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Jon Fleischman

Rest In Peace Tom Fuentes, A Principled Leader of Republicans

Over the weekend the modern conservative movement lost one of its most thoughtful, articulate and visionary leaders.  After a valiant battle against cancer in his body, Tom Fuentes passed away at the age of 63.

Tom Fuentes, 1948-2012

Though Tom was a leader in many organizations and groups, he was certainly most well known for his passionate and capable leadership at the helm of the Orange County Republican Party as its chairman for two decades, from 1984 through 2004.

Tom’s friend Bruce Herschensohn wrote in a heart-felt column currently appearing on the Human Events website, “If Tom had never lived, most people in the country would not have heard of Orange County.  Most Americans can’t name many counties.  They can name states and major cities, but not many counties, maybe not even their own.  But one county is well known all over the nation and even in many other parts of the world: Orange County, California…”

Truer words could not have been said, as Tom’s leadership of the GOP helped to make Orange County the most Republican County in the nation.

I know that a great many people were fortunate enough to know and have relationships with Tom.  I am most grateful for the friendship that we shared that began in the late 1980s and flourished until the end of his days.  To me he was not just a friend, he was a mentor, and a “political dad” in my younger years.  But as decades went by, our friendship evolved into one that was more that of peers.  Where once upon I would simply act as a sponge, soaking up every bit of advice that Tom would deem to share with me, in recent years we really both relied on each other’s perspective and life experiences.

It would be impossible for me to talk about all of the things about Tom that inspired those around him.  But there are some immediately coming to mind, that I would like to share, starting with the importance of a faith-based life.  Tom always reminded us that while God makes all of us imperfect, it was important for us, everyday, to be thankful for bountiful lives, and to live our lives as good, decent people of strong character.

Tom also impressed upon all his love of country.   Since I first met him, Tom was involved with and promoted the Claremont Institute because of its devotion to the spirit of our nation’s founders and a respect for the genius of our Constitution.  It was thanks to Tom that I went through CI’s Lincoln Fellowship program.  I still remember the prideful grin on his face when, over a long dinner at China Palace, one of his favorite restaurants, I giddily shared with him all that I learned.

Tom Fuentes with Ronald Reagan

It was Tom’s love of country that led him to be a Republican, and Tom believed very strongly that the GOP was (and is) the best mechanism to campaign for strong, moral and constitutionally-respectful governance for our nation and state.  Since getting to know Tom, there have been a number of key “defining” battles within the GOP that you could say were about the direction the party should be taking.  In every one of these fights, I was proud to stand at Tom’s side, working to ensure the Republican Party would maintain its strong conservative principles.  Even as recently as the unsuccessful effort by Charles Munger, Jr., and others to gut our state party’s platform and leave it hopelessly vague.

Finally, there was much to learn from Tom a lot of traits of leadership.  The importance of a strong moral compass, so that decisions you make are based on a clear sense of right and wrong, good and evil.  The value of surrounding yourself with the right people, so the counsel you receive is of significant worth.  The importance of humility and never being “above” anyone.  The significance of being available and “of the people” – Tom frowned on those who felt they were in any way privileged.  The need to be organized and obsessive about moving the ball forward.  The importance of humor, and understanding that while politics is serious business, we must all have levity on our daily lives.  And I should not leave out the quality that was the most admirable in Tom, and admittedly sometimes the hardest to emulate – forgiveness.  Tom possessed an uncanny ability to gauge the sincerity of contrition, and to unite people once divided towards common goals.  With all of this talent, it’s no wonder Tom was so successful in his life’s endeavors!

All of these things I learned from Tom served me well in both my tenure as executive director of the California Republican Party, and subsequently for two terms as the elected vice chairman, south, of the State GOP.

If you spent time talking with Tom over the last few years about politics and the world in which we live, invariably you would have heard him talk about the two things that worried him the most…

First and foremost Tom was very concerned about the deteriorating moral fiber of America.  Often Tom would talk about the hedonistic ways of Hollywood, and the increasing examples of poor conduct on the part of our elected officials.  Tom felt very strongly that our nation was in need of a resurgence of goodness.  He was fond of quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Also weighing heavily on Tom was a grave concern about the future of the Grand Old Party to which he devoted almost his entire adult life.  Often he spoke to me about his concerns about the “rent seekers” within the Republican Party – those wanting to use the power of government for their parochial advantage.  He was very concerned about, as he would call them, “soul-less, and shameless” big business interests which seek to shift the emphasis of the Republican Party away from its devotion to individual liberty and freedom combined with compassion for those in need, instead seeking to use the party as a sort-of banking mechanism to place politicians in office who were lacking in personal strong faith and moral acuity, while focused on using government to the advantage of the political class.  Tom spoke to this at the last California Republican Party convention, saying, “When next you see the likes of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, do not be afraid to reject him.  He and his circle were a cancer in our party — a cancer far worse than mine — for which we will long pay a price.” (See the video here.)

Tom Fuentes with John Wayne

It was for both of these reasons that Tom never approved of the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Republican politician.  As former Orange County Party Executive Director Kathy Tavoularis pointed out in her thoughtful obituary of her former long-time boss, “Tom…felt strongly that Schwarzenegger was not the right man for the job and felt this way through Schwarzenegger’s seven years in Sacramento.”

Still, for all of the dominance of these troubled thoughts, Tom still possessed an unflagging optimism for the future, and a love for this country.  It was a “signature” of all of the Orange County Republican Party events under his tenure that there be at least a dozen, large American flags present and unfurled.

I had the fortune to spend a good amount of time with Tom after he was diagnosed with cancer, and throughout his fight to both try and excise it from his body, and ultimately to marshal his strength to “tough it out” once the doctors told him there was nothing more that could be done for him.

I know that my final thoughts about this giant of a man in my life would please him immensely.  And that is to talk about his devotion to his Catholic faith, and to his adoration of his wife, Jolene, and his love and pride for his three children, Michelle, T.J. and Joey.  It was his strong faith in God that gave him the strength, I believe, to really hang in there a lot longer than was expected — as well as being surrounded by the family that he loved so very much.  Through all of the conversations, from dining out, to the sitting room, and ultimately to many at his bed-side, it was his family that was Tom’s ultimate pride and joy.

Of course, from decades of mentoring hundreds of young people, which was a passion of Tom’s, he had a very large “extended” family.  And I can tell you as just one of those who Tom took under his wing, I will miss him dearly.  I know there will be not one major crossroads I will reach for the rest of my life where I won’t be able to apply those things that Tom taught me about making the right decisions.