Posted on May 20, 2012
Filed Under Family | Comments Off on Rest In Peace: Thomas A. Fuentes (1948 – 2012)
Thomas A. Fuentes passed away peacefully at 11:55 p.m. on Friday, May 18, 2012 at his home in Lake Forest, California. (10/16/1948 – 5/18/2012)
Tom Fuentes, the longtime chairman of the county Republican Party who increased the GOP stronghold over the county and then watched demographic changes roll back those gains, died Friday night surrounded by family at his Lake Forest home after a battle with cancer. He was 63.
Tom Fuentes, then head of the Orange County Republican party listens to former presidential candidate Steve Forbes speak to gathering of Orange County Republicans in Newport Beach in 1999. Click on the “More photos” link below to see a slide show of Fuentes.
Fuentes served as a trustee of the South Orange County Community College District from 2000 until his death. He was also active in the Roman Catholic Church, and served as communications director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange from 1977 to 1989. He was co-founder of the Second Harvest Orange County Food Bank of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and received several papal honors, including being named a Knight of Malta.
“Tom put Orange County on the map politically – he made it a conservative county that was important to anyone in politics, ” said political commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who credits former boss Richard Nixon for introducing him to Fuentes.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to know Tom Fuentes,'” Herschensohn recalled Saturday morning. He also noted that visiting presidents and presidential candidates “always wanted to sit next to Tom.”
“Presidents want to be seen next to those who are respected,” he said, echoing the tribute to Fuentes he gave at the county party’s Flag Day dinner on June 13, 2011. “And they also appreciated it on a personal level, because Tom was friendly and easy to be with.”
Doctors had hoped to have dealt with Fuentes’ cancer with a liver transplant, but the disease spread to his lungs.
Fuentes acknowledged his failing health at the Flag Day event, but also showed that his barbed humor and uncompromising politics were intact.
“Yes, your old chairman has cancer,” Fuentes told about 1,000 of the faithful gathered at the Hyatt Irvine event. “Many of you have stood with me when we have battled cancers within our party, cancers from the left. Tumors like (registered Republican) Arnold Schwarzenegger…. Time has proven us right. In the long run, we have won these battles. I will stand with you in our ideals until I can stand no longer.”
Fuentes rose from his hospice bed on Sept. 8 to attend a Newport Beach rally for presidential candidate Rick Perry. With tubes feeding oxygen through his nose, he stood from his wheelchair to give an invocation in a clear, strong voice.
Fuentes also traveled to Los Angeles to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sept. 17 convention of the California Republican Party, and gave a six-minute speech that criticized both Schwarzenegger and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. In November, he attended a Perry fundraiser in Newport Beach, and he continued to welcome friends to his home until shortly before his death.
“He was the greatest chairman our party has ever had or will ever see,” current county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh said. “Tom was a warrior for conservative values. He was a fighter who was undaunted by the odds, whether he was fighting political enemies or the very cancer that took his life.”
A sixth generation Californian, Thomas Alexander Fuentes was born on Oct. 16, 1948, in Los Angeles. At 12, he walked precincts for presidential candidate Nixon. In 1962, he moved with his family to Orange County.
He attended Santa Ana College, where he twice served as student body president. In 1970, he received a B.A. in government from Chapman University, where he was the GOP club’s president. He worked his way through college at a hotel near Disneyland.
In 1971, he was hired as an aide to county Supervisor Ronald Caspers and the following year was appointed to the county GOP’s governing Central Committee. Caspers drowned along with 10 others when his sailboat sank in 1974 – Fuentes was supposed to be on the boat but canceled at the last minute. Fuentes then quit his job, resigned his political post and entered St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park to study for priesthood.
The endeavor was short-lived, however, and he returned to the county and was elected back to the Central Committee in 1976.
“People joked that the problem wasn’t that he wanted to (be a) priest, it was that he wanted to be pope,” said Bill Christiansen, who spent eight years as county GOP executive director under Fuentes. “Tom said he thought (people at the seminary) said he was going to celebrate, not that he was going to be celibate.”
In 1983, Fuentes helped found the Second Harvest Food Bank with retired Rockwell controller Dan Harney. The nonprofit has since distributed 272 million pounds of donated and surplus food through 470 member charities. Harney had the idea and Fuentes had the contacts.
“Tom had the gift of being the consummate networking and fundraising guy,” said Bob Whiton, a former chairman of the food bank. “He knew everybody.”
Fuentes was particularly known for launching and emceeing an annual Second Harvest fundraiser known as the No Lunch Lunch, at which attendees initially were served bread and water on newspapers so they could get a taste of the life of those less fortunate.
In 1985, Fuentes was elected county GOP chairman. By the mid-1990s, Republicans had taken control of every congressional and state legislative seat in the county. He was the emcee for hundreds of fundraisers and candidate appearances, and often the county’s most visible cheerleader of Republican – and especially conservative – causes.
“Tom, of course, never hid his opinions,” said Kathy Tavoularis, who worked under Fuentes for 10 years. “Even if the tide was against him – which wasn’t often – he was forceful and clear and unflinching. You always knew where Tom stood and so did those who were involved with the political arena.”
Fuentes’ loyal supporters continued to dominate the county party, but rumblings of dissatisfaction were growing over his polarizing positions on social issues and his sometimes domineering leadership style. In 1998, a new – and short-lived – group called Republicans for New Directions advocated moderation on social issues and wanted Fuentes replaced. It got 11 candidates elected to the 80-member GOP Central Committee.
Fuentes continued to prevail in intra-party squabbles, winning re-election to the chairmanship in 1999, 2001 and 2003. But the divisiveness became increasingly public.
“Tom was a friend and mentor to me and countless others,” Baugh said. “He continued to give guidance and counsel to so many of us up until the final days of his life. … His style and commitment to conservative values has left an impact that is indelible and will continue to guide us as we move forward in our fight for freedom and limited government.”
Fuentes remained in the public eye on a smaller scale thanks to his post as a trustee for the South Orange County Community College District, to which he’d been appointed in 2000. He was subsequently elected and then twice re-elected.
Fuentes became a senior fellow with the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and served as a director for Eagle Publishing Inc., in Washington, D.C.
His political appointments included being named by President George W. Bush as a member of the Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed Fuentes in 2006 to serve as his designee on the Board of Advisors of the United States Elections Assistance Commission in Washington, D.C. Then-House Minority Leader John Boehner re-appointed Fuentes to the post.
Fuentes is survived by his wife, Jolene, and their three children: Michelle 26; Thomas (“T.J.”), 25; and Joseph (“Joey”) 18.
Funeral and memorial arrangements have not been finalized.
The family asks that friends and well-wishers not call or email at this time.
The family asks that those wanting to make donations in Fuentes’ memory send them to the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, Attn: Advancement Office, 920 E. Alhambra Road, Alhambra, CA 91801 or St. Michael’s Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers, 19292 El Toro Road, Silverado, CA 92676.