Orange County Republican Chairman Tom Fuentes, dean of party leaders in the Golden State’s 58 counties, is retiring after a record 20 years of service.
Fuentes became chairman in 1984 at age 35. A successful businessman in the civil engineering field, he used his private-sector management skills to rebuild a party that had been living a “hand-to-mouth” existence. Today, it boasts a full-time staff and headquarters, and a bi-annual budget of $1 million.
Fuentes also led the party in dealing with Orange County’s demographic changes. As Democrats began making inroads in a region that was once famously Republican, the GOP under Fuentes still won most elective offices and delivered handsome margins to President Bush in 2000 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in last year’s recall election.
More than just a fund-raiser or political mechanic, Fuentes was a conservative leader, making no secret of his conservative views on issues ranging from taxes to the right to life. “I never kept under any bushel basket,” he says.
Fuentes also mentored young conservatives who rose to leadership roles in the party. Among these are Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and Scott Baugh, a former legislator who next month will take over as county chairman with Fuentes’ blessing.
Fuentes found that being a conservative party leader in a Republican-heavy county can bring enemies. In the late 1990s, a group of well-heeled “moderates” known as the New Majority began calling for new party leadership. “That meant they didn’t like me or the majority on the county committee because we were conservative, pro-life, and felt the volunteer has the same role in the party as billions of dollars,” said Fuentes. Led in part by former Nixon White House staffer Larry Higby, New Majority spent nearly $500,000 on primary challenges to the Fuentes team. But they managed to unseat only one Fuentes ally from the county central committee — Emily Sanford, a longtime party volunteer, who is black. As Fuentes put it, “They targeted the Mexican chairman and managed to unseat the black volunteer. That’s their message of ‘changing the face of the Republican Party.'”
Fuentes, 55, shows no signs of fading away politically. He intends to continue his work on the boards of the Legal Services Corp., GOPAC, the National Conservative Campaign Fund, and Eagle Publishing, the parent company of HUMAN EVENTS.