Politics 2003Week of August 18


Burbank, Calif.-The annual conclave of the California Republican Assembly was particularly significant this year. At 69, the CRA is the oldest GOP volunteer group in the Golden State-Cast against the backdrop of the nationally watched recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the CRA session last week also served as a meeting place for members of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. Party activists from as far away as North Carolina, Georgia and Rhode Island jetted West for the three-day session at the Burbank Hilton and a special bus trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in nearby Simi Valley.

Initially founded by then-State Republican Chairman Earl Warren in 1934 to attract younger volunteers to the GOP banner to defeat Socialist Upton Sinclair (who had won the Democratic primary for governor), CRA was a home to moderate Republicans for nearly three decades. In 1964, however, California conservatives mobilized and took over CRA and delivered its endorsement to Barry Goldwater in the state’s presidential primary. Goldwater narrowly won the primary and his victory was pivotal to his eventually winning the GOP nomination for President that year. CRA’s endorsement from then on became the good-as-Goldwater seal of approval for conservative candidates seeking Republican nominations in the Golden State-including early triumphs such as the nominations of Ronald Reagan for governor in 1966 and Max Rafferty for U.S. senator in ’68, and more modern conservative watersheds such as those of Bruce Herschensohn in the 1992 Senate primary to Bill Simon for governor last year.

At this convention, the overwhelming choice of delegates for the GOP nomination against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year was three-term State Assemblyman and stalwart conservative Tony Strickland of Ventura County. The 33-year-old Strickland is expected to have solid right-of-center backing in the primary in which he will face businesswoman Toni Casey, who has a long history of donating to Democrats and pro-abortion groups, and former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, whose views on most issues are almost as much a mystery as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

To be sure, CRA no longer attracts the battalions of volunteers that prompted Kevin Phillips to say in The Emerging Republican Majority in 1969: “that [P]erhaps no other political impetus in the nation is so important as the middle-class upheaval of the Sun country, and Southern California in particular.” Although most volunteer organizations have dwindled as a result of longer work hours, television and VCRs, and other distractions. CRA still draws a crowd and still packs a political wallop that GOPers from Sacramento to Washington pay attention to. Los Angeles investment banker Gerald Parsky, for example, the President’s closest political friend in California and no favorite of conservatives, thought the Burbank event important enough to host a hospitality suite.

The highlight of the conference was the Friday evening banquet, at which the CRA presented its “Patriot” awards to entertainment figures who have defied the Hollywood culture and been steadfastly conservative. To no one’s surprise, Jane Russell was feted and the film legend, a frequent fixture at conservative gatherings in California and Washington, gave a powerful speech that touched on her religious faith. Others notables honored included Gavin (Love Boat) McLeod and wife Patty, Gary and Dave Johnson (brothers who have created such family-oriented TV programs as Against the Grain and Doc), Morgan (Dallas) Brittany, game show kingpin Wink Martindale, and Lance Wilder, the cartoonist who does the background scenes for “The Simpsons.”


Rep. Darrell Issa, who financed and helped run the successful Davis recall petition campaign, didn’t make the CRA convention. But, after a particularly brutal week that featured his much-watched, tearful withdrawal as a candidate from the October 7 recall election, few could blame the San Diego-area congressman for taking a few days of rest at Lake Tahoe.

“But Darrell’s still a hero and all of CRA salutes him,” former State Sen. Dick Mountjoy of Los Angeles County told me. Echoing most of his fellow conservative stalwarts in California, Mountjoy added that, “without Darrell, we wouldn’t be here. There would have been no recall.”

Indeed, pundits and pols were writing off the signature-gathering efforts as “amateur night” and likely to fall short until July, when car alarm magnate Issa weighed in with his own exchequer and poured $1.6 million into a new “Rescue California” committee. Within weeks, more than twice the 890,000 signatures required to trigger the recall election were submitted and the rest, as they say, is history.

Aware of Issa’s role as “the man who made it all happen,” Davis and his allies drew an early bead on the conservative congressman, who had also become the first Republican to announce for governor in the replacement election accompanying the recall measure. Attacks from the Davis camp on Issa’s voting record in Congress (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 94%) and his pro-2nd Amendment and pro-life stands as “right wing” flew like shrapnel. Issa also took some hard media hits rehashing old stories about charges of and one trial for a youthful car theft episode (although Issa had never been convicted of any crime), as well as a never-proven accusation that he had torched property of his own to acquire insurance money. (Appearing on the popular “John and Ken” radio program in Los Angeles last week, Issa announced a libel suit against state Democratic Party operative Bob Mulholland for publicly calling him an “arsonist.”)

Was Issa encouraged to abandon his own candidacy for governor last week during a telephone call from fellow California Republican Rep. David Dreier as rumor had it? “There was a call, but that really didn’t play a role in his decision to get out,” explained Issa spokesman Phil Paule, “When a Democratic union operative named ‘Sam Issa’ filed [for governor], Darrell knew that too many voters were bound to confuse the two of them and his candidacy had become more difficult. Also, all of this ‘Arnold-ness’ was a factor and it isn’t going away”-a reference to the celebrity aura surrounding Arnold Schwarzenegger after he announced for governor on the “Tonight” show.

While Issa will not be a candidate and will most likely remain in Congress for a few years, his prospective clout in a future statewide race will undoubtedly be considerable. “When you come to the state [Republican] convention in September, you won’t forget it because it will probably be the biggest you’ve ever covered,” Phil Paule predicted to me, “And on the opening evening, the banquet will be a salute to Darrell Issa.”


One well-liked figure missed and mourned by CRA members was Virginia Knott Bender, longtime doyenne of Orange County society and contributor to conservative causes and candidates. Bender had died on June 13 of cancer at age 90.

To older California conservatives, Virginia was primarily known as the daughter of Knott’s Berry Farm founder Walter Knott of Buena Park. In the 1950s, multimillionaire Knott left his famous amusement park and restaurant in the hands of relatives to devote himself to the budding conservative movement. He served as national treasurer of the Liberty Amendment Committee, launched the Free Enterprise Association to send out monthly letters on taxes and capitalism, founded a library for conservative grass-roots activists and was honorary chairman for Dr. Fred C. Schwarz’s Orange County School of Anti-Communism. Knott was also on the first finance committees supporting Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 and Ronald Reagan for governor in ’66. “No one played a more pivotal role in fostering the grass-roots conservative revival than Walter Knott,” concluded Lisa McGirr in Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right.

Daughter Virginia carried on his tradition. A graduate of Whittier (Calif.) College, she helped friend and classmate Richard Nixon in his campaigns going back to his winning Senate race in 1950. She also started Virginia’s Gift Shop at the family amusement park and served as a director of Knott’s Berry Farm until it was sold to Cedar Fair LP of Ohio in 1997.

Perhaps most significantly, Virginia Knott Bender was a strong supporter of the Young America’s Foundation’s much-praised on-going project to make Ronald Reagan’s beloved Santa Barbara ranch a lasting monument to the 40th President.