New Orange County Democratic Party Executive Director Gerrie Schipske.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 |Orange County Democrats Monday night unveiled new Executive Director Gerrie Schipske, and, with beefed up voter registration, say they’re ready for this year’s election cycle.

“There’s a bright potential future for us,” said county Democratic Chairman Frank Barbaro during Monday’s central committee meeting. “[But] it’s only potential until we step into the ring and start punching. And we’re going to start punching.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether those punches will have enough snap to put a dent in the GOP’s long-held dominance of local politics.

Unlike in years past, there are actual positives for the Democrats. The Republican voter registration edge continues to erode, with the most recent numbers showing the GOP going from 48.5 percent of registered voters in 2006 to 43.3 percent this year.

Meanwhile, Democratic voter registration has inched up, from 29.8 percent to 32.1 percent, during the same period. And the percentage of Orange County voters with no party affiliation now stands at 20 percent — meaning that more voters are either in the Democrats’ camp or up for grabs.

Also, Democrats in Orange County already hold a series of upstream seats — such as Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, State Senator Lou Correa and Assemblyman Jose Solorio — along with Democratic majorities on councils in two of the county’s largest cities, Irvine and Santa Ana.

In her speech Monday at the committee meeting, Schipske, a Long Beach City Councilwoman, said she grew up in Orange County when it was a majority Democratic county. And she says she knows the path back to prime time.

“I’d like to see that happen again” Schipske said. “There’s a real mood in the country and the county that it’s Republicans who don’t care about working families.”

However, there remains a not-ready-for-prime-time feel at Democratic gatherings.

On Monday the crowd of about 100 sat loosely organized in folding chairs at the Teamsters Local 952 hall and munched on chips and salsa. When it came time to discuss endorsements, there were only two offices were presented: public administrator and fourth district county supervisor.

Contrast that with last week’s Republican Central Committee meeting, which was held at a Hyatt hotel ballroom with party delegations sitting together in front of a crowd numbering about 500.

Endorsements for top locally elected seats – like Sheriff, Treasurer/Tax Collector and County Supervisor – were hotly contested and debated by the Republicans.

The Democratic endorsement show was tame in comparison. For example, no consensus emerged for a candidate in the supervisor’s race, which is arguably the most important race of the June primary.

Instead of the heated debate between candidates witnessed at the Republican committee, this crowd got two three-minute speeches by contenders Anaheim City Councilwoman Lorri Galloway and La Habra Councilwoman Rose Espinoza.

Members essentially split on support and no one got the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement.

Incumbent Clerk Recorder Tom Daly – who didn’t attend – won an endorsement. The Public Administrator candidate, Kevin Vann, gave a short speech and won the endorsement.

The highlight of the night was Schipske’s speech.

Standing behind a podium with the words “Power,” “Dignity” and “Respect” hanging on placards behind her, the 60-year-old described her vision for revitalizing a party structure that’s been criticized by many as overly focused on national issues and races and uninterested in the local landscape.

It’s the Democrats that have created things like good jobs, safe working conditions, environmental protections, Schipske said. And in this economy, it’s important to remind middle class voters who’s working on their behalf.

Yet, Schipske acknowledged, “we don’t communicate that very well.” The openly gay woman said it is crucial that traditional pillars of Democratic strength — labor, environmentalists and the gay community — all work in tandem and set aside minor differences and rivalries.

Schipske said people can expect more voter registration efforts, better social media outreach and a revitalized party website, strengthened coordination with labor and a more heightened focus on winning local seats.

Southern Orange County Vice Chair Jacob Sangiorgio told the crowd that how close they are coming to voter majorities in certain districts. “Irvine is 4,000 away. La Habra is 200 away. Anaheim is 2,000 away. We can do this.”

“We can change this entire county blue,” Sangiorgio said.

But to make that happen, or even to change the county to a lighter shade of red, Democrats have got to close the fundraising gap, party leaders acknowledged Monday.

Barbaro noted that much of the fundraising money in Orange County flows out — mainly to national races. That needs to change, he said, if the bench of locally elected officials is to come close to the swelling party registration numbers for Democrats.

Yet the trend is tough to buck. For example, Central County Vice Chair Florice Hoffman announced on Monday that she would be hosting a fundraising luncheon at her house for Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez this weekend.

Sanchez is a national powerhouse in terms of fundraising, but financial assistance to candidates like Vann in his quest for the public administrator’s seat is key to building a viable political organization.

Beyond money, Democratic regulars on Monday said the party needs to do a better job of getting into the trenches and challenging Republican officials directly.

Secretary Susan Uballe told the crowd, “the Republicans are very active in North Orange County.” “They use any means necessary to do what they do,” she said. “All of sudden (State Assemblyman) Chris Norby is having town hall meetings.”

Uballe said that shouldn’t go unchallenged. “I would really love it if some democrats would show up and ask him what he’s doing.”

Correction: Gerrie Schipske’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.

Please contact Norberto Santana directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.orgAnd add your voice with a letter to the editor.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.