Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Peter Racz is a vocal advocate for his tea party politics after emerging from a much different environment.

Emigrating from war-torn Hungary in his youth, Racz, 69, wasn't always so interested in public policy. He was born in 1944 to a Jewish mother and Gypsy father who, unlike some of their relatives, avoided the fate of Nazi concentration camps.

Racz grew up Catholic, hiding his ethnic roots.

"There was a little racism in Europe," he said. "There still is."

He was in seventh grade when the 1956 Hungarian Revolution brought clashes with occupying Soviet troops. Racz recalls witnessing a political precinct captain strung up, dying, in the Budapest streets.

"We were misled by Radio Free Europe that the United Nations … they were going to help out," he recalled.

Help never came to the Hungarian resistance, and Racz's father, a concert violinist and vice president of a musicians' union, knew those in similar positions were disappearing, suspected as instigators of the rebellion. The family walked for three nights to reach the Austrian border, where they paid a bribe to Hungarian border guards and were welcomed on the other side with open arms.

"I can never express enough … the generosity of the Austrian people," Racz said.

The family sought asylum, hoping for a new home in the United States, knowing it would be more difficult to be accepted there than other possible destinations like Venezuela, Australia and Canada.

"We got lucky," Racz said. "We didn't go to Venezuela."

A Catholic church in Gary, Ind., agreed to sponsor the family. They soon moved to a Hungarian ethnic neighborhood in Chicago.

Though made to repeat seventh grade in a Catholic boys' school, Racz said he caught up quickly, with a strong background in math and science from his Budapest schooling and picking up spoken English well, if not spelling.

In the swimming pool is where he truly flourished.

"Here, they taught to swim with the freestyle, the crawl stroke," he said. "In Hungary, they taught to swim with the breaststroke. That gave me an advantage."

Racz credits Jack Bolger, a legendary coach who volunteered at Portage Park, where he swam, and also at Northwestern University, for his development.

He swam for the Catholic Youth Organization and YMCA.

"They'd take you on a trip and make (them) look good," Racz said. "I really enjoyed it."

He swam the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, individual medley and butterfly events "but I spent eight years of swimming … and was always crummy at my backstroke."

Racz strived to reach the Olympics but fell short in the Olympic trials.

His talent earned him an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University.

"It was not because of my grades, or my looks or my charming personality … that I went to college," Racz smiled.

College life suited him.

"As a jock and fraternity boy, the world is your oyster," Racz said. "After four years at an all-boys high school … I made up for it. I was that kind of guy you tell your daughters to stay away from."

Yet he still made time for more serious matters. He worked as a lifeguard each summer, a rewarding job.

"I got to teach people how to swim … not to be afraid of the water," Racz said.

His mother died during his sophomore year.

"My baby sister, eight years younger, moved down with me to college," he said.

Racz earned his degree in marketing and management, with a minor in government and economics.

He fancied a beautiful blond woman back home in Chicago and soon after they got together, she was pregnant with their son.

"The rabbit died on the 13th, we got married on the 14th," Racz said.

Racz said he knew it to be the right thing to do, and the marriage lasted 41 years, though eventually as a couple, they realized they were together for the sake of their children, now grown.

"I have a strong feeling for kids," he said. "(The marriage) gave me two wonderful kids."

Racz said he talks almost every other day on the phone with his sonPaul, who lives in Livermore, and daughter Joany, of Stockton.

He took his children to visit Hungary after graduating high school.

"They came back kissing the ground," Racz said.

He blamed the country's depressed economic conditions on its "progressive socialism," particularly collective farming.

"Somebody looks to their right, looks to their left, sees somebody slacking, they're going to slack," Racz said. "Some people are willing to work a little harder if they can get a little more."

He and his family moved to California after his Chicago neighborhood grew too seedy. They settled near a sister-in-law in Concord and owned a foreign auto repair shop for 27 years in Pleasanton.

Done with competitive swimming, Racz took up martial arts, earning a black belt in shudokan. He said he hung a broken athletic cup next to each of his belts in his home.

"That's for humility, to remind me I'm not Superman," he said. "There's always someone out there who can kick my butt."

Racz engaged more in politics after moving to Discovery Bay, stirred up by what he called unkept promises from developer Ken Hofmann and his cozy relationship with then-Contra Costa County Supervisor Tom Torlakson. He said he succeeded in enforcing conditions of development to have a Highway 4 sound wall, a traffic signal and a community center for the town eventually built. He tried twice, unsuccessfully, to recall Torlakson.

"I would call myself a Goldwater Republican," he said, admitting he once supported President Kennedy. "Looking back in history, the best thing about Kennedy was he had good taste in women."

He moved to Valley Springs about 10 years ago looking for a perfect retirement spot and found his 10 acres on the Calaveras River. There, he is building a 2,800 square-foot geodesic dome, inspired by his Southern Illinois University professor, R. Buckminster Fuller.

"I don't know if it's because I'm a Pisces or what, but I always end up next to the water," Racz said. "I love this area. It's beautiful."

A keen interest in Community Service Area No. 1, a $39 item on his annual property tax bill, reeled Racz into Calaveras politics and he is leading a charge to get his immediate neighbors and himself removed from the obscure special district and its road maintenance obligations.

He launched a website, about three years ago, and became active in the NorCal Tea Party, Calaveras County Taxpayers Association and Calaveras County Republican Party. Racz ran unsuccessfully for a Calaveras County Water District seat last year.

"There's no free lunch. Elected officials' generosity is at the expense of my kids and grandkids," he said.

At Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meetings, he often rails against the common practice of accepting state and federal grants.

"It's at somebody's expense. Somebody has to pay for it," Racz said. "It doesn't matter if it's coming out of my left pocket or my right pocket."

Calaveras County Taxpayers Association President Al Segalla said Racz may not be the most polished speaker at the podium but "I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy."

"Of all the people in the county that are dedicated to keeping our free society, I'd put him near the top," Segalla said.

Bonnie Newman, of Double Springs, like Racz, attends most Board of Supervisors meetings.

"I think he raises some important issues. I'm most of the time in opposition to what he's proposing," Newman said. "But he's intelligent and he's not looking to be popular. I think when people are standing up for what they believe in, that's important."

Though often ideological polar opposites, Newman and Racz agree on a common enemy to improving governance.

"Complacency," she said.

Racz called it "apathy."

"When you take a stand, a lot of people are going to hate your guts and a lot of people are going to love you for it, no matter what," he said.