Hewitt reach out to Democrats, focusing on shared issues such as civil liberties, immigration reform and the drug war. Hewitt even recorded radio ads in Spanish, which he learned from his pool-digging crew.

“We didn’t talk about things we disagreed with voters; we talked about things we agreed with them,” said Shannon, who’s now Hewitt’s chief of staff. “We didn’t go in, rip off our shirts and reveal we’re Libertarians.”

Bogh’s campaign war chest ballooned to more than $1 million through the help of public-employee unions terrified of Hewitt’s professed agenda. Ads on Fox News slammed Hewitt as too liberal for Riverside County.

It didn’t matter: After originally trailing on election night, Hewitt beat Bogh by just more than 4,000 votes.

In coming weeks, Hewitt will travel to Washington and New Mexico to meet with Libertarian Party activists and teach them how to catapult their party into relevancy for good.

“This party needed a big win so much,” he said. “I got a call from a young Libertarian who said, ‘Jeff, I just got appointed to my local planning commission. I’m on my way.’ ”

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