Santa Ana Tim Whitacre is trying to unseat current Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Sunday, January 16, 2011 | In about a week, former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona will go to jail on charges of witness tampering.

Monday evening, the local Republican Party will decide whether to replace current local GOP chairman Scott Baugh with party insurgent Tim Whitacre. To Whitacre, there is a certain poetic justice to the proximity of these events.

He sees the continued backing of Carona by Baugh and other Orange County GOP leaders as the most telling example of how the local party has lost its moral compass in recent years. The party, he says, has become an insiders club, a “Lawyers Inc.,” more focused on steering money to incumbents than ethics.

“I represent the everyday Republican,” said Whitacre. “And this is about them.”

Whitacre is heading up a slate of grassroots — some also identify them as “Tea Party” — challengers for five committee seats at Monday’s Republican Central Committee meeting at the Irvine Marriott. Because so many seats are being contested, party leaders have set up a secret ballot instead of the customary standing vote of recent years.

Unseating Baugh will be no easy task for the Santa Ana resident, given that Baugh, a Huntington Beach resident and former state assemblyman and lobbyist, has led the local party since 2004.

But regardless of the outcome, this first contested chairmanship in recent memory is a clear signal that the Tea Party wave to hit the party leadership ranks last June could now impact the party’s direction.

“This election isn’t just about internal matters,” Whitacre said. “This is about having someone who represents the tens of thousands of Republicans in our county and not just the select few who have access.”

A More Accountable Party

Whitacre, a real estate broker and former Marine who says he’s felt the brutal side of the bailout economy, connects the Wall Street fiasco of recent years to people like Baugh and Carona at the local level. And he said the tide of Republicans leaving the party in recent years to become independents is happening because they see their party controlled by corporate insiders.

Whitacre is running on a platform (attached to this story) of increased participation and accountability.

For example, he wants top-level central committee officers to disclose their potential client conflicts just as a government official would. In California, elected and many appointed officials have to file disclosures of their investments and business interests.

“These committee leaders do wield a certain amount of power,” Whitacre said, adding that he thinks the state’s Fair Political Practices Committee should require such disclosures from top party officials. That way Republicans know if the person arguing for an endorsement has something invested in the outcomes, he said.

“It’s just good governance.”

A Strong Resume

Baugh’s supporters say he’s run an effective chairmanship; acting as a solid fundraiser, moving the party to purchase its own Tustin headquarters, mediating factional struggles and modernizing get-out-the-vote efforts.

He is credited by many party activists for launching a frontal attack on public employee unions later called the “Baugh Manifesto,” which prohibited Republican-endorsed candidates from seeking any union money for their election campaigns.

“He’s very hands on,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flash Report website, which connects Republican decision-makers up and down the state. He said Baugh has been a solid fundraiser and organizer behind the mechanics of the party’s get-out-the-vote operations.

A key crticism of Baugh’s term was a long-delayed review of party books under the bylaws, something that Whitacre and other candidates running for the central committee have seized upon.

Fleischman said that audit was done a month ago, and the party was given a clean bill of financial health.

Fleischman is himself running for a vice chairmanship against two Whitacre allies, Allan Bartlett and Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly.

Baugh said he’s not giving up on the working class vote, saying it’s a mistake to connect Republicans with Wall Street.

“I don’t think Wall Street is partisan,” Baugh said. “Wall Street is greedy. There’s as many Republicans and Democrats on Wall Street trying to stuff money into their pockets.”

The Ghost of Carona

Baugh said his biggest frustration as chairman has been the party’s endorsement process, which, he says, the rank and file love but is fraught with problems and affects unity.

Because there are winners and losers in such a process, Baugh believes he is often the scapegoat for losing campaigns. In fact, that’s exactly what Baugh attributes Whitacre’s challenge to.

Whitacre and others were highly crtical of Baugh after an ugly endorcement process during the fall city council election in Irvine. Early on, the party chose to endorse only Jeff Lalloway and not Lynn Schott, who is a member of the Central Committee.

The party eventually endorced Schott, but Whitacre, Bartlett and others said it was too little too late. Lalloway won one of the two open seats and Democratic incumbent Larry Agran finished just ahead of Schott for the other seat, thus maintaning a 3-2 Democratic advantage on the council.

“I can’t say it’s a fun process for me,” Baugh said, noting that endorsements produce bad feelings and impacts when there are multiple candidates running. Another example was in 2006 when Bill Hunt ran against Carona for sheriff. Whitacre was Hunt’s campaign manager.

“That’s where all the controversy has come from,” Baugh said.

Indeed, Whitacre’s first significant conflict with the party came in 2006 when he challenged Carona’s endorsement.

Carona was the darling of the Orange County political establishment through three terms as sheriff (1998, 2002, 2006) and often mentioned as a future lieutenant governor even though there were indications that his tenure would end under a cloud from the outset.

Controversial appointments of top assistant sheriffs — George Jaramillo and Don Haidl, who later were proven to be corrupt — dogged Carona throughout this three terms.

Yet in 2006, Baugh and other party leaders fought hard for Carona, who lost the first endorsement vote, falling short of the required two-thirds margin. Baugh and others then engineered a second chance vote for Carona, which he won.

Whitacre later filed a lawsuit against party officials arguing that they had violated party bylaws in engineering Carona’s endorsement victory. He eventually dropped the lawsuit saying he couldn’t afford to privately fund the legal costs.

Some party insiders begrudge Whitacre for filing the lawsuit, citing the $30,000 it cost the party to defend it.

Yet with Carona going to jail later this month, Whitacre’s stock may get a bump.

“He can certainly say I told you so,” admits Fleischman.

But Fleischman also adds that numerous other elected officials backed Carona in 2006: “It’s not like the central committee went out on a limb.”

Still, Baugh said he would like to see a tighter endorsement process. For example, in contested races, he sees a possibility of issuing endorsements but staying away from attack mailers.

Baugh is specifically thinking about the attack mailers that went out against Anaheim City Councilman Harry Sidhu after then-Fullerton City Councilman Shawn Nelson got the party endorsement.

“That was not pleasant, but we felt it was necessary,” Baugh said.

The biggest challenge facing today’s GOP in Orange County comes after this week’s vote, he said.

“There’ can’t be winners and losers Monday night,” Baugh said, adding that the party needs to come out of the central committee elections “moving forward to confront Democrats.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Scott Baugh’s city of residence. The story also incorrectly surmised that a long-delayed audit of the party’s financials had still not been done. We regret the errors.

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