Democratic State Assembly Candidate Phu Nguyen talks to Orange County Deputy Sheriff Association President Wayne Quint and two Costa Mesa police officers at an event in which police and fire unions endorsed Nguyen over Republican Alan Mansoor. (Photo by: Norberto Santana, Jr.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | Republicans have had such a successful relationship with public safety unions across California in recent decades that the two became virtually synonymous during political campaign seasons.

Yet the foundation of the relationship now seems to be cracking, largely because of the pension enhancements handed out to public safety over the past decade.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Orange County, where the two sides are slinging mud at each other in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

In the Costa Mesa City Council election, Republican candidates held a news conference in which they accused police of stalking them as they put out their signs. In the 68th District Assembly race, public safety union leaders called Republican candidate, and former sheriff’s deputy, Allan Mansoor a political hack and a “hypocrite.”

The result of all this could be a tectonic shift in political campaigning and fundraising. Imagine a time when cops and firefighters stand next to Democrats during elections pronouncing them as “law-and-order” candidates — and their campaign contributions follow.

In Orange County, that time is nigh.

Since the culture wars of the 1960s, the Republican Party has prided itself on its law-and-order credentials.

The fact that cops and firefighters in recent decades formed some of the most powerful labor unions became an inconvenient reality that candidates and party leaders simply ignored.

This inconsistency proved over time to be very profitable to the public safety unions, as they were able easily negotiate labor contracts with salary and pension benefits that general employee unions had to fight tooth-and-nail for — and didn’t always get.

The pinnacle came in the late 1990s, when the state and local governments — even those that were GOP-controlled — gladly signed on to enormous pension enhancements, thinking that the go-go stock market had made a government’s need to actually make pension contributions passé.

That benefit expansion allowed police officers and firefighters to retire earlier and with a larger paycheck. They also don’t pay into their pensions at the same rate that general employees do, so the hit on taxpayers is significant.

The benefit expansions swelled the long-term obligations of the pension fund creating what actuaries call “unfunded liabilities.”

The Orange County Employees Retirement System currently faces a $3.7 billion unfunded liability. That means annual payments owed to the retirement system keep rising. And with revenues experiencing historic slumps, elected officials face tough cuts.

And choices.

“Philosophically, law-and-order tends to be more of a Republican issue,” said Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh. “But the game changed in 1999. It changed when 3@50 was granted retroactively in a manner that made it abusive to the taxpayer.”

The game might have changed in 1999, but Republicans didn’t immediately start playing it any differently. In the years following Sept. 11, the party rushed to the side of police officers and firefighters.

But the financial collapse that began in 2008 has put unprecedented pressure on public sector budgets, both through shrinking tax revenues and spiraling pension payments, which are largely tied to Wall Street indexes.

Elections during such crises typically generate political scapegoats. And in Republican circles, unions are as good as they come. But this time, party leaders have gone to great lengths to single out public safety unions as the worst drivers of the fiscal crisis facing public budgets.

In Orange County, Baugh began the 2010 election cycle with a manifesto that essentially told all Republican candidates that they couldn’t get a party endorsement if they took any union campaign money.

Which led us to the scene at Tewinkle Park in Costa Mesa last month. The county’s two main public safety unions gathered behind Democrat Phu Nguyen, Mansoor’s opponent in the 68th District Assembly election.

As the press gathered, Wayne Quint, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, went after former sheriff’s deputy Mansoor hard, calling him a political hack and an opportunist.

Tony Bedolla, political director for the Orange County Professional Firefighters, made clear the prevailing attitude in law enforcement union circles: “You can’t say you support public safety without supporting public safety employees,” Bedolla said.

And it was Nguyen who got to stand by the deliverers of law and order and call them heroes.

Baugh stands by his manifesto, saying it was desperately needed and couldn’t be avoided.

“Public safety unions represent some of the greatest abuses in the pension problem. And to exempt a segment of public employees who represents a significant portion of the problem seems kind of silly,” he said.

Yet there is no denying that the manifesto has triggered a lot of heartburn among Republican incumbents, and new office seekers, who must fund increasingly expensive campaigns without a large, and until recently, dependable donor base.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a former Fullerton city councilman and trial attorney who spent more than $200,000 of his own money for his campaign, acknowledges his harsh reality.

In his race, Nelson found himself on the opposite end of nearly half a million in mailers because of his position on the public pensions. Nelson said the pension dynamic is so stark that a political die has been cast.

“You’re seeing the fireworks because people see a chance to capitalize,” Nelson said. “The cops are catching a lot of inflated rhetoric from politicians looking to be opportunist.”

Other Republicans privately acknowledge another pickle they find themselves in with law enforcement. A majority of police and firefighter union members are registered to vote as Republicans.

And he agrees with others that no one knows where this dynamic goes after Election Day.

“In their heart, on their real issues, they’re [cops and firefighters are] conservative. … But when you get to the benefits, they’re as liberal left as there ever was,” Nelson said.

“They’ve got to look in the mirror more than often and say, ‘This is odd.’”

Yet this political trend has a ton of odd angles.

This month, the treasurer of Orange County’s Republican Party, Mark Bucher, accused Costa Mesa police of harassing him and his brother-in-law, City Council candidate Jim Righeimer, while they put up signs. Righeimer’s campaign has focused on the high cost of public safety pensions.

The pair stood one weekend in front of reporters saying the cops had driven by and given them “the stink eye.”

White Republicans complaining of being harassed on the street by cops.

Incumbent Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Wendy Leece was lobbied heavily by Republican leaders recently to vote against a multi-year extension of the city’s largest employee contracts because they don’t include widespread institution of 401(k)-type defined contribution retirement plans.

But on Tuesday, Leece cast the pivotal vote to approve the contracts. She and other council members defended the contracts a fair deals that collectively balance Costa Mesa’s budget.

Leece also made public statements criticizing Republican leaders for inserting themselves into Costa Mesa’s budget.

Senior Republican leaders say local city budgets is exactly where they belong. And Baugh said that in this environment, it would cost her.

“We don’t tell her how to vote. She came to us seeking our support and help to get elected. What she did last night was break her word,” Baugh said the day after Leece’s vote.

Since her vote, Leece has been summoned to a party ethics committee meeting. Baugh said if there is time, the party should consider pulling her endorsement.

The message being sent: You can stand with the party or with the union bosses.

But going forward, will it be so easy for Republicans to know where to stand?

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