Hate the GOP? Blame Orange County

It seems like the roots of every Republican blunder can be traced to this sunny Southern California hamlet.

When John McCain said last month that if elected, he would fire Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, pundits of all political persuasions dismissed the threat as grandstanding. But out here in Orange County, California, those of us who have followed Cox's career were pleasantly surprised that McCain identified one of the current political scene’s principal maladies: our region's undue, and dangerous, influence on it.

Orange County has long been a political Eden in GOP circles, the place Ronald Reagan once described as “where all the good Republicans go to die.” The conservative notches on our belt do indeed bolster the Great Communicator’s quip: this is where the Goldwater revolution most fervently took hold. Years after his 1964 electoral embarrassment, the Arizona Senator proudly boasted that he carried five states “and Orange County.” This is where Reagan found the foot soldiers that propelled him to California's gubernatorial office in 1966 and beyond. Here, the Lincoln Club (according to its website, “the largest and most active political club in the United States”) raises millions of dollars from Orange County’s business community to make or break politicians. Both Fred Thompson and Charlie Crist saw their White House ambitions fail after lukewarm receptions from the club, while Arnold Schwarzenegger found the support needed to make the jump from actor to governor. These suburbs birthed Nixon and his Southern Strategy, served as a testing ground for the 1990s culture wars, and currently boast some of the largest and richest base-rallying Christian megachurches.

Orange County’s reputation betrays its reality: the politics that succeed in our land of milk and Mickey are downright toxic when practiced on a national scale.

One of fundamental Christianity's primary financiers resides here: Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., who has used his multimillions to fund the schism in the Episcopal Church over ordaining gay bishops, creation institutes, and has personally donated $900,000 to Proposition 8, the noxious California ballot initiative that would repeal gay marriage in the Golden State.

Fittingly, when McCain and Barack Obama scheduled their first joint town hall appearance this summer, it was at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, O.C., which hosts the third-largest Christian congregation in America and is headed by Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and the country's most influential evangelical since Billy Graham.

So Orange County has emerged from the long, liberal shadow of Los Angeles to assert its own civic identity. The problem is that Orange County’s reputation betrays its reality: the politics that succeed in our land of milk and Mickey are downright toxic when practiced on a national scale.

Everyone knows Nixon’s saga, but how about the aforementioned Christopher Cox? Before becoming SEC head in 2005, Cox served as the congressman to Newport Beach, one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. During a tenure stretching from the Keating 5 to the collapse of Enron, he consistently voted to expand tax loopholes for corporations and soften punishment toward them. Tellingly, around the time of Cox’s nomination, BusinessWeek reported that lobbyists for these companies were “almost giddy at the prospect of Cox” as SEC head. While in office, Cox cut his agency’s enforcement budget, defanging the very watchdogs who were supposed to ensure Wall Street didn’t get us into debacles like the one we’re experiencing now.

One of the trouble spots Cox should have been monitoring, the subprime mortgage industry, also has proud roots in Orange County. The late Roland Arnall pioneered the scheme while head of Long Beach Savings, mentoring many of the CEOs who went on to start other similar companies. Long Beach Savings (actually located in Orange Country) evolved into Ameriquest Mortgage Co., the nation's largest originator of such loans, and the subprime arm of Washington Mutual, which recently became the largest bank to fail in American history. For his vision, Bush appointed Arnell as ambassador to the Netherlands.

And, speaking of ambassadors, let’s talk about George Argyros. The multibillionaire's real-estate company was accused in 2001 by investigators in the district attorney's office of overcharging poor immigrants living in shoddy apartments, but charges were never brought to trial. Argyros was an acquaintence and a donor to Tony Rackauckas, the D.A. In 1998, a lawyer for George Argyros’ company Arnel Management held a fundraiser that raised more than $30,000 for the campaign. Once acquitted, Argyros became ambassador to Spain, an accomplishment presumably owing more to raising $30 million to George W. Bush’s California campaign than any personal connection to the Iberian country. Argyros’ lack of experience showed in his disastrous run: Spaniards loathed him for maneuvering their country into Bush's Coalition of the Willing, and he resigned a couple of months after the March 11, 2004 Madrid bombings.

Surprisingly, Orange County’s pet project has yet to surface in the current presidential campaign: illegal immigration. Not only did the Minuteman Project begin here, but so did legislation to deny illegal immigrants public benefits and proposals to give sheriff's deputies and police officers immigration powers. Municipalities across the country have emulated with gusto, but McCain and Obama have shied away from such divisiveness. They’re smarter than that: Orange County has caused enough damage to the U.S. in the past couple of years. Better to leave us in the position we best embody: as America’s nut country.

Editor’s Note: This commentary was amended to clarify a $30,000 donation to the campaign of Orange County D.A. Tony Rackauckas. In 1998, a lawyer for George Argyros’ company Arnel Management held a fundraiser that raised more than $30,000 for the campaign.

Gustavo Arellano writes the widely syndicated “Ask A Mexican” column for OC Weekly and is the author of Orange County: A Personal History, recently published by Scribner.