County seems to be shifting from conservative to pragmatic politics

Orange County's famous political conservatism has mellowed out.


Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats 46.5 percent to 41.32 - again, not still. Democrats enjoyed a numerical advantage in 1978, the year Orange County backed Jerry Brown for re-election, but the margin was thin and short-lived.

Republicans have retaken their lead, but both parties have lost to fringe groups. Voters who, according to 1981 county figures, declined to state a party preference were 9 percent of the total.

In the past Orange County has been known for an array of controversial right-wing political figures who have generated more heat than light.

But recently, ''The most impressive thing has been the emergence of a power structure, a cohesive group of people who can make the wheels turn,'' says Richard Baisden, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine.

He's referring to the Orange County Transportation Coalition, a bipartisan group of corporate leaders who banded together to get more freeway money from Sacramento. Among its leaders were Democrats Walter Gerken, chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, and Richard O'Neill, rancher, restaurateur, and former state party chairman, and Republicans such as Irvine Company president Peter C. Kremer and J. Robert Fluor, chairman of the corporation that bears his name.

The movement of corporate headquarters into the county - such as Fluor and Pacific Mutual - has proven not only a mark of economic maturity, but a catalyst for political maturity.

''Firms contribute to both sides, and can affect the races in whichever direction,'' observes Professor Baisden.

This is not lost on such people as Gov. Jerry Brown, who is making a bid for US Senate.

He's still in hot water with voters here for his 1979 appointment of Edison W. Miller to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, or county council. (The incumbent had resigned after being convicted of bribery.)

Mr. Miller was not only a liberal, he was a former POW reprimanded by the Navy for cooperating with his North Vietnamese captors. The appointment didn't go down well with either Democrats or Republicans in Orange County, who combined to oust him in 1980 in favor of Bruce Nestande.

As an olive branch to Orange County, Governor Brown has named supervisor Nestande to the California Transportation Commission, which hands out money for freeway improvement. The supervisors are officially nonpartisan, but Mr. Nestande is a conservative Republican, an ''up and comer,'' who ''could have had a White House job,'' but chose to stay in Orange County, according to Professor Baisden, .

Meanwhile, down at the grass roots, ''The political shifts stem from changes in population,'' says Marian Bergeson, a state representative. Young families moving into growing communities like Mission Viejo, Irvine, and the Saddleback Valley area have brought political moderation with them. These people are less ideological ''and more concerned with bread-and-butter issues like child care,'' says the Newport Beach Republican.

She says she sees the people of Orange County to be ''pragmatic conservatives'' like herself. ''They are antigovernment, antiregulation in spirit, but they want to be assured that the services they wish will be there when they want them.''

The strong conservative streak here stems from the area's history as an agricultural community and also from the dominance in the community of such traditionally Republican corporations as the Irvine Company. Another element has been a certain postwar influx of conservative Midwesterners put off by big-city machine politics.

But Los Angeles Democrats continue to move south into Orange County. And high-tech industry has a more liberal image, which is affecting the county's political mix.

Developer Henry T. Segerstrom dismisses the John Birch Society as ''passe.'' Assemblyman Richard Robinson, a moderate Democrat from Santa Ana, says that in eight years in office he's never seen the sort of right-wing ideologue for which the county has been known.

''Much of Orange County's reputation for extreme conservatism owes to a few visible figures, in and out of politics, who are fading from the scene,'' Professor Baisden says.

He cites the passing in 1970 of Raymond C. Hoiles, publisher of the Register newspaper in Santa Ana, who was so antigovernment that he opposed public education, and the passing last December of Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm fame, who was also known as Mr. Republican Orange County.

John Briggs, a state senator known for his pro-capital-punishment and antiabortion stands, resigned his office last year, and state Sen. John G. Schmitz, another noted far-right-winger, is a lame duck after his failed bid for the US Senate.

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