Monday, May 28, 2012

The Rise of Ultra-Conservatism in Orange County

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

Except for a brief period during The Great Depression, Orange County has historically been a predominantly conservative, Republican county.  Don Smith, a former writer and editor for the Orange County Edition of the LA Times described the county's politics up until the 1950s in this way: "The county was a rural area on the fringes of Los Angeles, which was more of a metropolitan area.  Agriculture was very big here.  They tended to be conservative, "Free Enterprise," and a self-sustaining type of people.  They, I think, naturally leaned toward the Republican Party."

However, with all the social and political unrest of the 1960s, and the escalation of the Cold War, there emerged a new brand of ultra-conservatism in Orange County.  In a paper entitled "Turmoil and Change: An Interim Report on the Politics of Orange County, California, 1945-1979, Charles L. Beaman and Michael Jones write: "More militant and doctrinaire conservatives filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of moderates.  They were more vocally patriotic and anti-Communist, and generally affiliated themselves with the John Birch Society.  Their activities at times elicited national press coverage, and helped to create the County's reputation for being a politically "kooky" bastian of ultra-conservatism."  They became infamous for their opposition to the Civil Rights Act.  As Don Smith suggests, 'the great free enterprise system' and 'states rights' were buzzwords which they used to cover all kinds of things."

"A lot of them--I call them radicals or ultra-conservatives--are wound up in theory," recalled Gordon Richmond, former Chairman of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, "They are just impractical and unrealistic.  That condition, that mentality, just grew and grew in the Republican party to the point where I became very glad that I had not chosen to stay in politics professionally, because I would have gone down with the ship in my own party, fighting my own people, so to speak."

Two local politicians who perhaps best represented the OC ultraconservatives were John Schmitz and James Utt.  Schmitz was a leading member of the John Birch Society, who became famous for opposing Civil Rights Legislation in the 1960s.  Schmitz was quoted as saying, "Martin Luther King Jr. is a notorious liar" and "I would have voted for a three-tier system—have one school that the blacks could go to, one school that all the whites could go to, and those who want to mix go to a third school."  

John Schmitz

Congressman James Utt from Tustin was opposed to "commies," welfare, the United Nations, civil rights, and the income tax.  He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1960, 1964, and 1968, and against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In 1963, he claimed that "a large contingent of barefooted Africans" might be training in Georgia as part of a United Nations military exercise to take over the United States. In 1963, he published a series of newsletters claiming that black Africans may be training in Cuba to invade the United States.  

Moderate O.C. Senator Tom Kuchel said Utt was "fright peddling."  Don Smith wrote that these newsletters earned Orange County "a national reputation as being not only conservative but a bit strange."

Dr. Harry Jeffrey, a former Cal State Fullerton professor recalls Schmitz and Utt, and their massive supporters as "a bunch of kooks and John Birch Society people running around, and training out in the mountains with rifles to prevent the "Commie hordes" from overruning us."

Bruce Summner, a moderate local Republican Assemblyman and Senator who had helped establish Cal State Fullerton and UCI, suffered from the radicalization of the Republican party in the 1960s.  For example, Sumner lost a 1964 Senate race to Schmitz largely because of one issue--fair housingThe Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 ended housing discrimination based on race.  In response, a lot of Orange County conservatives got Proposition 14 on the 1964 ballot, which would have repealed the fair housing act.  Sumner supported fair housing, Schmitz and lots of Orange County conservatives did not.  In an interview for the CSUF Oral History Program, Sumner recalls, "My position on civil rights issues hurt me."

In the 1960s, in Orange County, it was politically advantageous to support racist policies.  Sumner was unwilling to bow to this pressure.  "I am a fiscal conservative, and I have always been," Sumner recalled, "Yet I do believe that people should have equal opportunity; that goes for housing as well as employment.  It is one of those things that is so important to me, that I wouldn't, in any way, try to duck the issue.  That to me, is just fundamental in this country; it is what it's all about."

This ultra-conservative element in the Orange County Republican Party, whose legacy still exists today, caused Bruce Sumner to lose his faith in the party, and switch to Democrat.  "It seemed to me that this truly showed that the Republican Party was not the party that most nearly expressed my views, not that I agree with everything Democratic," he said, "But I had strong feelings about Nixon and also about Reagan.  So, I felt that it was time to change."

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