Thursday, July 19, 2012

Writing OC history: the Bold and the Ruthless

     IT'S BECOMING CLEAR—to me, a slow learner, I guess—that, at least in our benighted county, the phenomenon, in politics, of brazenly deceptive but highly effective “smear” campaign tactics—including last minute (i.e., impossible to counter) attack mailers—was seized upon and perfected by the one-time consulting firm of Butcher-Forde—and by Butcher and Forde considered independently, both before and after that firm. That is, insofar as one dons one’s historian’s cap and approaches the last half-century of OC political campaigning, asking: How did we get here?—well, that answer, more or less, is these guys, William Butcher (now William Lord-Butcher) and Arnold Forde.
     A crucial aspect of Butcher-Forde’s “success,” it seems, was an early embrace of computer technologies—technologies that are not in themselves dubious, but, in the hands of Butcher-Forde, powerfully magnified their clients’ efforts to gain control of government and to shape it for the sake of their dubious and anti-democratic ends.
     But this kind of campaigning, to be effective in transforming the landscape, takes sustained money. Starting around 1970, developers provided that key ingredient. The combo of big developer money and no-holds-barred campaigning was the new animal that metamorphosed Orange County into the hyper-developed and politically nasty place that it is.
     And again, donning one’s historian’s cap in hopes of identifying a meaningful narrative, with beginning, middle, and end—it appears that one will not go too far wrong in starting with the 1969-1970 campaign of Ron Caspers to challenge and replace 5th District Supervisor and Republican Alton Allen. At least as far as the Republican establishment was concerned, Caspers seemed to come from out of nowhere. But he had money. More specifically, he had “Dick and Doc” money. And he had the talents (the ruthless and clever methods) of Arnold Forde (and later Butcher-Forde) plus the uncommon energy and ambition of young Tom Fuentes. Most importantly—and here, I believe, Fred Harber is the crucial figure—Caspers had a vision of how county government should operate. That vision was actualized after his 1970 election, when “Caspers made the contacts and set the ground rules for developer participation in the grand scheme of patronage carried to an exponential degree” (Tom Rogers).
     I’m sure there are many people who understand what I do not: the complex or convoluted sense in which this scheme or these schemes were masterminded. Richard O’Neill (the “Dick” of “Dick and Doc”) was a rich landowner interested in development; but he was also a Democrat who sought to further the success of his party and its philosophies. I have trouble seeing him as intent on establishing a “grand scheme of patronage” unless it was, in his mind, ultimately in the service of Democratic ends. [A friend who has long worked for Democratic candidates seems to disagree; he insists that O'Neill was not at all idealogical; he was simply pro-development.]
     His partner, Louis Cella, was a Republican, but, like Caspers, Cella didn’t seem particularly interested in furthering any particular political philosophy. He was a kind of grifter who got in over his head. Many, of course, have wondered if there were people behind Cella and all that money he controlled. The mob? Who knows.
     What was Fred Harber’s role in all of this? There’s plenty of evidence that he was the brains behind two or three or more supervisors, pulling the strings. He was brilliant, we’re told—certainly Cella thought so—but it seems clear that, like Cella, he was also dirty. I’ve traced Harber’s history back into the late fifties, and, though he seemed always to have an interest in Democratic politics, he was pretty consistently near or in settings of graft and corruption. He’s the one person in this saga who seemed to view himself as some sort of “mastermind,” and he evidently welcomed being seen as such. (See Puppets and Puppeteers.)

     Lobbyists, we know, have a bad reputation; it is such that they would seem to fit right into this world of schemes and quid pro quo deals. Whatever the fate of the grand schemes mentioned above, it seems clear that several persons involved in the early days of our saga—Fuentes, Lyle Overby, Frank Michelena, et al.—went on to engage in lobbying most foul.
     I started my inquiries into this saga because I was intrigued by Tom Fuentes, a trustee in our district. He was a ruthless man who once wielded great power in our county as chairman of the OC GOP. Tom was a guy who always seemed to keep his eye on the larger chess game of local politics and who thus endlessly involved himself in machinations and schemes relative to the remnants of a spoils system he long ago constructed. In my opinion, starting with his chairmanship of the OC GOP in the mid-80s, Tom maintained the grand scheme of patronage initiated by his mentor in the early 1970s. But he did so on behalf of the Republican Party, and especially its right wing. (See What is a Repuglican?)
     But, like O’Neill (at least, as I understand him), Tom was also, in some sense, a true believer in his particular political philosophy. That’s a big part of what made him fascinating. For much of his history, especially his early history, seemed to stand in stark contrast with that philosophy. He was a profoundly contradictory figure.
     Tom noisily stood for principles such as, “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Republicans.” Accordingly, he stood by Republican incumbents. But his start in politics was his substantial part in an effort to defeat an incumbent Republican, Alton Allen—a Republican that Caspers and company spoke seriously “ill of.”
     Fuentes could not abide rogue Republicans: consider his treatment of Republicans who sought to challenge incumbent Republican office holders (see Guiding with an iron hand). But the whole Caspers emergence of 1969-1970 was a rogue project, relative to the party. It utterly bewildered and confounded the Republican establishment of that time.
     Fuentes was known for his intolerance of Democrats—even of “moderate” Republicans, whom he dismissed as “RINOs” or worse. But, between 1970 and 1974, he was a key player in Team Caspers, which included card-carrying Democrats (e.g., Fred Harber) and was linked to efforts to promote and elect Democratic office holders (such as Ralph Clark and Robert Battin).

* * *
     I recently came across some old news articles that help fill out our story.

     1. PLEASURES OF THE HARBER. In “Wenke Says He May Sue Over Letter” (LA Times, June 22, 1972), Republican supervisorial candidate William Wenke expressed his intention to sue Robert Battin’s campaign manager of the 1972 primary campaign. Battin’s manager was Fred Harber.
     That’s because Wenke had been “the target of a last-minute primary campaign letter linking him to school busing in Santa Ana….” Wenke, said the Times, “was accused of helping to get pro-busing candidates elected to the Santa Ana school board.”
     According to the Times, “The letter was linked to … Harber, campaign manager for Supervisor Battin, by two former aides to Battin….” (See Puppets and Puppeteers.)
     Wenke had decided that a lawsuit was his only recourse. But he didn’t want money:
“…I make this proposal,” he added. “If you (Harber) will corroborate the statements … that you, in fact, were behind the school busing smear letter, you may consider this a release from any action against you.”
     Harber responded with utter confidence and defiance: “If he wants to file a lawsuit, let him go ahead.” He added:
Quite frankly, I don’t see where school busing is an issue in this campaign since the board of Supervisors doesn’t have anything to do with that….”
     Well, yeah. That's what makes this smear particularly foul!

     2. THE BOLD & THE RUTHLESS. In “Redistricting Eliminates 4 Potential Battin Foes” (Oct. 29, 1971), the Times reports “redistricting” actions that turn out to be highly convenient for a certain supervisor:
     All of next year’s known potential election opponents of Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Battin were eliminated by this week’s supervisorial redistricting, detailed maps of the new boundaries showed Thursday.
     The maps … showed that three rumored candidates … were wiped out by shifts of territory from Battin’s 1st District to Supervisor Ralph Clark’s 4th District.
     The residence of a fourth possible opponent … was transferred from the 1st District to Supervisor Ronald Caspers’ 5th District.
     …[That fourth opponent’s] transfer was made public Wednesday when [he] appeared before the board to plead for revision to restore all of his city … to the 1st District.
     That effort failed when Battin, Caspers and Supervisor William Phillips approved the redistricting map as submitted.
. . .
     But it was not until detailed maps of the changes became available that it was known that the population shifts also had eliminated both attorney William Wenke and rancher Henry Segerstrom, both of whom live in the north Santa Ana area.
     Their census tract … was shifted to the 4th District as a finger jutting into the 1st District.
     The change appeared to be politically fortunate for the board’s chairman, but Battin’s executive aide said no thought was given to the residences of potential candidates when the revised district lines were drawn.
. . .
     The change also affected the district residence of two other influential persons connected with county government. Both Dr. Louis Cella Jr. and Fred Harber, close associates of Battin since his election in 1968, live in the area and are now within Clark’s district.

1 comment:

  1. OC seems a good place to breed corruption, far better than the cold climes of Chicago.


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