Rep. Mike Levin recalled Tuesday how his political mentor, former Orange County Democratic Chairman Frank Barbaro, treated everyone in the office equally.
“To me, to be the chairman of the local party you have to be good with people and to do it as long as he did was something,” said Levin, D-Dana Point. “He treated everyone the same. Whether it was the CEO or the person working the front desk he treated everybody equally.”
Levin and his family went to visit with the 75-year-old Barbaro on Sunday, one day before he died from pancreatic cancer. Barbaro had by then lost his voice, “and if you knew him you’d know that must have been incredibly difficult for him,” Levin said with a laugh.
But when they discussed whether one of his grandsons would grow up to be a fan of Stanford or USC’s football teams, the former Democratic chairman responded, Levin said.
“Frank’s eyes opened wide,” Levin said.
Barbaro, an accomplished trial attorney who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science from USC in 1965, was a diehard Trojan backer, Levin said.
“I had to put up with that all those years,” said Levin, a Stanford graduate, with a chuckle.
The two would often attend football games between the two schools together, or watch them on television.
Barbaro loved his alma mater so much he had the USC marching band perform at one of his birthdays, Levin said.
Levin read Barbaro’s legal accomplishments into the Congressional Record last week, he said.
“He was an incredibly accomplished lawyer,” Levin said. “He was involved in landmark decisions that are still taught in law school.”
Levin was Barbaro’s executive director of the party in 2006 and 2007. When it came time for Levin to run for office himself he said Barbaro made a donation right away.
“My parents were the first two contributors, and then Frank Barbaro was third,” said Levin, who was elected in November to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. “When I started the campaign he was the first person I sat down with.”
Barbaro’s career in Orange County politics started in the 1970s and he returned to chair the party in about 2000, Levin said.
Barbaro was a shrewd number cruncher, Levin said.
Scott Baugh, a former Orange County Republican chairman, concurred, noting that Barbaro predicted about five years ago that within five to 10 years Democrats would win all of the county’s congressional seats. In November, Barbaro’s party made a clean sweep of the congressional seats in the county.
Baugh and Barbaro made it a ritual to have dinner together on election nights to watch results come in.
“At one of our last dinners when I was chairman he predicted to me what would happen in Orange County,” Baugh said. “He said definitely in 10 years and it could be within five and the five-year mark was more correct.”
Baugh added, “In a sense, I was not happy to see the blue wave, but I was happy he got to see the fruit of his labor. The thing about politics is you don’t always see the fruit of your labor at the time you do the labor and so Frank worked in the trenches for many years to advance his view of the world and he got to see a lot of it come true.”
Baugh and Barbaro became good friends over the years as they had much in common outside politics.
“We would talk about our families, our law practices, our different struggles in life and politics was way down the line in things that mattered to Frank,” Baugh said. “He cared more about people than politics.”
Orange County Democratic officials expect a private burial this weekend and a public memorial next month.
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