William E. Dannemeyer, an immensely popular former California congressman whose long and implacable opposition to liberal causes cemented Orange County’s reputation as a citadel of conservatism in the 1980s, died on July 9 in Thousand Palms, Calif. He was 89.
The cause was complications of dementia, his son, Bruce, said.
In his seven terms in the House of Representatives, Mr. Dannemeyer vigorously opposed, among other things, higher taxes, environmentalism, legal abortion, and civil rights protections for gay people and AIDS patients.
“He helped shape modern conservatism,” Fred M. Whitaker, the Republican county chairman, said in a statement after Mr. Dannemeyer’s death. “His leadership in grass-roots organizing earned Republicans every partisan seat in the county by the time he retired at the end of 1992.”
Mr. Dannemeyer ran in every congressional election from 1978 to 1990 and never got less than about 70 percent of the vote in his district, in the southeastern suburbs of Los Angeles.
But his death was also a reminder of the profound partisan shift that has occurred in the district since he left office, occasioned largely by a demographic transformation.
After an influx of immigrants, college graduates and nonwhite newcomers, Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democratic presidential nominee for the first time in 80 years. Hillary Clinton beat Donald J. Trump in the county, nearly 50 percent to 45 percent; in 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican, defeated Barack Obama by about 52 percent to 46 percent.
Today, all seven of Orange County’s House seats are held by Democrats. And sometime this year, enrolled Democrats appear likely to surpass Republicans in the county.
For much of his time in the House, Mr. Dannemeyer was a favorite of conservatives across the country; the National Taxpayers Union ranked him as the No. 1 Taxpayers’ Friend among all 435 House members in 1992.
But in 1992, when he gave up his seat to seek the party’s nomination for the United States Senate, he failed to appeal to a broader California constituency. He was defeated in a primary by a moderate Republican, John F. Seymour. (Mr. Seymour lost to Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, in a special election that November to fill the seat vacated by Pete Wilson, who had been elected governor.)
Mr. Dannemeyer unsuccessfully sought the Senate nomination again in 1994.
Mr. Dannemeyer became the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health, where he espoused his AIDS agenda. He also favored fiscal prudence, a return to the gold standard, deregulation of natural gas prices, stricter controls on illegal immigration and lower taxes.
For all his support among Orange County Republicans, his Democratic colleagues could be harsh in their assessments of him. “He was a mean and hateful person,” former Representative Henry Waxman of California was once quoted as saying.
Mr. Dannemeyer was scorned by gay rights groups and health professionals for demanding that AIDS patients be quarantined and that people with AIDS be barred from jobs in health care.
“He believes AIDS should be treated as a public health issue, rather than a civil rights issue,” his official biography said.
Mr. Dannemeyer also railed against what he described as “militant homosexuality”; opposed the inclusion of AIDS patients and gay people as protected classes in anti-bias laws; and favored the restoration of anti-sodomy statutes.
He voted against a bill to make the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, but supported legislation to issue an apology and reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.
After he left Congress, Mr. Dannemeyer campaigned for a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer, and trumpeted purported murder plots implicating former President Bill Clinton.
He also advanced a claim that Congress, in the guise of honoring the birthday of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, had passed a law making “the belief in Jesus Christ a crime punishable by decapitation by guillotine.”
His son insisted in a phone interview that Mr. Dannemeyer had not been anti-Semitic; he attributed those sentiments to his father’s second wife, Dr. Lorraine Day, an orthopedic surgeon who was known as a Holocaust denier. They married in 2004.
“He had to agree with it or there would have been hell to pay in the household,” Bruce Dannemeyer said. He added that his father’s views on homosexuality had been shaped by his religious upbringing.
“He had a great heart and love for people,” the son said. “He said some things that offended a great number of people, but he would not back down from a fight.”
William Edwin Dannemeyer was born on Sept. 22, 1929, in Montebello, in Los Angeles County, to William and Charlotte (Knapp) Dannemeyer, German immigrants.
His father ran a feed store. An epileptic, he entered a sanitarium in Nebraska when Bill was 5, and his mother cared for him and his older sister by doing housework for others.
Mr. Dannemeyer was an Eagle Scout and earned a bachelor’s degree in government in 1950 from Valparaiso University, a Lutheran institution in Indiana, and a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco. He served in Europe with the Army Counterintelligence Corps.
In 1955 he married Evelyn Hoemann; she died in 1999. In addition to their son, he is survived by their daughters, Kim Davis and Susan Hirzel; Dr. Day; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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