Tom Fuentes’ California Legacy Continues

May 28, 2012

By Brian Calle

Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy.

Last week was particularly difficult for many residents of Orange County and elsewhere who had known – or had their lives impacted by – Tom Fuentes. The chairman emeritus of the Orange County Republican Party finished his battle with cancer May 18 at 63 years of age.

Few people have had such an indelible impression on not only the political environment of Orange County but also its culture. Perhaps even fewer people have been able to cultivate a national reputation as the go-to guy in O.C. To many, Tom may well have been the county’s very own godfather.

In his 20 years as GOP county chieftain, and even afterward, foreign heads of state, captains of industry and U.S. presidents would seek his counsel and come to know the man. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would call on Fuentes personally. In fact he was on a first-name basis with the presidents; as he would always like to say: “They would call me Tom, and I would call them Mr. President.” Such jokes were part of what endeared him to so many.

His political influence in the O.C. and nationally was not a function of his political post (in fact, county party chairman is pretty low on the political totem pole). Instead, his uncommon, if not uncanny, warmth and magnetism made him influential. Tom made the Republican Party of Orange County the benchmark for local GOP affiliates throughout the country and made the chairmanship a revered powerhouse.

To this day, this red county remains solidly so because of the framework Tom constructed.

Even predating his chairmanship, Tom made his mark. As administrative assistant and chief of staff to Supervisor Ronald Caspers, he was instrumental in establishing flight curfews for John Wayne Airport and the residential and commercial development of South County.

Those accomplishments took place even before he married the love of his life, Jolene, in 1983.

But his political involvement would flow from his conservative ideology of limited government, free markets and a reverence for life. He would not waiver from those convictions, and allies and political opponents respected him for it.

Speaking at Tom’s vigil, Bruce Herschensohn, a former GOP candidate for U.S. Senate and one of Tom’s closest friends, recalled a bipartisan event at which Tom was speaking. A Democratic leader told Bruce “Man, I wish we had a Tom Fuentes on our side.”

Outside of politics, Tom was a lifelong, devout Catholic. He received two papal honors; membership of the Sovereign Military Hospitallar Order of Saint John of Jerusalem and of Malta. He also served as a national adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

And he was the founding chairman of the board of the Second Harvest Food Bank. Little known by those not closest to Tom, he also personally directly cared for families in Mexico, providing them food, clothing and money.

In his final months, Tom symbolically began passing the torch to his eldest son, Thomas, “T.J.” Fuentes Jr. T.J. accompanied his father to virtually every political event he had the energy to attend. Tom beamed with pride as his son delivered the invocation at last year’s O.C. GOP’s annual Flag Day fundraising dinner.

T.J. Fuentes is running for a spot on the county GOP central committee and has already become an activist in such groups as the Orange County Young Republicans. He also is chief of staff to conservative publishing magnate Tom Phillips, one of his father’s best friends.

Tom’s second son, Joseph John “Joey” Fuentes, has his father’s dynamism, plus athletic ability. He was selected by his high school, El Toro, as senior class graduation speaker and he plans to play water polo at UCLA.

Tom’s eldest child, Michelle, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama, where she is studying political theory. She is cerebral and keenly witted, much like her father.

Having come to terms with fate, Tom found solace in his faith and his children. Last June, I spent Father’s Day with Tom and his family. He told me he knew it would be his last Father’s Day but that was OK because he was able to see his children accomplish so much.

I’m a better person for having known Tom Fuentes, and I think most people who knew him – even those with whom he battled – would say the same.

Tom and I bonded from the first day we met. We shared similar political philosophies, heritage and even the same birthday, Oct. 16. And we had a special affinity for the Nixon presidency (I’m interested in President Nixon’s foreign policy). The first time Tom and I “shared some time together,” as he would call it, we met at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. He greeted every valet parking attendant, clerk and waiter by name, treating them as if they were his best friends. (The same was true almost anywhere he frequented.)

I told Tom that afternoon I didn’t like to drink liquor, and he retorted laughingly, “You can’t trust a man who doesn’t drink. … We will have to find you a drink that fits your personality.” We did, and I had my first martini.

His sense of humor was absolutely infectious. When I visited Tom a few years ago at UCLA Medical Center following his liver transplant, the talk radio host and former Nixon administration alumni Hugh Hewitt was also by his bedside. Even somewhat sedated, Tom quipped “One of you is going to have to get back to Orange County right away. … If someone were to drop a bomb on this hospital, in one swoop they would knock out the three remaining Nixonites from Orange County.”

Tom’s spirit and influence will live on. He would want all of us whom he mentored, influenced and cherished to continue the battles he fought so valiantly for so long.

He said as much in his last speech to the California Republican Party: “Today, as I come to bid you a fond farewell, I ask you to continue your good efforts. Continue to work as we have worked for so many years, together, to foster the noble and wholesome ideals of our conservative cause.”

Tom, you will be missed. But your legacy will continue.

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