The Last of the Founders
Today, most of Orange County is “blue,” meaning most partisan offices in Orange County are held by Democrats. This is a change of earthquake proportions. Orange County, BLUE? This is the county one Republican president after another said was the bedrock of conservatism. Now it’s blue
For a hundred years, this was unthinkable. Only once, in the mid-1970s, were there more registered Democrats in OC than registered Republicans. This happened because the OC Democratic Party went on a registration binge. That binge was led by three people: Dick O’Neill, Howard Adler, and Frank Barbaro.
They were the Founders of today’s OC Democratic Party, and now all have passed. The last one, Frank Barbaro, died of pancreatic cancer about two weeks ago.
Of the three, Dick O’Neill was the most famous. He and his sister inherited the vast Rancho Mission Viejo (covering southern Orange County all the way to Oceanside) and because of that, Dick continually made Forbes Magazine’s list of wealthiest Americans. In the 1930s, he grew-up on the Ranch’s headquarters on what now is known as Camp Pendleton (it was nationalized in WWII). Ranch hands and cowboys populated the ranch, and everyone worked hard for the land to turn a buck.
Meaning: Dick knew what it was to work with his hands. He knew what it was to struggle. When he reached adulthood, he bought and operated restaurants, another business with low margins and plenty of workers making it go.
Dick identified with them, not the rich.
With that background, Dick headed into Democratic politics and came to know Howard Adler and Frank Barbaro.
Howard was born a Democrat in NYC, but his family migrated to Anaheim and after college, he ended up working for then-Democratic Congressman Dick Hanna from north OC. Back then, there were only two congressmen from Orange County: north county (Dem) and south county (Rep). Howard was a natural political animal and loved the action, gossip and if he got it, the power.
Unlike Dick, who was big and burly, Howard was short, talked New York fast when excited, and was full of ideas. You often saw him walking next to O’Neill, Howard’s short, quick, steps keeping up with Dick’s long, shambling steps, the two happily chatting politics for hours, and almost always laughing. You could tell they were joking when Dick erupted into his famously huge laughter, rubbing his hands together, whole body quaking.
Dick died in 2009 at age 85 and his service was at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Howard was a generation younger, but never very healthy, and I think when Dick died, the spirit left Howard and he passed two years later in 2011.
Frank Barbaro was the son of Napoleon Barbaro, a member of the Italian Mafia who once worked for Bugsy Siegel. Napoleon ran Vegas nightclubs and ultimately the mob murdered him. Frank’s mother was one of, we think, seven wives of Napoleon, so Frank rarely saw him. Frank grew up modestly in Garden Grove, got full boat scholarships to USC undergrad and USC law school, after which he became a successful plaintiff’s attorney. And he, too, was born an active Democrat.
The three of them met in the 1970s when Frank was Chair of the OC party, and they put together the voter registration drive that led to a democratic advantage. Mind you, that advantage only lasted a few years; it scared the bejesus out of the Republican Party, which went on its own registration binge and soon outnumbered the Democrats.
By the mid-1980s, there were zero elected partisan Democrats in Orange County, and that is when Dick, Howard and Frank tried their hardest to recruit new party activists (like me). Out of that grew today’s OC democratic surge, and even as Dick’s and Howard’s health declined, Barbaro remained active and hosted so many fundraisers for various Democrats, we all lost count. It did not matter. He would get a call from someone running for president and off to the races Frank would go.
And now Frank, the last, is gone.
The thing that marked all of them was the lack of hatred, disrespect and under-handed hardball politics. They never labeled the other side as un-American or called them names. In fact, knowing how very hard it is to run for office, and if you win, how hard it is to govern, they showed humility and sympathy. In the later years, on the night of each regular election, Frank and his Republican opposite, Scott Baugh, Chair of the OC Republican Party, always had dinner and joked about what they’d been through.
Now all that is gone, and even here in Laguna, politics seems to have become hardball. Such a shame. Why can’t we be civil, too?
Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and lives in Laguna Beach. He is a real estate entrepreneur involved in many nonprofits.