Tom Fuentes, whose forceful leadership of the Orange County Republican Party confirmed it as an epicenter of GOP fundraising and political clout, has died. He was 63.
Fuentes died late Friday at his home in Lake Forest, family spokeswoman Kathy Tavoularis said. He had liver cancer that had spread to his lungs and lymph system.
Fuentes, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County from 1985 to 2004, helped the party maintain its powerhouse status while boosting several candidates to victory. In the mid-1990s, Republicans held all of the county’s legislative and congressional seats, cementing a reputation as one of the most Republican counties in the nation.
Much of the credit went to Fuentes, who described himself not as a political boss but as a “cheerleader” with an energetic zeal for even the most routine of political tasks: He hosted hundreds of receptions, glad-handed scores of visiting politicians and marshaled an army of neighborhood volunteers and political activists.
“Tom Fuentes bleeds Republican-elephant blood,” political consultant Harvey Englander told The Times in 1996. “His goal in life is to serve the party.”
By the late ‘90s, though, the region’s changing demographics had begun to bite into the Republican advantage; the party lost a congressional seat to Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996.
Fuentes’ hard-line social conservatism and abrasive style began to alienate some former allies, including wealthy Republican business executives who sought more moderate candidates and a change in leadership.
But Fuentes built a lasting infrastructure.
“No single person has had a greater impact than Tom Fuentes on Republican Party politics in Orange County,” said Scott Baugh, who succeeded Fuentes and is the current Republican Party chairman. “He was able to marshal the resources at the right time to convert as many people to the Republican Party as possible, with unprecedented growth in registration, participation and membership. And nobody could emcee an event better than Tom Fuentes. He just had a fantastic style, grace and touch that doesn’t come around very often.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), first elected to Congress in 1988, recalled Fuentes as a family friend who offered sage personal and political guidance and as a mentor to a raft of fervent young party members.
“He was always the godfather of every idealistic person in the party, young and old,” said Rohrabacher. “We’re glad we knew him and grateful for what he did for us.”
Thomas A. Fuentes was born Oct. 16, 1948, in Los Angeles, and traced his lineage back six generations to Mexican immigrants. He walked his first precinct at age 12 passing out literature for Republican Rep. Gordon McDonough.
In a 1996 interview with The Times, Fuentes recalled being the only boy in his Catholic school who supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Nixon and Ronald Reagan would become his heroes.
Fuentes was president of the Republican club at Chapman College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in government. He worked as an aide to then-county Supervisor Ronald Caspers, who drowned with 10 others in 1974 when his sailboat sank, a trip that Fuentes had planned to take.
A lifelong Catholic, Fuentes briefly entered a seminary to study for the priesthood but returned to Orange County to work for an engineering firm. He supported several charitable causes and helped found the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County.
He also served as a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, but left the post after being criticized over his role in hiring uniformed security guards to patrol predominantly Latino polling places during an election in 1988. Fuentes and several co-defendants eventually settled a civil rights lawsuit by a group of Latino voters who alleged that the guards were sent to intimidate them into not casting ballots.
Toward the end of his reign as Orange County party chairman, Fuentes became embroiled in a number of conflicts with state GOP leaders, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even members of President George W. Bush’s campaign team who questioned his effectiveness.
Fuentes remained undaunted in his views.
“You’ve stood firm when special interests have attempted to move our community to the left,” he told a Republican Central Committee meeting during a 2004 farewell address. “Orange County remains the anchor to the right for the California ship of state, no matter how strong the winds blow from the left in places like San Francisco and Hollywood.”
Fuentes is survived by his wife, Jolene; daughter Michelle; sons Thomas Jr. (T.J.) and Joey; brother Robert; and sister Martha Dempsey.
Services are pending.