Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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The Democratic Foundation of Orange County

By the mid-1980s there was no partisan political seat in Orange County occupied by a Democrat. Not one. All were Republicans and conservative Republicans at that.

Dick O’Neill, former chair of the state Democratic Party, and Howard Adler, former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party (both now sadly deceased), decided to do something about it. So, they created a Political Action Committee (PAC) called The Democratic Foundation of Orange County to gin up some action.

To energize and organize it, they approached two people.

One was David Stein. The other was me. We both were in our early 30s, Laguna
residents, full of vim and vigor, and ambitious.

David, who is as charismatic as a movie star, became the PAC
s first chair. I was the first vice-chair. David’s main task was creating events so enticing one had to attend (oh boy, did he—like getting Ted Kennedy to lunch with us). My main task was recruiting new members; that was difficult, but I had an ace in the hole: Dick O’Neill himself. He and his sister had inherited the vast Rancho Mission Viejo, once stretching from the present Lake Forest to Oceanside, (during World War II, the government nationalized what now is Camp Pendleton). They owned today’s Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, and so on. That placed them on Forbes’ annual list of 400 richest Americans and made Dick a reluctant star.

If you thought you might want to join, Dick and I took you to lunch, dinner or tea. Dick was wonderfully eccentric and would meet just about anywhere and talk about anything—his laugh always booming.

To become a member cost an annual $1,000, or for only $100, become an associate member. Our goal was 100 full-fledged members and double that for associates. Both goals were achieved.

Our club was popular with visiting political stars because we were not lobbyists; we were donors. So the national politicians who sweep California for money would have lunch or dinner with us. They all came: Al Gore, Joe Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Bill Lockyer, Phil Angelides, Willie Brown, Jerry Brown—governors, senators, would-be presidents, all of them. Fun fact: I twice had dinner with the Clintons in 1991-92 (when they were young and fresh). Hillary, so awkward and constrained on camera, is the exact opposite in person, and at the time I thought the wrong Clinton was running.

Our first candidate was David Carter (now a resident of Laguna), a hero of the Vietnam War who ran for Congress in Santa Ana but lost. (Judge Carter now presides in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana who recently ruled President Donald Trump likely committed a felony regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection). Our first winner was Tom Umberg, who took an Assembly seat in 1992 (he now is a state senator); then it was Loretta Sanchez who won a congressional seat; Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana’s first Latino mayor; Katrina Foley, who became the Mayor of Costa Mesa and now is a county supervisor; and others like Larry Agran, a former mayor of Irvine; and so on.

Then there were the Executive Directors of The Foundation, like Chris Townsend and Laguna’s Paul Freeman, who later would become powers unto themselves.

Today, Orange County is bi-party, and candidates raise money themselves, but The Foundation still exists and is pumping away.

This column is too short to detail how the people we helped elect would change Orange County but suffice to say they become critical to The Discovery Cube, The School of the Arts, The Great Park, Laguna Canyon’s open space preserve, and more. All of these projects involved our members and in future columns, I will detail how. Stand by.

Michael is a Laguna Beach resident and principal officer emeritus of Laguna Forward PAC.

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