What Happened When I Infiltrated One of the Most Secretive and Powerful Republican Organizations in the Country
Photo Credit: Stephen Coburn/ Shutterstock.com
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It’s an unreasonably warm October day, and I’m milling about awkwardly with a handful of suits at a mixer in a small banquet hall at Newport Beach’s Pacific Club—which, according to its website, is the gathering place of choice for the “distinctive life-style of Orange County’s business and professional leaders.”
An incredible thirst suddenly overwhelms me, as I look down and see I’ve practically sweated through my cheap suit. I try my best to keep control of my decorum, but when a busser passes by with a lone Arnold Palmer on his tray, I snatch it greedily from the outstretched hands of another guest and suck the saccharine concoction down in one gulp.
The hot weather may be playing a small role in my odd behavior, but my discomfort is mainly due to the fact this is no ordinary mixer. I’ve successfully infiltrated one of the most powerful and secretive Republican organizations in the country: The Lincoln Club of Orange County. Back in September, I discovered a chink in its otherwise iron-clad armor with this note on the group’s website:
This election year is the most pivotal in recent memory. Will we continue on the path toward expanding government or will we change course and choose liberty? In California, will we stand by while special interests bankrupt our state or will we finally return Sacramento to the voters?
Whether it’s supporting conservative candidates and issues locally or at the national level, Lincoln Club membership gives you an opportunity to put your beliefs into action and to stay informed about crucial happenings in local, statewide, and national politics.
Learn more about how you can make a difference this election year.
Join us! Members are encouraged to attend with their prospective member guests.
The organizational brains and bucks behind Citizens United and Proposition 32 was looking for new members. Who was I to say no?
Easier said than done.
The club only has a few hundred members—none of whom, certainly, would be willing to drag a strange journalist to an event unless the writer were on the Koch brothers’ payroll.
So I RSVP’d independently, hoping that anyone coherent enough to string together a few sentences would be welcome. The contemporary Republican Party isn’t exactly loaded with William F. Buckley-types. If James O’Keefe can occupy an elite niche in the GOP pantheon, surely I could squeeze my way in.
And here I am, in the teeth of the Conservative movement, surrounded by power suits and blonde bouffants, trying to be the best Republican I can be. In preparation, I shaved my sideburns up above my ears, and slicked my hair to the side–a Chappelle’s Show parody of a white guy. I must look the part, as I spy the blondest, most-intimidating bouffant of them all making its way toward me. It belongs to Teresa Hernandez, a onetime Republican congressional candidate who tried to take Hilda Solis’ seat after Obama appointed her Secretary of Labor. Almost as soon as I sign myself in, Hernandez introduces herself.
“Hi, I’m Teresa. I’m a member.” She lets that settle in. “So… ‘Allen,’” she says, staring skeptically at my pseudonymous name tag. “Where are you from?”
“Glendale,” I tell her, which is true, even though it’s an hour’s drive north in L.A. County – which has its own Lincoln Club.
“Glendale, huh? That must have been quite a . . . schlep.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. She doesn’t suspect me of being a journalist. I must have merely set off her Jewdar.
“Oy,” I say, laying it on thick, “a schlep indeed. No traffic, thank heavens.”
“So what brings you all the way down here, Allen?”
“Well,” I tell Hernandez, “if you want to become active in the conservative movement in California, this is the place. The Lincoln Club of Orange County is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.”
This too, is true. Since the days of Richard Nixon, the Lincoln Club has been the Matrix-like ideological birthing chamber of California Republicanism, whose grandees and arbiters once guided Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Arnold Schwarzenegger when their political careers were in their larval stages. That same Lincoln Club gave us the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court victory—which paved the way for Super PACs and unlimited, anonymous corporate donations—and, over the past year, had been instrumental in pushing Proposition 32 onto the California ballot. (The measure would permanently gut the clout of California’s unions by prohibiting automatic payroll deductions from being used for political purposes.)
“Well…that’s good,” Hernandez replies, suddenly uninterested and looking for an exit strategy. I wasn’t ready to let her go.
“So, how are the Prop. 32 efforts looking?” I ask, opening my eyes as wide as possible in my best simulacrum of Republican excitement. “Does it still have a shot?”
Her face immediately brightens: “We’re up to $60 million. We’re outspending them now! I think we’re going to do it.”
With that, more attendees filter in and Hernandez excuses herself to greet them. Many, quite honestly, seem like wealthy retirees with little else to do, although there are some GOP farm league players too, including Garden Grove city council candidate Phat Bui.
But make no mistake: The Lincoln Club is the real deal. And if they have their way, Citizens United is just the beginning of their political ambitions for the country.
Kingmaker of Southland Republicans
When Richard Nixon famously declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” after losing the 1962 California Governor’s race to Pat Brown, he may also have been predicting the future of his state’s Republican Party. The social revolution of the ’60s would eventually render the party a shrinking minority in an increasingly liberal state. But a group of Orange County businessmen, spurred on by Nixon’s defeat, vowed to never let a champion of conservative values suffer such an embarrassing defeat in California again. Lead by Walter Knott, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, and Si Fluor of the Fluor Corporation, they formed the Lincoln Club of Orange County to advocate for the interests of the business community–and the club has been playing kingmaker of Southland Republicans with grand ambitions ever since.
In 1978, the Lincoln Club helped launch the landmark California anti-tax initiative Proposition 13—which capped property taxes at an absurdly low rate and demanded all future tax raises in the state be approved by the legislature by a two-thirds margin. The initiative portended the anti-tax revolution that hangs over the country to this day.
Through the 1990s and early aughts, the Lincoln Club made several attempts to pass “paycheck protection” measures in California—which would have banned unions from taking automatic dues from members. These failed miserably, as voters were sophisticated enough to realize they spelled the political death of California’s 2.5 million union members
In 2007, with union power still too strong for any massive statewide overhauls, the Lincoln Club set their sites on the national election fray, by providing seed money for Hillary: The Movie—an anti-Hillary Clinton political documentary/screed they hoped would ultimately lead to a John McCain presidential victory in 2008. They were even given an executive producer credit on the film.
Hillary was scheduled to air on cable TV in the run-up to the election—but never did, after the Federal Election Commission declared it to be political propaganda and blocked it from being advertised or paid to be shown on television 30 days before the 2008 Democratic primary. The group that produced the film, Citizens United, sued and won its case before the Supreme Court—paving the way for Super PACs and unlimited, anonymous corporate donations to the political process. Where the money came from to support such a massive legal endeavor remains largely unknown, but many suspect the Lincoln Club dug fairly deep into its members’ pockets for the cause.
This year, the Lincoln Club was instrumental in qualifying and pushing onto the California ballot Proposition 32, which proposes limiting “special interest” political donations to elections by eliminating mandatory union and corporate payroll deductions from being used for political purposes – although there don’t seem to be many, if any, state businesses that politically tithe their employees.
Yes, the group that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns, now purports to be interested in “stopping special interest” money from entering politics. Even more cynically, they’ve done so by appropriating Occupy Wall Street-inspired anti-corporate messaging into the political campaign. If passed, the law will likely be used as a model to quash unions in other states.
“A Small Group of People With Just a Little Bit of Money”
Back at the club, the banquet room has slowly filled, and 20 or so attendees sit at three small tables to feast on fried-chicken salad. A skeleton crew of stealthy Latino bussers ferries Arnold Palmers to the tables—one of which revolves around Teresa Hernandez, the other around Lincoln Club chairman and RKW Development president Richard Wagner. Then there’s the third, which revolves around, well, me I guess. It’s nearly empty, as the two other people sitting with me are together and largely engaged in their own conversation.
I’m clearly the reject of the room.
My fortunes, however, change instantly when Lincoln Club president Richard Loewen arrives, sits directly next to me, and begins attacking his fried chicken.
“Sorry I’m late everyone,” he announces to the room after a few bites. “Why don’t we go around and introduce ourselves?”
My palms are so sweaty that by the time my turn comes around I can barely hold on to my silverware.
“Hi, uh, I’m Allen Fleischer. I’m here because I have these, uh…conservative principles buried…uh…deep inside me. And I want to…let them out…”
This is going badly. I need to channel my inner Sean Hannity.
“Liberty and freedom are obviously under assault in America, and they won’t fight for themselves. Myself and other conservatives like to rant about the state of America’s political affairs in casual conversation or to our televisions, but we don’t do anything about it. So I’m here to get involved. And I can’t think of a better place to do that than the Lincoln Club of Orange County…”
Holy shit, that was smooth. Time for the big finish.
“The Lincoln Club is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.”
Like Loewen, most of the guests are buried in their chicken, though I can’t help but notice the approving nods of several cougars. (Still got it!)
After introductions, a brief history video of the club is shown. The topic of Citizens United gets a particularly lengthy discussion.
Richard Wagner, who was club president during the initiative, gets off a good line: “We backed Citizens United to bring down Hillary Clinton, which we did…and we got Barack Obama instead.”
Remorseless laughter fills the room. There’s a very obvious understanding that the sweep of Citizens United goes well beyond Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
After the video, Loewen takes the stage to talk up the current pride of the organization: Proposition 32.
“This measure is really a game-changer,” he says, smiling. “Over the past 20 years, we here at the Lincoln Club have tried getting paycheck protection passed in California three different times with no luck. The measures have just gotten killed by the public unions. Whenever the unions put their full support behind something, no one can beat them.
“But a couple of years ago, we figured, hey, let’s give it another shot. People said we were crazy. And they were probably right. But we started off slow, just to see what would happen. So we gave [conservative journalist] Steve Greenhut $75,000 to write his bookPlunder, about how public employee unions are bankrupting the state. It did pretty well.
“Okay, we thought. How about qualifying this thing for the 2012 ballot? Once again, people said we were crazy. But the Tea Party suddenly became interested. With absolutely zero money, they got about 30,000 signatures. A long way off, but we figured it showed some serious interest. Our testing showed the key [to success], unlike our last paycheck protection measures, was including corporations in the measure.
“So we put a little money behind it—about $100,000–and, what do you know, we qualified for the ballot. The unions went ballistic. At first, we were getting killed on spending. But then, out of the blue a massive $4 million donation showed up and the money has been rolling in ever since. People are calling Prop. 32 the second most important vote in the country in this election cycle, after the president.
“So there you have it. A small group of people, with just a little bit of money and the right connections, can have a huge impact.”
We’re Not Racist
After Loewen’s ode to 32, Hernandez stands up to discuss the club’s next big political endeavor—luring Latino voters to the Republican cause.
“Latinos are 39 percent of the population in California and growing,” she says. “And they almost all vote Democrat. We’re never going to win unless we reach this demographic.”
Of course, with state Republicans historically allied with groups like the Minutemen and 1994’s Proposition 187—which, among other things, sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from having access to health care in California—it’s little wonder Latinos are skeptical.
“Even though they agree with us on many social issues, when Latinos think about the Republican Party, they’re thinking about us deporting their grandma or their cousin,” says Hernandez. “When Democrats call us racist—which we’re not—we have no response, no plan we can point to that Latinos can rally behind.”
That is where the Lincoln Club stands poised to jump in with a three-point plan: Securing the border, workplace enforcement and a guest worker program. Of course, Hernandez’s guest worker program doesn’t include a path to citizenship. It’s simply about using immigrants to drive labor prices down and then sending them on their way back home. Unions too, will reject the idea of guest workers, and fight against the plan at all cost. However, should Prop. 32 pass and cripple its ability to fund-raise for political purposes, there will be little labor can do.
Gloria Romero: “Isn’t She Great!”
With the event ending, I flag down Loewen.
“Mr. Loewen, I have to ask: How did you get a liberal like Gloria Romero to front for Prop. 32? That was really a stroke of genius.”
Indeed, nothing in this election season has been more surprising than the decision of Romero, an East L.A. Latina progressive and former California State Senate Democratic majority leader, to join with the Lincoln Club on 32. Romero won a hotly contested run for the California Assembly in 1998, largely by fighting the Lincoln Club on Prop. 32′s progenitor, Proposition 226–the first ‘paycheck protection’ initiative. Now, suddenly, not only is she in favor of 32, she’s become its primary spokesperson.
“Isn’t she great!” Loewen tells me. “We don’t even have to coordinate with her. She just goes for it.”
“She and Teresa are friends. Teresa and her husband own a restaurant in El Monte and a lot of political players tend to eat there—including Democrats. We approached her about 32 way back—maybe a year and a half ago. She told us she’d think about it. We didn’t hear from her for a while. Then, six months ago, she finally called Teresa and said ‘I’m in.’ She’s been 100 percent committed ever since.
“We tried to get Common Cause to jump on board too. Their president, Bob Edgar, was actually for it. He’s a friend of mine. But the board ultimately came out against it.”
With that, Loewen flashes me a toothy “oh well” smile, and excuses himself to head outside into the endless Orange County summer.
“You Get a Lot of Wackos on Our Side”
Loewen’s response was typical of the mood at the meeting–a warm, good-humored affair, not tainted by the shrill chest-thumping of Fox News or the life-or-death rhetoric of the Tea Party. Most of those present were absolutely delighted just to be able to speak about these issues strategically, without getting ridiculed by their liberal Southern California colleagues, or having the conversation descend into uneducated birtherism.
“You get a lot of wackos on our side,” one prospective member admitted to me.
That said, of course they’re all good-humored. They’re rich, they’re powerful and they’re pretty much all white. Their only stake in the larger political battle is holding on to a few extra tax dollars. But the fact is that being rich, white and sophisticated just isn’t enough to stay in control in the 21st Century. With America’s changing demographics, you need to be mercenary. So you plug away, peeling off your opponents’ key allies and hoping voters are foolish enough to vote for your Trojan Horse measures, or apathetic enough to ignore them.
If you lose, there’s no real worry. You finish your chicken salad with a smile, and go home to your wealthy suburban home to fight another day. Two weeks after the election, the Lincoln Club has a sleepover field trip planned at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, where they’ll peruse the new and bizarrely random “Treasures of Walt Disney” exhibit before enjoying a power dinner with Wisconsin’s union-busting Governor Scott Walker.
“Yes on 32, Huh?”
As I head to my car with a fistful of Prop. 32 bumper stickers, I catch one of the parking attendants, an elderly Asian man, dismissively eyeing my political propaganda. I turn to face him, expecting he’ll look away, but he doesn’t.
“Yes on 32, huh?” he asks.
“Oh, you betcha,” I say, channeling my whitest, inner white guy. “We’re going to take the state back from those special interests.”
He pauses for a moment, scanning me up and down. “I’ll be voting no,” he finally says, before walking away.
“What’ll it take to change your mind?” I shout after him.
He doesn’t even turn around.
I smile, hop in my car, and drive as fast as I can back to Los Angeles.