Rohrabacher’s exit closes the door on O.C.’s particular brand of hard-right politics

Dana Rohrabacher was the last of a long line of Orange County congressmen whose demonization of communists turned to liberals, feminists, gays and minorities.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

There was the congressman from Fullerton who read the particulars of “male homosexual sex” into the Congressional Record in an effort to put the brakes on gay rights.

There was the representative from Tustin who warned of a communist plot by the United Nations to take over America using “barefooted Africans” training in Georgia.

There was his successor from Santa Ana who got booted from the ultra-right-wing, conspiracy-minded John Birch Society for being too extreme.


And there was Dana Rohrabacher, the Cold Warrior-turned-Kremlin advocate who — serving well into the new millennium — said just last year that homeowners should be able to refuse to sell to gay people.

With Rohrabacher winding down his last days in Congress after his defeat in November, his departure will mark the end of an outsize Orange County export to the nation: The extreme anti-communist politico whose fears of Soviet domination and anger at American cultural change conjured a litany of bogeymen — gays, liberals, feminists, Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims.

“Dana was the last of them,” said Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University. “That’s why his defeat was so enormous.”

Rohrabacher, 71, who for 30 years represented the coastal strip including Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, went down swinging at the demons that replaced the commies in his rhetoric — immigrants here illegally — parroting President Trump with warnings of invasions and falsely claiming that his opponent favored opening up the border.

He lost to Democrat Harley Rouda by 7 percentage points in a district that still leans Republican by double that margin in voter registration. Much like his political predecessors in Orange County, he leaves less a legislative record than a reputation as a political outlier.

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Consider this exchange in February with a reporter for the Voice of America in China, who asked him if he had a message for the Chinese people about the Chinese New Year.

“Well, let me just note, coming in is the Year of the Dog,” Rohrabacher answered. “Now, there are some people in the United States who don’t like it that Chinese people eat dog. And I want them, the Chinese people, to know, that we eat bunnies over here, and we eat all kinds of little animals. I don’t blame them for eating dog.”

The reporter gave a tight, pained smile as she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.

He continued: “I mean, if that’s what tastes good, that’s what tastes good.”

Such impolitic comments were certainly not as caustic as the hard-edged right-wing politicians of the county’s Republican heyday.

Though you could argue that era started in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan took over the Anaheim City Council, its truest progenitor was James Utt, the county’s sole congressman from 1953 to 1963 and who served in the House until he died in 1970. He came from a citrus and grape family that arrived in Tustin in 1874 and founded Utt Juice Co.

Utt was elected at the height of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists and joined the cause with equal fervor. He saw communist plots behind civil rights, rock ’n’ roll, the United Nations and President Eisenhower. He landed himself in the national limelight with his claims of a U.N. plot to take over America.

When Utt died, the famed preacher Robert Schuller led mourners, including Gov. Ronald Reagan, through the rites at his Garden Grove Community Church.

To fill his seat, Orange County elected a member of the national council of the John Birch Society, John Schmitz, who had called the Watts Riots a “communist operation” and ripped President Nixon’s historic visit to communist China. “I have no objection to President Nixon going to China,” he quipped. “I just object to his coming back.”

Nixon recruited a moderate Republican in 1972 who successfully challenged Schmitz. But Schmitz returned unchanged to public life as a state senator. He infamously issued a news release after a committee hearing on abortion with the headline using a crude term for gay women, while describing the hearing room as filled with “hard, Jewish and (arguably) female faces.”

Schmitz gained new notoriety in the late 1990s for being the father of Mary Kay Letourneau, a sixth-grade teacher convicted of raping one of her students, to whom she is now married.

As Cold War hysteria ebbed, white Christian Orange County politicians turned their ire to a threat against their traditional families.

In 1978, state Sen. John Briggs of Fullerton — onetime president of the Walter Knott Young Republican Club — sponsored Proposition 6 to ban gay people and supporters of gay rights from working in public schools. The measure brought out huge numbers of people to gay pride parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

State Sen. John Briggs talks to reporters in Costa Mesa after the defeat of Proposition 6 in November 1978.
(Doug Pizac / Associated Press)

Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor, debated Briggs throughout the state.

Briggs said he assumed most of San Francisco’s gay teachers were “seducing young boys in toilets,” wrote Times reporter and author Gustavo Arellano in his book “Orange County: A Personal History.”

The senator called San Francisco the “moral garbage dump of homosexuality in this country,” Arellano wrote.

“Yet 8 million tourists visited San Francisco last year,” Milk retorted. “I wonder how many visited Fullerton.”

Reagan, President Carter and former President Ford spoke out against the initiative, and it failed.

Jodi Balma, who grew up in Turlock, remembers learning about Orange County for the first time as a 9-year-old when she read about the debates in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her hometown was conservative, but in a restrained Midwestern way. No one talked about homosexuality.

In 1989, she was attending Cal State Fullerton and watched in disbelief that June as her congressman, William E. Dannemeyer, read the graphic description of various “gay sex” acts — many not limited to gays — into the Congressional Record.

“He was suggesting the cure for AIDS was to quarantine victims on an island and not send supplies,” recalled Balma, now a professor of political science at Fullerton College. “I remember looking around thinking, ‘How can you let this person represent you?’”

That was a banner year in the county’s right-wing politics. Rohrabacher, a former Orange County Register editorial writer and Reagan speechwriter, had just won his seat on the coast. And the congressional district between his and Dannemeyer’s was held by Bob Dornan, who liberally used a then-common epithet for gay men, called a U.S.-born Soviet commentator a “disloyal, betraying little Jew” and physically threatened another congressman, calling him a draft-dodging wimp.

Former Rep. Bob Dornan was famous for his right-wing politics and epithets directed at gay people and feminists.
(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

Dannemeyer left office in 1992 and continued to rant and make outlandish claims. He wrote that Congress passed a law that makes “the belief in Jesus Christ a crime punishable by decapitation by guillotine.” He espoused the view that Jews are trying to take over the world and “exterminate Jesus Christ” — and he is married to a Holocaust denier.

The first wave of demographic change in Orange County knocked Dornan out of office in 1996, when Democrat Loretta Sanchez took that seat.

But Rohrabacher was secure in his mostly white, deeply Republican district. He was not nearly as caustic as Dannemeyer or Dornan, who used to call him a “fruitcake.”

In 2004, he steered to passage a law that helped the commercial space industry. A decade later he co-sponsored an amendment to discourage federal law enforcement from cracking down on marijuana industries legalized in California and 30 other states. He didn’t accomplish much else legislatively.

But his fearlessness in speaking his mind, his surfer image and his steadfast stand on conservative issues long kept him in voters’ favor. He held a hard line for a strong defense, tax cuts, border security and immigration crackdowns.

His supporters liked his maverick streak, which had him fighting against his party for marijuana legalization. Where another famous politician claimed to have not inhaled, Rohrabacher once proclaimed he “did everything but drink the bong water.”

“Dana Rohrabacher came out of the Reagan Revolution, and he really reflected Orange County conservative politics for a generation,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, and former pollster at UC Irvine. “I think he reflected the values of his district for a long time, and those values changed as it became more politically and demographically diverse.”

And since Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election came to light, Rohrabacher’s close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his protege Viktor Yanukovich, the repressive former president of Ukraine, have become a heavy liability.

When President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to federal crimes, in part for his lobbying on behalf of Yanukovich, court papers filed by prosecutors said Rohrabacher was one of those he lobbied. The congressman was not accused of wrongdoing.

In October, The Times reported Rohrabacher sought in 2016 to get Congress to amend a U.S. law that Putin opposed, using talking points given to him by a Russia-affiliated lobbyist. The effort failed.

Over the years, Rohrabacher also became known for his perplexing and sometimes outrageous statements. He suggested that Muslims carried out the Oklahoma City bombing and that multiple assassins, not just Sirhan Sirhan, killed Robert F. Kennedy.

He has consistently denied humans have caused climate change, despite representing a district with areas extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach to the Balboa Peninsula.

He once surmised, “We don’t know what these cycles were in the past. It could have been dinosaur flatulence, who knows?”

Twitter: @joemozingo