In South Orange County’s political landscape, the city of Irvine has always been the correct answer to a game of “which one of these things is not like the others.”
Unlike just about everywhere else in heavily conservative Orange County, the Democrats of Irvine are a force to be reckoned with. They have maintained control of the City Council while in recent years the Republicans have struggled to match the strength of the Democrats’ campaigns. As in the 2010 election, the GOP succumbed to infighting and couldn’t gain control of City Council.
That is the script that played out two years ago when tea party activists and party regulars spent most of the election season at each other’s throats and never delivered a slate of candidates to oppose Councilman Larry Agran’s slate of Democrats.
From some Republicans’ point of view, the result was a missed opportunity. Tea partyer Lynn Schott, who didn’t receive a party endorsement until weeks before the election because of the infighting, lost to Agran by only 3.3 percent.
But out of that dysfunction came hope for the GOP.
This year’s crop of Irvine Republicans, which bears a striking resemblance to previous crops, claims to have accomplished what was not in 2010. They’ve formed “Team Irvine,” a united, three-member Republican slate. The team consists of Steven Choi, a councilman who is running for mayor; Christina Shea, a former councilwoman known for her combative challenges to the Democratic council majority; and Schott.
“When you unite, you win,” Choi said. “So it’s very fortunate that the three of us got together to form our slate, Team Irvine. I'm so happy about that.”
But political consultants and establishment Republicans say that despite Shea and her allies’ contention about 2010, unity isn’t the determining factor in council elections. And if the three Republicans win, there are questions about whether such a team, which was once embroiled in open warfare with each other, can get along.
But right now all they’re concerned about is November, and all they have to do is gain one seat. And they've got one thing going for them that they didn’t in 2010: Agran, one of the county’s best fundraisers, isn’t fighting to stay on council.
Instead, he will be competing with Choi for the mayor’s seat, which Sukhee Kang is vacating as he runs for the House of Representatives. If Agran loses, he can keep his council seat for at least two more years.
Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who won in 2010, thinks that this year the GOP can tap into voters’ distaste for career politicians.
“The Democratic majority has created almost a full-time City Council, which is involved at all levels, … and in my opinion, the way California government is structured, it’s supposed to be citizen legislators and not full-time council members,” Lalloway said.
The basic dynamic of the election looks far better for Republicans this year, said political consultant Scott Hart, president of Newport Beach-based Hart & Associates, but his analysis has more to do with the number of open seats and the name recognition of candidates than the benefits of running as a team.
For one thing, Shea is well-known, has a strong support base and has only been off the council for two years. It’s almost like running as an incumbent, Hart said.
And while incumbent Democrat Beth Krom will most likely be reelected, Hart said, if Agran wins the mayoral race, a third council seat would be vacant. That third seat could go to Schott, whose chances are good because she has residual name recognition from her 2010 race, Hart said.
If Agran loses to Choi and Shea wins a seat, Republicans would have a majority.
“Lynn’s got to be able to try and ride on Christina’s coattails, … so probably Schott’s the biggest beneficiary of the whole thing,” Hart said. “It’s just predicated on what kind of resources they can put together to conduct their campaign. I think they’ve got a pretty good opportunity of winning.”
But the Agran political machine is formidable. A slate-mailer campaign heavily bankrolled by Great Park contractors has been vital to keeping the Democrats in their seats. And Agran will be running on a slate that includes Krom and PK Wong.
Schott appears to be on her way to receiving a GOP endorsement. A subcommittee last week voted 5-1 to grant her the endorsement, according to party Treasurer Mark Bucher, a subcommittee member. The endorsement will go before the full central committee later this month.
However, Bucher’s lone vote against Schott reveals that tea partyers like Schott, while less strident than two years ago, still run the risk of offending the party establishment. Bucher said he voted against Schott’s endorsement because her central committee alternate, former police officer Patrick Rodgers, harshly criticized Jim Righeimer after the Costa Mesa council leader publicly blasted an alleged police union plot to have Righeimer arrested.
The earlier endorsement and slate unity is important, Schott’s allies argued last year, because then conservative voters would have clear choices at the ballot box.
But Bucher says the issue is more complicated.
“The key is that you have the right candidates that can illicit support — financial and volunteers — and get the enthusiasm of the people in that area to turn out the vote,” Bucher said.
Assuming a Republican majority is elected, there’s also a chance that the infighting could resume.
In a power-play during the last election, Shea fired Lalloway from the city’s Finance Commission, igniting an acrimonious public rivalry in which accusations of deceit and corruption flew both ways.
And Shea’s confrontational style in facing the council’s Democrats could clash with Lalloway’s measured opposition.
Shea is already sounding alarm bells over the Great Park Neighborhoods project, a planned 10,700-unit housing development around the park. While Lalloway has yet to criticize, Shea calls the traffic impacts “very troubling.”
Lalloway and Shea, however, say they’ve buried the hatchet and are committed to working together.
“That was a bump in the road, if you want to call it that,” Shea said. “I think Jeff and I agree on 98 percent of everything.”