Analysis: Calif.'s Orange Co. a-changin'

By PATRICK REDDY, Special to UPI  |  Jan. 2, 2002 at 6:55 PM
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Since Sept. 11, much attention has naturally been focused on the war on international terrorism. But out West, there are some trends percolating that will have relevance much beyond the elections in 2002 or even 2004.

Harvard sociologist David Riesman once spoke of the "provincialism" of so many East Coast intellectuals. Here is a report on the quintessential Southern California conservative suburb, Orange County. Once famous for being a stronghold for white right-wingers, Orange County has changed, quite possibly for good, as a majority of its residents are non-white, and California politics may never be the same.

California has often been described as representing the future of America. Indeed, the Golden State has often been politically ahead of the nation in canny ways:

* The "Red Scare" of the early 1950s was first given voice by an obscure Southern California congressman named Richard Nixon in the Alger Hiss case of the late 1940s.

* The New Frontier and Great Society programs of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were preceded by Gov. Pat Brown's massive public works projects beginning in 1959.

* The mid-1960s backlash against inner city riots and campus disorder got off to an early start here in 1966 with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor. Two years later, Nixon took Reagan's themes nationally as he was elected president on a slogan of "law and order."

* The tax revolt of the 1970s that led to the Reagan landslide of 1980 made national headlines with California's Proposition 13 in June 1978.

* And California was one of the first states to pass term limits for state legislators in 1990 and gave above-average support to Ross Perot in 1992.

As the above list implies, more often than not for the last two generations, conservatives had the upper hand in California. In the 25 years between Reagan's election as governor in 1966 and the end of the Cold War in 1991, California Democrats had only one really good year, 1974, when Jerry Brown was elected governor. And the leading edge of conservative thought in California was centered in Orange County.

Kevin Phillips once dubbed Florida and the Southwest the Sun Belt, which Phillips defined as centers of high technology, suburban sprawl and light industry.

In "The Emerging Republican Majority," he wrote: "Spurred by high pensions, early retirement, increased leisure time and technological innovation, the affluent American middle class is returning to the comforts of the endless summer, which they can escape at will in swimming pools and total refrigeration. The persons most drawn to the new sun culture are the pleasure seekers, the bored, the ambitious, the space-age technicians and the retired -- a super-slice of the rootless, socially mobile group known as the American middle class."

Gary Wills described the Sun Belt as "a particularly bilious compound of the new and old, of space programs, and retirement villas, honky-tonks and super-conservatism." The Sun Belt was the essence of modern conservatism, and Orange County was the essence of the Sun Belt.

A significant demographic turning point was reached in April 2000 when the Census Bureau declared that Asians, African-Americans and Hispanics outnumbered non-Hispanic whites (or "Anglos" in the parlance of the Southwest) in the nation's largest state.

It's predictable that cities like Los Angeles (70 percent non-white) and San Francisco (57 percent non-white) would have the highest percentages of minorities. But the most surprising fact of the last census was the conquest of suburbia in the Los Angeles metro area by the last generation of immigrants. The suburban part of L.A. County was also majority-minority.

Perhaps most shocking was the change in Orange County, which borders Los Angeles County. The 2000 Census recorded Orange County (also known as "O.C.") as being just 51.3 percent white in spring 2000. Projecting the trends of the 1990s forward more than a year, whites are now a minority in Orange County. As Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg reminded us in "The Real Majority," "demographics is destiny." This demographic shift has already had profound political consequences in California and will soon turn the nation as well.

Who are these people? And perhaps more importantly, who were they? In 1950, O.C. was over 90 percent white. Given that Hispanics and Asians have historically voted at half of their potential population strength, the voters of O.C. in the 1950s were over 95 percent white. As late as the 1970 Census, O.C. was only 8 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian. (The county has never been more than 2 percent African-American).

In the 1980 census, O.C. was still nearly 80 percent white. But all through the conservative glory days of the 1980s, demographics were changing at the grassroots. By 1990, immigration had pushed the Hispanic population to 23 percent and Asians to 10 percent, 2 percent African-American, and 1 percent "other" races.

In the 2000 Census, Hispanics were 31 percent, Asians 14 percent, 2 percent African-American, 4 percent "mixed race" and "others" 2 percent. (The entire state was 32 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 7 percent African-American and 5 percent "mixed race," with a white minority of 45 percent).

The 2000 Census was completed in April 2000. As noted above, projecting the trends of the last decade 18 months forward, we can safely estimate that whites are less than 50 percent of Orange County for the first time since California was part of Mexico in 1849.

The year after Reagan was elected governor, Southern California native James Q. Wilson wrote a famous article in Commentary entitled "A Tour of Reagan Country." Wilson said: "The important thing to know about Southern California is that the people who live there, who grew up there, love it. Not just the way one has an attachment to a hometown, but the way people love the realization that they have found the right mode of life."

A BBC documentary from 1976 called O.C. "the culmination of the American dream." The "California Political Almanac" said, "That dream was a home in the suburbs, two cars and maybe a ski boat, and a barbecue in the backyard. Orange County reproduced it hundreds of thousands of times in one generation." (Anyone who has spent a few weekends in Newport Beach knows that O.C. residents do have much to be proud about.)

O.C. is the home of Disneyland and of John Wayne Airport (Wayne grew up there and played football at USC. Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., jokes that he has a conservative's dream commute: from John Wayne Airport to Ronald Reagan National). As its residents often point out, in contrast to God-less Los Angeles with its decadent Hollywood strip, O.C. is home to the Rev. Robert Schuler's famous Crystal Cathedral. Orange County was the birthplace of the Goldwater and Reagan movements, the tax revolt and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994.

California was a strong New Deal state, voting five straight times for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in 1932-48. In 1948, Orange County cast just 2 percent of the state vote. Republican Tom Dewey won a solid 61 percent majority there, but his small margin of nearly 20,000 votes wasn't enough to overcome Truman's strength in the rest of the state and Dewey lost California by 1 percent. When both California and the nation began to turn conservative in the 1950s, it was Orange County that led the way. In the 1950s, O.C. gave President Eisenhower bigger percentages than his state and national figures.

Twelve years after 1948, Orange County's population had tripled, growing four times as fast as the state. In the 1960 election, Nixon beat Kennedy by 61 percent-39 percent in O.C., providing him with his entire statewide margin of victory (even though Kennedy eked out a narrow electoral victory by carrying enough big states in the Eastern and Central Time Zones). By 1968, Orange County had nearly doubled its vote again and this time it again helped deliver California to Nixon, giving him his margin of victory in the Electoral College.

In 1976, a huge margin for Gerald Ford in Orange County carried the Golden State for the GOP again and denied Jimmy Carter a national mandate. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was seeking to become the nation's first black governor since Reconstruction. Bradley won narrowly all over the state, not counting O.C., where a 37 percent-61 percent loss in Orange County sealed his statewide defeat by one point.

Eight years later, voters in Orange County and Pete Wilson's hometown of San Diego combined to narrowly defeat former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein in her bid to become California's first woman governor. White suburbanites in Southern California were the GOP's base and O.C. was the banner GOP territory. Orange County was California Republicans' impregnable fortress and secret weapon in a close race as Republican presidential candidates won the state six straight times from 1968-88.

So Orange County voters voted against the nation's first Catholic president, and were mainly responsible for stopping California from electing its first black and female governors. If it sounds like O.C. is a status quo-oriented or even backward-looking place, it's probably true.

The Republican winning streak came to a screeching halt in 1992, when Bill Clinton carried California by more than 1 million votes. It was economics that drove the political change of the early 1990s. As of 1990, California had approximately 17 percent of defense spending, highest in the nation (compared to 12 percent of the population). The end of the Cold War devastated the aerospace industry, as more than 500,000 jobs were lost in Los Angeles County alone.

The first beneficiary of this shift was Ross Perot. Clinton only gained a few points in Orange County over 1988 Democratic candidate Mike Dukakis. But Perot's split of the conservative vote pretty much wiped out the GOP majority. George Bush the elder carried O.C. by 317,000 in 1988, providing 90 percent of his state margin. Four years later, President Bush's margin had dropped to only 120,000 as he lost the state badly.

In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson bounced back, using Proposition 187 to divide white voters from immigrants and win a 40-point victory in O.C., but the gain was short-lived. In 1996, President Clinton held Bob Dole to just 52 percent in Orange County. Hispanics, mobilized by Proposition 187, turned out in droves and keyed Loretta Sanchez's upset of right-wing Republican Congressman Bob Dornan in the Disneyland area.

By 1998, immigrant turnout had doubled in California since 1990 and Democrat Gray Davis came within 50,000 of carrying O.C. True, O.C. voters saved the two-thirds requirement for tax increases in a referendum in March 2000. But that conservative trend simply didn't hold: on Nov. 7, 2000, George W. Bush's modest 56 percent majority in O.C. was easily wiped out by a 2-1 Democratic landslide in Hispanic L.A. as Al Gore again won California by over a million votes.

Why does the fate of one suburban county far away from the nation's capital matter? As real estate agents would say, for three reasons: location, location and location. With nearly 3 million people, Orange County is now the nation's fourth-most-populous county and the only wholly suburban county in the top 10.

Orange County's bloc conservative Republican vote could once swing the nation's largest state. The best way of explaining it would be to say that in the 1980s, white Southern California suburbanites cast as many votes as all of New Jersey and were about as conservative as Barry Goldwater's home state of Arizona. (Roughly 4 percent of the national vote was cast in the suburbs of greater Los Angeles and San Diego in 1996). With the once-Democratic South moving more Republican every decade, Democrats had to win the West Coast to have any chance of winning an electoral majority. As long as Orange County kept California in the GOP column, Democratic presidential candidates faced a severe uphill battle.

From the Watts riot in 1965 to the end of the Cold War in 1991, the only Democratic president elected was Jimmy Carter, who won almost every Southern state in a Watergate-induced fluke. But now that the "Orange Curtain" has fallen and California is back in the Democratic coalition, Democrats are competitive again nationally.

During the heyday of Republican power in O.C., Tom Fuentes, the county GOP chairman, told an enthusiastic pre-election rally that Orange County would "anchor the ship of state strongly to the right." That was true a decade ago, but history's wheel has turned: working-class Asian and Hispanic immigrants have brought down the Orange Curtain as Republican registration in O.C. has fallen to 49.4 percent in 2001.

Orange County will simply no longer turn over the massive conservative majorities Republicans need to overcome Democratic strength in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The right-wing tail will no longer wag the moderate-liberal dog.

The fundamental problem for Republicans is that older Anglos who used to go 2-1 Republican have now been replaced by immigrants who will, at best, someday be swing voters, but are now strong Democrats. California Republicans will have to get away from their diet of strident anti-government conservatism.

With a new generation of immigrants tilting both Orange County and state to Democrats, the Republican Party will have to change. President Bush would easily carry the state on a wave of patriotism at the moment, but that will be unique to him. California Republicans face the same evolutionary challenge that Democrats in the South face: Adapt or die. Their task now is to find a conservative with massive ethnic appeal (no one comes to mind in the current generation of California Republicans) or an outspoken "reform" candidate like John McCain or Earl Warren.

The Southern California of Ronald Reagan, the Beach Boys, John Wayne and Howard Jarvis has been replaced by that of Gray Davis, Fernando Valenzuela, Oscar DeLaHoya, L.A .County Supervisor Gloria Molina, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Salma Hayek and Los Lobos. It's quite possible that the succeeding generations of the current immigrants will be middle class and conservative. But that's a while off. Suburban conservatives are no longer a majority in California, or for that matter, even in Orange County.

(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)

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