Orange County Republican leaders have introduced a new brand of politics to the small town of Lake Forest.
In many ways, it reflects the national debate, chock full of money and influence. Yet it’s not one that City Council members or local GOP leaders are eager to discuss.
Some local observers, however, are uneasy.
“This city should not be for sale,” said City Councilman Peter Herzog this week after confronted with the details of campaign finance tabulations from the last election cycle.
During last November’s elections, two developers steered nearly $50,000 in contributions to the local GOP, which in turn funded the campaigns of two new council candidates by funding attack mailers against other Republicans, one a longtime planning commissioner.
At the same time, developers delayed meetings with city officials who were advising council members to conduct independent studies of a developer-funded market analysis seeking to convert an abandoned auto mall into housing.
In the month before new City Councilmen Adam Nick and Dwight Robinson were elected in November, two local developers — Trumark Cos. and Brookfield Homes — contributed $42,500 to the Orange County Republican Party, which then spent at least $38,000 in mailers to help the two councilmen win election, according to campaign finance records reviewed by Voice of OC.
The newly elected councilmen joined Mayor Scott Voigts, who also works for Assemblyman Don Wagner, on the City Council.
Since 2010, Trumark and its lobbyist, Rick Goacher Planning and Associates, also gave more than $8,000 in direct contributions to Robinson and Mayor Scott Voigts, according to the campaign disclosures.
And another $22,500 in Trumark cash was funneled through a different political committee — Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods — which commissioned at least $17,000 in political mailers supporting Nick and Robinson.
That support paid off this week when the Lake Forest City Council considered a development proposed by Trumark and Brookfield. The city staff recommended against the development, but Robinson, Nick and Voigts mounted an aggressive defense of the developers and joined to approve their plans on a 3-2 vote.
Both developers want to convert an abandoned auto mall on the city’s northern edge into attainable housing but need the city to sign off on their plans to add about 200 homes. Because the city recently approved more than 4,000 homes for the area, city staff advised council members to do an independent review of the market study done by developers to see whether that area should indeed be changed to housing or remain commercial.
Councilman Dwight Robinson led the way from the dais Tuesday night by arguing against an independent review shouldn’t be done saying that “$12,000 [to pay for the review] is a lot of money, especially when it’s not needed.”
Before casting his vote, Robinson declared, “I ran as a business-friendly businessman, and that’s the way I’m going to go.”
After his vote, Robinson denied any knowledge of the developers steering contributions to his campaign through the local GOP.
“I don’t know where that money came from,” Robinson said.
Robinson said Republican leaders supported him “because of my philosophy,” adding that he ran an aggressive campaign. “I out-raised and outspent everyone,” Robinson added.
James O’Malley, an executive vice president with Trumark Homes, acknowledged making campaign contributions to the county GOP but denied any connection to Robinson or Nick’s campaigns, saying that he donated to the local GOP because it is friendly to the building industry.
Nick, who came in as the top vote getter last November, did not return calls for comment and avoided an interview Tuesday night. County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh could not be reached for comment.
Yet Terry Anderson, a 58-year-old financial advisor and lifelong Republican who has lived in Lake Forest for 30 years and recently ran for City Council after a stint on the Planning Commission, sees the connection as a dangerous trend.
Lake Forest campaigns used to cost about $20,000, Anderson noted. That changed this year with nearly six-figure campaigns making their first appearance.
The result, Anderson said, was a sea of hard-hitting political mailers.
Anderson was hit hard during the campaign as a City Hall insider and for his votes to deny a Sizzler restaurant a mural outside its facility because it didn’t comply with the city’s sign ordinance. Because the mural included an American flag, Anderson was attacked by mailers from the county GOP that questioned his patriotism.
“I was too liberal,” Anderson said of the attack mail. He’s also against the idea of Trumark and Brookfield saying what they are trying to do is “spot zoning.”
Yet Anderson sees his opposition to the housing projects, not his political ideology, as key in his defeat. And he’s puzzled when "my own party, which I’ve been a member of for a long time, spends significant amounts of money to defeat me.”
“This is supposed to be nonpartisan,” Anderson said. “Why is the Republican Party so interested in local politics in the city of Lake Forest when for 20 years it’s been a nonissue?”