Candidates vying for the coastal 74th Assembly District submitted themselves to grilling by local journalists in Costa Mesa Thursday at the first of four “Feet to the Fire” forums.

The event featured Republicans Keith Curry, Matt Harper and Emanuel Patrascu and Democrats Karina Onofre and Anila Ali.

A moment that typified the unorthodox event came when Onofre was confronted about her decision to switch parties.

Orange County Register columnist Jack Wu noted that she had sought an endorsement from the California Young Republican Federation just four days before she filed to run as a Democrat.

The candidate didn’t have a direct answer at first.

“The fact is I switched, and I’m here to stay as a Democrat,” said Onofre, saying her values haven’t changed.

The “Republican Party doesn’t respect minorities” or women, she said, before adding the cliché: “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.”

The 74th District includes much of Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods and Newport Beach.

Curry, a Newport Beach councilman who’s considered a frontrunner in the race, ignited a heated exchange when he said cities should be able to remove beach bonfire pits without state approval.

“If some gangbanger shows up” late at night with a piece of wood and wants to have a bonfire, he can’t currently be stopped, Curry said.

Patrascu took issue with that characterization.

“Keith Curry wants to take those beach bonfires, because he believes there’s gangbangers on the beach,” Patrascu said. “There’s no gangbangers.”

Patrascu himself was put on the defensive over his public stand against Vietnam’s human rights abuses during the same week his boss, Assemblyman Travis Allen, traveled to China to participate in a Chinese government event.

“What’s the difference between a Chinese communist and a Vietnamese communist?” asked Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr.

“For me personally,” I don’t see a difference between communists, said Patrascu.

Asked if he supported what his boss did, Patrascu replied: “It’s not what I would do.”

Curry was also questioned about what a Republican can even accomplish in Sacramento, given Democrats’ dominance in the Legislature.

The political landscape will change, Curry replied, adding: “Republicans will be relevant again.”

Wu, a conservative commentator, said that with Democrats holding a supermajority, ”it doesn’t matter what you vote” as a Republican legislator.

Ali said that’s why voters should elect a Democrat like herself, but she didn’t have any specifics on what she would do.

People are already paying high taxes, Ali said, adding that she can “get those back for you because I will have a seat at the table. I will have a voice.”

How exactly would she get other counties to receive less from Sacramento?

At “another forum, I will have specifics,” Ali replied.

Harper, who is the mayor of Huntington Beach, was confronted about inconsistencies between his espousing a small-government philosophy and getting a government job that didn’t previously exist at the county trash department.

Harper transferred to Waste & Recycling in 2011 after working as a senior policy aide to Supervisor Janet Nguyen until 2011.

“You moved from a county political job right into the trash department,” said Santana.

“Your question isn’t relevant to the issues we’re trying to decide in the state of California,” Harper replied.

“You yourself grew government,” Santana responded, asking how that’s consistent with Harper’s ideology.

“It’s a position I no longer have,” Harper replied, adding that the department isn’t funded from the county general fund.

Other forums scheduled for this year include an April 28 session on who will replace outgoing county Supervisor John Moorlach in the 2nd District.

On Sept. 18, panelists will interview candidates running for the Costa Mesa City Council, and on Oct. 1, candidates for Newport Beach City Council come under the microscope.

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at  and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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