Los Angeles Times,
December 24, 2004
Headline: In GOP They Trust
Byline: Maria L. La Ganga
MURRIETA, Calif. — As four vintage military planes soared above the second
annual Veterans Day parade here last month, all eyes turned skyward.
Suddenly, one plane veered west, alone. The empty space where the plane had
flown was a tribute to those who've died in defense of freedom. Eyes misted
over. Young parents snapped pictures. Old men saluted.
Mayor Jack van Haaster commemorated the somber fly-by: "We give tribute to
those whose lives were lost in service to their country." Then he
clambered into a shiny convertible to lead high school bands and candy-tossing
Marines, car clubs and Scout troops on a mile-long swing around the unfinished
center of this fast-growing, young, Republican city.
Here in the stout heart of red California, voters
snort with disdain when they hear that President Bush's strong victory caught America's
Democrats by surprise. Not a single Murrieta precinct swung Sen. John Kerry's
way in the bitterly fought 2004 election; in many parts of town, 70% or more of
the electorate cast ballots for Bush — a strong show of red unity in one of
America's bluest states.
The same values that drew voters here to Bush in the first place also led many
of them to Murrieta, the self-proclaimed gem of the Temecula Valley, where
streets are safe, schools are good and housing is more affordable than in many
other parts of California.
Churches outnumber bars here some 15 to one, 40% of the residents are of school
age, and 71% are white. Murrieta's population has quadrupled since 1990, as
thoroughbred ranches and chaparral-covered hills due east of Orange County have
given way to subdivisions with names like Pacific Oaks, Sedona, Meadowlane.
"People come here with their families, and they want a conservative
lifestyle that they can re-create," said Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Seyrato, who
moved here nearly 15 years ago with his wife from Los
Angeles County so they
could buy a house and start a family. "We were able to recapture the fresh
neighborhood of the '60s feel…. It had a lot of promise out here."
Boomtown California is Republican California, and this 13-year-old city of
77,661 could be its capital — bustling with earth-moving equipment and flag
men, bristling with signs that promise "Coming Soon!" and
"Starting in the $200,000's," Murrieta is all road construction and
just-framed subdivisions and a parade route that navigates delicately through
Bush lost California
resoundingly last month, so it is easy to forget that more people voted for him
in this state than in any other in America. With
population and political clout clustered in Democratic Los Angeles County and
the San Francisco Bay Area, it's also easy to overlook the rapid spread of
Since 1992, the number of California counties
with more registered Republicans than voters of any other party has nearly
tripled, from 13 to 37 out of 58. That growth has shaped exurbs such as
Murrieta, where "we're red. We're getting redder … [and] the Democrats
don't even bother to organize," said Shaun Bowler, professor of political
science at UC Riverside.
As Republicans migrate farther from California's aging
cities, the state has become increasingly split, to the point that "we're
as polarized as the nation, if not more so. It's a problem," said
political analyst Tony Quinn. "You have to have some cooperation to get
things done in California. We have
a [political] structure that favors cooperation and interaction between the two
parties. But the middle ground seems to be giving way."
Like the people who live here in the Temecula Valley, who drive for hours
between houses they can afford and jobs they can't afford to leave. They
gathered at the Veterans Day parade last month to celebrate their shared
values. And that's as good a place as any to start for a little conversation
about what California's
Republicans believe and why they believe it.
Shortly after the equestrian groups had clip-clopped by with their shovel-wielding
escorts, Rick Reiss drove down Adams Avenue in his silver Hummer, freshly
washed and filled with graying comrades from American Legion Post 852.
Reiss works full time on the engineering staff of the federal prison in San
Diego and is a part-time columnist for the local
newspaper. His views on Bush's victory had appeared in The Californian just
before the parade, in a column that was part paean to the president, part
celebration of conservative Riverside County — and
"Buck up," he wrote to the state's "despairing liberals."
"Before fleeing to Canada,
consider getting to know some of your many conservative Southwest County
neighbors. You might just learn a thing or two. I promise you, they will not
And just what would these "leftists within the Democratic Party"
learn if they spent some time with Reiss, a 40-year-old Navy veteran and father
He is more of a small-government Republican, he says, than a social
conservative. He believes that abortion should be an option for victims of rape
and incest and for women whose health would suffer if they carried a pregnancy
He says he thinks that what people do in their bedrooms is their own business,
but he doesn't want homosexuality discussed in his children's schools because "I
don't think schools should indoctrinate." He has trouble explaining why
he's against stem cell research.
Reiss has a libertarian streak and hates taxes, particularly measures like
Proposition 63, which proposed a levy on Californians earning more than $1
million a year to pay for mental health care for the poor. The measure won
handily statewide last month; tellingly, it went down to defeat in Riverside County, even
though there are only 446 people here who meet that income threshold.
"Whenever I hear politicians say they're going to raise taxes on the rich,
I think, 'What's rich?' " Reiss said, and he's
not alone. "To some politicians, it's $80,000. In California, that's
just getting by."
Reiss lives in neighboring Temecula and drives 124 miles round trip each day to
work so that he can afford to own a home, like many of his neighbors in nearby
cities such as Murrieta and Lake Elsinore,
Wildomar and Menifee. A survey by local governments shocked regional planners
with its finding that most people here, like Reiss, are willing to drive hours
to work if the trade-off is a house, a yard and a mortgage.
Reiss came by his conservatism in the bosom of a "cop family." To be
a conservative, he said, is to believe in "natural rights." Natural rights means self-defense. And self-defense, of
course, means guns. He talks about this a lot.
During Reiss' childhood in Westlake Village, the
house was always unlocked — and so was the gun cabinet. When his mother and
stepfather got home from their shifts with the Los Angeles Police Department,
he said, "They'd put their service guns on top of [the cabinet]. It wasn't
"When they had the riots in L.A., and I
saw the Korean store owners protect themselves with shotguns, it made things
crystal clear for me. I don't consider myself to be a gun nut. They're
tools," he said. "You can do good things with tools and you can do
bad things with tools."
Sure, he's seen "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's film on America's
obsession with firearms. Sure, he acknowledges that the Columbine shooting was
a tragedy, that kids shouldn't be able to take weapons into high schools and
blow innocent classmates away.
"But when Michael Moore says we have to ban all guns, I find that
personally insulting," Reiss said. "It's saying I was raised wrong. To tell me that because I own a gun I'm a criminal or wrong, that's
The Boy Scout Troop
"Insulting" is probably the kindest word that Bruce and Laurie
Blanton would use to describe the greater part of America's media.
This devout Mormon couple, whose Boy Scout son Christopher marched on Veterans
Day with his uniformed pals from Troop 524, will not see a movie that is rated
R. They lump Whoopi Goldberg in with Dan Rather, the Dixie Chicks with CNN.
They put Moore, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and most of Hollywood in the
same bad grab bag of the biased and the out-of-touch.
They believe that the news industry is peopled with hard-core Democrats — even
conservative Fox network, insisted an indignant Bruce Blanton. And they feel
that the entertainment industry has coarsened this country's culture by shoving
sex, violence and profanity in the faces of a defenseless public.
But what really, really infuriates the Blantons is the arrogance they perceive
when they switch on the television set, open the newspaper, walk into a movie
theater, listen to the radio.
Where do these people come off telling us whom to vote for? How dare they think
that their views matter, just because they have big salaries and pretty faces? It's
a theme they return to over and over in a two-hour conversation in their
Murrieta home, with its frontyard flagpole and minivan in the driveway.
Bruce, 44: "I had a lot of respect for [CNN international correspondent]
Christiane Amanpour. But after Bush won the first election, she was at a press
luncheon addressing the media. She said, 'How could we allow this person to
have won?' I lost all respect. They thought they had control and the right to
Laurie, 41: "It really, really disgusted me."
Bruce: "The media made me vote the way I did."
Laurie: "It's always killed me. Just because you're beautiful and on TV,
it means I want to see you on a show. But I don't care about your opinion about
what candidate you like. As much as I enjoy the music of the Dixie Chicks, the
minute [lead singer Natalie Maines] bashed the president, I lost some respect.
Her songs would come on the radio, and I'd change the channel. They were rude
So where do the Blantons get their information? For Bruce, at least, the same
place as many of his neighbors, men and women whose affordable homes are here
in Murrieta but whose jobs are geographically undesirable. Trapped in their
cars en route to the office, they listen to talk radio on their long commutes.
A good day for Bruce means 2 1/2 hours round trip between his neat subdivision
and his job as chief engineer at the Holiday Inn on the Bay in San
Diego. He whiles away the time listening to Fox
radio and books on tape, including such disparate favorites as Tom Clancy
suspense novels and the Bible.
One recent day, he said, he tuned in conservative talk show host Tony Snow, and
the topic turned to teens and sex. It's an important issue for the Blantons,
whose children are 12, 14 and 17. Keeping kids out of trouble, Bruce explained,
is why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted the Boy Scouts
as part of its youth program. It's why Alexander and Christopher are both
active Scouts and why the Blantons' 17-year-old daughter has belonged to 4-H and
works part time.
And it was why Snow spoke and Bruce listened, wending his way along Interstate
"To me, children having sex at a younger and younger age is a bad
thing," Bruce said, partly recounting the gist of the show, partly
emphasizing his own strong beliefs. "You keep telling them no. You don't
give them an out…. If you don't want them to have sex, don't tell them where
the condoms are."
The Brownie Troop
Joe Russo remembers the daily commute to Orange County from
Encinitas, where he couldn't afford to buy a house and his wife, Juliana, had
to work. That's the only way they could make ends meet. It was 1998. "On
my commutes, I'd listen to Christian radio, getting a daily infusion while
driving on the road," he said. "You have a lot of time on the road to
Russo thought about life. And Jesus. And the path to salvation. About what he believed and what
he needed. He thought about the layers the Catholic Church — the bedrock of his
childhood — can put between a man and his experience of God.
"You don't have to do all these things to be saved. Put your faith in
Jesus, and he'll take it from there," Russo said, describing a conversion
to fundamentalist Christianity that began behind the wheel of his car.
"Listening to the radio on my daily drives got me thinking more and more
in that direction."
These days, the Russos live in Murrieta, where they worship at Sun Ridge Community Church, a
nondenominational, Bible-based congregation. They own their own home, a
comfortable earth-tone ranch house in a crisp subdivision. An American flag
flies just outside the living room window. There's a Santa sign on the picket
fence. A spray of autumn leaves brightens the front door.
After Joe's old company moved to Salt
Lake City, he started a real estate appraisal
business and works from home. Things are a little slow right now, but he has
high hopes. Juliana no longer runs a home-based day care center, as she did
when they lived in pricier San
Diego County. She's
the leader of Brownie Troop 594 and marched with Gabriella, 6, on Veterans Day.
"I was proud to be there," Juliana said. "I had never been in a
parade. It was a new experience…. There was a huge number of Girl Scouts there.
That was just awesome."
The 35-year-old stay-at-home mom hates to talk politics; she's a
live-and-let-live conservative. She believes in family values and the right to
life, but doesn't give a shake about gay marriage. "It doesn't matter to
me," she shrugged. "I think you're either born that way or not. If
you're not harming anyone, you should be able to live your life."
She says many of her family values likely come from Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the
conservative talk radio personality and self-help author, whose books she reads
when she can find the time in her hectic days with her two young children.
"I didn't really get them from my mom and dad," she said. "My
dad is dead. My parents divorced early. My mom occasionally lived with a
boyfriend or had a boyfriend sleep over. I would never do that if I were in
that situation. She wasn't a bad mom, but she came first. I'm not that
Juliana got most of her information about the presidential election from
husband Joe, also 35 and one of George W. Bush's most persuasive surrogates in
the corner of Murrieta where the Russos live. "That's why you need to talk
to him," she said, "not me."
And what does Joe say? Even though he served as a Marine in the Persian Gulf
War, the current combat in Iraq barely
figured in his vote. The government, he said, should have a small role in
Americans' lives, building roads, protecting borders, providing education and a
strong national defense.
His belief in small government ends where his social conservatism begins, but
he loses no sleep over the contradiction: Roe vs. Wade should be overturned,
and marriage should be defined in the Constitution as strictly between a man
and a woman.
If there's an area where both political parties have failed, he said, it's the
highly charged issue of immigration. Neither Bush nor Kerry learned a thing
from what he considers the worthless 1986 legislation that granted legal status
to many undocumented workers.
"These people don't have to take tests," Joe said, referring to
illegal immigrants who have come to this country. "They have diseases.
It's a national health and safety issue. Terrorists come in through the Mexican
border, where they can blend in. And we're spending too much money for people
who shouldn't be here."
They are sitting around a table at Mimi's Cafe on a
commercial strip in nearby Temecula, a city so close to Murrieta in geography
and temperament that it's hard to tell where one bedroom community ends and the
The three activists belong to Temecula Valley Republican Women Federated, and
this part of southwest Riverside County is their
territory. It is where, in advance of election day,
they spent every free hour standing outside strip malls and churches,
Albertsons and Wal-Mart, in pursuit of a GOP Holy Grail.
"We had a goal," said retired teacher Adele Harrison, 60, "to have
enough or more Republican registrations in Riverside County to
offset the San Francisco
"It was an identification by the Riverside
Republican Committee of what we could do to offset places that would hurt
us," added Linda Woods, 64, who heads the organization now and proudly
notes that her members signed up 1,640 new Republicans this year.
Harrison had hoped for even more: political pile-on, Democratic humiliation and
the Nov. 2 ouster of Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democrat Republicans love to hate:
"We were hoping Bush would take it early, and the Democrats in California
would be so discouraged that they wouldn't have come out to vote, and maybe we
would have gotten a new senator."
Harrison's kindergarten students would end the year
knowing a full repertoire of patriotic songs. She jokes that she timed her
retirement so she could attend the Republican National Convention in New
York City. She is the strong middle link
in a three-generation chain of determined, activist Republican women.
Her daughter, Keri Folmar, is a congressional lawyer who left work to
home-school her children; Folmar helped write the first ban on so-called
partial-birth abortion when she was an aide to Rep. Charles Canaday of Florida. In
addition to her efforts with the local Republican Party, Harrison opens up
her home to unwed pregnant teenagers so they can carry their babies to term.
Forty years ago, Harrison's
mother, Ruth Oates, who ran a sporting goods store with her husband, never
hesitated to do battle with the teachers at Whittier High
School, who she believed were spouting
ideology instead of facts, slamming the Founding Fathers for owning slaves and
"My mom didn't want teachers to teach revisionist history … from the PC
point of view," Harrison said.
"Even in my day she was down talking to my history teachers about how they
were denigrating Benjamin Franklin. They took the worst things that the
forefathers were alleged to have done and didn't talk about the good
Harrison said she remembered her mother's battles
when she took a state-mandated course about meeting the needs of bilingual
children in which "they showed us films on how horrible we'd been to
everyone — hangings in the South — not the great things, like civil
rights," she said, affronted still. "We need to teach children to
love America, not
Harrison loves her country, and so does the
president, she said. It's one of the major reasons she trusts him to lead the
nation in the war in Iraq. Strong
countries, she said, need to help weak ones. "George Bush believes, as I
do, that we are blessed to be in America,"
she said. "We are blessed to be a blessing to others. That's why we needed
to go into Iraq."
The Military Wife
Jessie Gulbrandsen made it to parade's end, still smiling. Somewhere along the
route, the 6-year-old Brownie had handed off the folded American flag she
carried, which had covered the casket of her troop leader's grandfather, a
World War II veteran. Too heavy.
As Jessie marched by, her 2-year-old sister, Toni Marie, dumped purple yogurt
down the front of her sweater. Brother Vincent, age 4, threatened his wailing
younger sibling with the butt end of an American flag. He was decked out in
kiddie camouflage. He calls them his "Daddy clothes."
"Daddy" is Maj. Paul Gulbrandsen, 33, and on this day, he is
somewhere just outside Ramadi helping to fight the war in Iraq as
comptroller for the 1st Marine Division. Angela Gulbrandsen, 30, misses her
husband every day.
"Anything I do without him is hard. It's been bothering me lately. I see
families where the man stays home to watch a game" instead of going on a
family outing, she said. "It hurts, because, if [Paul] were here, he'd be
with us…. Otherwise, I'm overwhelmingly proud. Proud that the
parade is going on. Proud of what he's doing. Proud of what I am — I'm
his wife, and we're his family."
Few things have shaped Gulbrandsen's life and politics as much as her family
and the U.S. Marine Corps. Being a mother has made this Catholic and registered
independent a little less supportive of abortion rights. Being a military wife
means national security is key. She remembers
presidential elections by where the family was stationed and whom she was
pregnant with — 2000: Bush; South
She'd have voted for the president this time too, if only her registration
papers had not been lost.
The Long Island native
had always voted as an absentee resident of New
York, but then she and Paul bought their house in
Murrieta, and she decided to vote like "normal people." Applying for
a California driver's
license, she registered to vote under the motor-voter program.
But when she got to the polling place at Jessie's elementary school on election day, her name was nowhere to be found. The process
of filing a provisional ballot would have taken more time than she had: There
were children to pick up.
So she sobbed. And then she prayed "for whoever wins, as long as my
husband's in good hands."
But the best hands, she said, belong to Bush, a "consistent leader"
who believes in the war and the troops and will bring them home safely. Like
many here, she bristled every time John Kerry said he would have handled Iraq
differently. Like many here, she believes that changing leaders in the middle
of a war is a bad idea.
And like many here, she takes comfort in the kindness of friends and neighbors,
who believe in the things that she finds important. On Paul's last tour, an
acquaintance had scoffed at the danger he faced in Iraq. How bad
could it be for someone whose job title is "comptroller"? She's found
new friends since then, "a good group of Christian women," who are
helping her through this tough time.
"Now I see the family values and the goodness of people," she said,
as she made Sunday dinner after Mass. "I
thought you could be a good person and a good friend if you didn't live my
values. Now, I trust the ones who follow my values. That's what I'm learning,
living out here."
How would you explain why the people in Murieta are attracted to the
Republicans and to conservative values?
What aspects of their life reinforce their conservatism? Are such voters permanently lost to the
Democrats? If not, what might Democrats
do to appeal to these sorts of voters?