The future of Orange County politics starts Tuesday
For an officially non-partisan special election, the March 12 vote to select a supervisor might say a lot about the future of partisan politics in Orange County.
On the one hand, a win by one of the big-name Republicans on the ballot could assure the party faithful that the GOP brand isn’t as shaky, locally, as last November’s election suggested.
On the other, a win by the one big-name Democrat could signal that the so-called “blue wave” of 2018 — in which Democrats took every federal office in a county once synonymous with Republican politics — wasn’t a blip.
What’s certain is that local GOP leaders are taking the contest seriously, describing it as the first major fight of 2020.
“We have a winning strategy for 2020 but it all begins on March 12th,” Orange County Republican Chairman Fred Whitaker wrote in an letter to supporters in February about the race for the open 3rd District board seat.
“This special election will have big implications.”
Ada Briceño, the recently elected chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Orange, agrees. She said the election offers a chance for her party to parlay its recent success in federal contests into wins in local races in the 2020 cycle.
“We’re continuing that energy down the ballot,” Briceño said. “It shows that the Democratic message is resonating and opening doors for people to come into the party.”
Both parties say they’re using tactics — door-to-door campaigning, grassroots support, targeted spending, and unified messaging — that the GOP and, more recently, Democrats, have used well in previous elections. Until last year, the GOP’s strong ground game had served as a breakwater of sorts, helping the party win a disproportionate number of local government seats even as the county’s voting population was veering leftward.
In all, seven candidates are running in the winner-take-all board race to replace former supervisor Todd Spitzer, who in November was elected county district attorney.
Three of the seven are considered front-runners. Those include the race’s lone Democrat, former 20-year Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, and two Republicans, Irvine Mayor Don Wagner and former Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray.
Issues of homelessness, law enforcement, and wildfire protection have featured prominently in the contest. That’s because in recent years the 3rd district – which spans Yorba Linda, Anaheim Hills, Orange, Villa Park, Tustin, Irvine and large swaths of unincorporated county land – has seen homelessness balloon and been hit by two substantial wildfires.
But the candidates’ solutions to these problems sound similar. All favor more housing, support for law enforcement and better responses from fire agencies, a continuity that might make it tough for voters to pick a candidate solely on the issues. Instead, in a race expected to generate low turnout, things like track record and geographic support could be key. What’s more, if history is a guide, the vote could be close: the last two special elections for the county board were decided by a combined 50 votes.
In the end, the non-partisan race could come down to the letter next to the candidates’ name — D or R?
Wagner has presented himself as the candidate with the most experience governing the district. He serves as leader of the seat’s largest city and is the only contender to represent large portions of the district, which he did during his six years in the state assembly. An advocate for small government, he says he’ll fight burdensome regulations that stymie housing development. He also touts his leadership in getting the long-delayed Great Park project back on track.
“You will find no one out of the seven of us who had the breadth of experience to do the job for you,” said Wagner, the county GOP’s endorsed candidate, at a recent forum in Silverado Canyon. “You have in me someone who will fight to get government back into the small box it belongs in.”
Wagner’s opponents have criticized him for doing too little as Irvine’s leader to address homelessness. They note that Wagner helped defeat a plan to open an emergency shelter in Irvine and instead backed a proposal to put a shelter at a former elementary school in the county’s rural canyons. Wagner has acknowledged the plan was flawed.
As of March 5, Wagner had raised $205,000, loaned his campaign another $100,000, and has been supported by $55,000 in outside money flowing from local developers and realtors – the same ones who supported his successful mayoral bid last year with nearly a half million dollars in independent expenditures.
After 20 years in Washington D.C. and an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, Sanchez is returning to her political roots — local politics.
She has campaigned on her ability to leverage her connections to bring federal dollars to the region for local projects. As the Democratic Party of Orange County’s endorsed candidate, Sanchez said she’ll also have a better relationship with Sacramento lawmakers than her GOP opponents. She has promised to fight for more addiction detox beds in the county and to support mass transit projects in the area.
“I have a passion for making sure that the place I call home is the best that it can be,” said Sanchez, an Orange resident, at the forum. “I know how to work to bring back the tax dollars here.”
Sanchez’s opponents allege she has few political connections to the district. During her time in Congress, she represented only a small portion of the 3rd District board seat. And Wagner has attacked Sanchez’s frequent statements about bringing federal dollars to the region, saying: “Solutions aren’t always about money.
Sanchez has raised $247,000 in the contest and loaned her campaign $100,000. She has also been backed by the county’s largest public labor union – the Orange County Employees Association – which, as of March 5, had spent $213,000 supporting her and another $55,000 attacking Wagner.
Murray, who was termed out as an Anaheim councilwoman in January, is the candidate with perhaps the most experience in addressing homelessness. She highlights how during her tenure on the Anaheim council, the city opened the county’s first full-service homeless shelter and another emergency shelter, and has gotten 1,738 homeless people off the street through an outreach program. The former councilwoman also said Anaheim’s wildfire mitigation measures implemented in response to recent blazes could be models for other parts of the district.
Murray has framed her candidacy as a third option to the two party-endorsed contenders.
“Choose the person who best represents you, not the ones who were hand-selected for you by the parties” and by deep-pocketed campaign donors, Murray said at the forum.
Murray has faced criticism for giving large incentives to developers during her time on the Anaheim council, which she has defended as decisions that led to job creation. Top GOP leaders also fear that Murray could split Republican votes, allowing Sanchez to win the seat.
Murray has raised nearly $97,000 and loaned her campaign $52,000. Home Savings bank heir Howard Ahmanson has financed $54,000 in attack ads and mailers against Murray – a move that could ultimately help Wagner.
Also running in the contest are former Villa Park councilwoman Deborah Pauly, former Orange County employee Larry Bales, Irvine business owner Katherine Daigle, and Tustin attorney Kim-Thy “Katie” Hoang Bayliss – all Republicans.
Pauly presents an ultraconservative option and could siphon some GOP votes. The former Tea Partier has attacked her Republican competitors, saying they’ve been connected to developers and beholden to special interest. Her message to voters: “Vote your gut.”
Whoever is elected likely would take office either March 26 or April 9. The new supervisor will serve for 21 months and could seek re-election in 2020.
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