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William Dannemeyer, former O.C. congressman and anti-gay crusader, dies at 89

Close-up of Rep. William E. Dannemeyer
Rep. William Dannemeyer in 1989.
(Getty Images)

William Dannemeyer, a former Orange County congressman who spent much of his career fighting gay rights and helped cement Orange County’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing conservatism, has died at his home in Thousand Palms.

Dannemeyer died July 9 of age-related illness, said his son Bruce Dannemeyer. He was 89.

Once called the “Don Quixote of the Right,” Dannemeyer was a steadfast bannerman for the religious right in conservative politics. Along with figures such as “B-1 Bob” Dornan, John Schmitz and, most recent to exit, Dana Rohrabacher, Dannemeyer was part of a corps of congressmen who rose with Orange County’s conservative movement and helped the region earn its famous moniker as “America’s nut country.”

“This is a group of people that helped imprint a very conservative image of Orange County on the nation,” said Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller. “It was an Orange County that was much less diverse, it was much more patriarchal, much more white and Christian.”

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With all seven of its House seats now represented by Democrats and rapidly shifting demographics that led voters in 2016 to favor a Democrat for president for the first time in 80 years, Smoller says, “that Orange County is just gone now.”

Over the course of a 30-year career, Dannemeyer equated environmentalists with socialists, pushed for voluntary prayer in schools, and was vehemently anti-tax.

“He was a fiscal conservative and a patriot,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative Orange County blogger and former executive director of the California Republican Party. “He had an understanding of what it meant to have liberty and freedom and how to not squander that birthright.”

But Dannemeyer was perhaps best known for his crusade against gay rights, in particular a 1989 stunt in which he described a number of “gay sex” acts — far from exclusive to gay couples — in graphic detail, entering them into the Congressional Record.

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He followed it up with a request that President George H.W. Bush investigate gays in his administration and their steering of policy away from the “heterosexual ethic.”

His strident views against homosexuality and outlandish statements about AIDS patients made him a vilified figure for gay rights activists. He called for quarantining AIDS patients, proposed making it a federal crime for gay men to donate blood and called for a return of anti-sodomy laws. He once said, erroneously, that those with the AIDS virus emit airborne spores that could sicken those around them — a claim he later walked back.

Former Rep. Henry Waxman, who chaired a House health subcommittee, said Dannemeyer’s proposals to require registries of AIDS patients and allow doctors to test patients for AIDS without their consent ran counter even to stances in the Reagan administration at the time. He called Dannemeyer an obstructionist who had “absolutely no sense of humor.”

“He was a mean and hateful person,” Waxman said. “This was a time when gay men risked losing their jobs, their health insurance, their livelihoods.”

“He preached hatred,” Los Angeles-based gay rights activist Carol Anderson told The Times in 1992.

After retiring from Congress in 1992, Dannemeyer dedicated years to pushing a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools.

Later in life, he married Dr. Lorraine Day, a Holocaust denier, and wrote that Congress had passed a law making “the belief in Jesus Christ a crime punishable by decapitation by guillotine.”

Privately, his family said, he was a compassionate and God-fearing man.

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“He had a great heart and love for people and was able to see the person that was impacted by the policy,” said Bruce Dannemeyer. “He said some things that ruffled a lot of feathers and offended a great number of people but he did not back down from a fight.”

Dannemeyer said his father’s controversial views on homosexuality “stemmed from his religious beliefs that were lifelong, strongly held and sincere.”

It was a faith he credited with helping him through a far-from-idyllic childhood.

William Edwin Dannemeyer was born Sept. 22, 1929, in Montebello, the oldest of two children of German immigrant parents. When the son was 5, epileptic seizures confined his father to a sanitarium and forced him to give up the family’s feed and grain business. Dannemeyer went to work at a young age, selling newspapers and magazines and other odd jobs, to help support his family.

He eventually put himself through Valparaiso University, a Lutheran college in Indiana where he said he “came to know Jesus Christ in my personal life.”

After graduating from law school and a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Dannemeyer met and married Evelyn Hoemann, a minister’s daughter and schoolteacher. The two lived in Santa Barbara, where Dannemeyer worked as a deputy district attorney, before moving to Fullerton in 1957.

He was first elected to the state Assembly in 1962 — as a Democrat — before re-registering as a Republican five years later.

He entered Congress in 1979, serving for seven terms and became the ranking Republican on the House Energy & Commerce’s subcommittee on health, where Waxman became a frequent sparring partner. He was pegged as an extremist in most Washington circles but regularly won reelection in his conservative Orange County district by 70 percentage points or more.

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But his brand of conservatism was not a winning formula statewide, even in 1990s California. In 1992, he ran in a special election for U.S. Senate but lost the Republican primary to a more moderate Orange County Republican, John Seymour, in a race that would ultimately elect Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Even in the midst of that longshot bid, Dannemeyer seemed to relish in his knack for antagonism.

“I enjoy the challenge,” he told The Times. “I enjoy the competition. I enjoy the confrontation.”

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.


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