On it’s face, Tuesday's special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat representing a good chunk of coastal and South Orange County could be expected to be pretty bland, given that both of the Republican front runners’ voting patterns aren’t very different on most conservative, bread and butter issues.
But underneath that veneer, the race between state Assemblyman Don Wagner and former County Supervisor John Moorlach features the latest in a series of intensifying election clashes between moderate, pro big-business factions and more fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning wings of the OC GOP.
Judging from the political hit mail, the race for the 37th State Senate District seat is shaping up to be one of the nastiest ones yet.
Just like last November’s mayoral election in Anaheim – where Mayor Tom Tait stood in stark contrast to an array of business interests like Disney and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – Moorlach finds himself standing up against just about every member of Orange County’s political establishment.
Wagner slams Moorlach, 59, as an ideologue who can’t work with others and sees nearly every public policy initiative through the lens of an accountant who concludes that virtually all government is a boondoggle.
He criticizes the former CPA - credited with pointing out the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy - for running “a scurrilous, negative campaign based on the principle that 'everybody is wrong except me, John Moorlach.' "
“That’s how he has conducted his public career,” Wagner said. “You either agree with John or you are stupid, and bad and a sellout.”
Wagner, 54, sees himself as a sensible conservative that can work with business and unions and others with the aim of crafting broad-based policy.
“I can vote no without voting 'hell no' or poking you in the eye,” said Wagner, a former school board member and Irvine resident who has served two terms in the state Assembly.
Moorlach – who has indeed always kept a fairly independent profile since taking over the treasurer-tax collector’s office after the county bankruptcy - sums up the mountain of endorsements arrayed against him simply.
“Crony capitalism,” said Moorlach, taking aim at much of Orange County’s political establishment.
Orange County Republican candidates like Moorlach – independent, libertarian-minded ideologues - much like Tait before him and Supervisor Shawn Nelson before both of them, are increasingly running against establishment interests.
Moorlach, Tait and Nelson are all largely opposed to business subsidies and the rising costs of public sector pensions.
So far, both Tait and Nelson have won their contests against the establishment handily. Moorlach hopes to do the same.
Tait and Nelson are Moorlach’s main endorsements.
Policy battles between the libertarian and business OC GOP factions in recent years have centered around subsidies for large public sector projects like Anaheim’s multi-million dollar transportation center called ARTIC, a street car system in Santa Ana, subsidized sports stadiums and installing toll lanes on Interstate 405.
On most of those issues, Tait, Nelson and Moorlach have found themselves as lone no-votes slamming subsidies while their colleagues have supported the projects.
Moorlach argues that special interests have little impact on him because he hasn’t had to cut any deals with them to get into office.
“It is very difficult and very intimidating,” to go up against the Orange County Business Council and their interests, Moorlach said. “But it’s also rewarding that I’m running a campaign funded by individuals…friends are stepping up. I have no PAC (political action committee) money. I have no union money. I’m an independent, free spirit. That’s comforting. Win, lose or draw, I’m not in anyone’s pocket. And that’s what frustrates the crowd I’m up against. A lot of these electeds are concerned about being in elective office. I’m concerned about doing elective office.”
On this front, Wagner is the exact opposite.
“All of the folks that I’m working with up in Sacramento are backing me and all of the folks that John is working with in Orange County are backing me,” Wagner said. “That tells you something.”
Wagner has the support of Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. He’s also got endorsements from just about every single countywide elected colleague that has served with Moorlach on the Board of Supervisors along with most of the elected class currently serving in Sacramento.
In addition to that, Wagner has attracted significant independent spending against Moorlach from his old foes at the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs – who were engaged in years of litigation against the County of Orange because of efforts by Moorlach to question the legality of retroactive pension benefits.
AOCDS and another statewide law enforcement group have spent more than $100,000 against Moorlach on mail, robo calls and Facebook advertising. Moorlach, in turn, has been supported by about $25,000 in mailers funded by Howard Ahmanson, Jr.
Direct fundraising tells a similar tale.
Wagner has outraised Moorlach more than four to one.
According to the latest disclosures filed with the California Secretary of State, Wagner had raised just over $371,000 while Moorlach’s fundraising didn’t break the six-figure mark.
While Moorlach has made much of his name off opposing pensions, much of the traditional labor foes that would be expected to raise money against him appear to be sitting this one out, even though Moorlach has attempted to frame the race as one against big unions, with Wagner being portrayed as a beholden to labor interests.
Yet Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, summed up his organization’s approach simply: “Regarding this race, my money and time will be spent buying popcorn to watch these two right wingers beat the shit out of each other.”
Judging from the ferocity and quantity of independent last-minute hit mail against Moorlach, most observers agree it indicates that the former county supervisor and treasurer-tax collector has high name ID.
Wagner readily acknowledges Moorlach’s name ID advantage as well as his efforts to cast Moorlach’s populist, and apparently popular, record in a different light.
“John thinks his record is a lot more positive than I do,” Wagner said.
He has hit Moorlach on his support of fee increases during his tenure as a county supervisor. Wagner said those are tax increases. Moorlach said those votes kept taxpayers from having to subsidize specific interests that should be supported by their own fees.
Wagner also has hit Moorlach as pro-amnesty for undocumented immigrants, a charge that Moorlach scoffs at.
He’s also made a point of hitting Moorlach on his steadfast support for his own government pension. According to Wagner, Moorlach's former colleague Pat Bates, who is no now in the state Senate, slams Moorlach, saying he could have refused a government pension as a county supervisor just like she and Nelson did.
Moorlach counters that he’s never opposed the concept of public pensions, only that employees need to pay into them and that the benefit structure is too high. While he was slammed for years for not paying into his own pension, Moorlach counters that he started paying into it just when other managers agreed to do so.
The two men are likely to bring a very different game to Sacramento.
Moorlach said he’s sharpening his accountant’s pencil.
“I want to dig. I want to play with numbers. Work with the state auditor. Follow up on reports. Do my own analysis,” Moorlach said, noting that he’s worried about a mountain of debt affecting the state and is unafraid to sound alarm bells.
Wagner said that kind of approach shows why Moorlach won’t be successful in Sacramento on behalf of his constituents.
“He has no idea how it works up there,” Wagner said. “We have tons of accountants up here.”
Being a red county in a blue state requires lots of careful work on establishing priorities and getting legislation passed, Wagner said. In addition to that, he said other challenges include helping your area get what it needs from the state, along with trying to get sensible, conservative policies adopted.
Ironically, neither candidate has any kind of concrete plan for moving Orange County out of the bottom of the pile when it comes to property tax equity – given that OC gets one of the lowest percentages of property tax dollars of any major county back from Sacramento.
County officials recently adopted a legislative platform that makes this their number-one priority when it comes to Sacramento, arguing that every problem in Orange County is related to poor tax equity from the state.
The 37th District includes eastern Anaheim, Orange, Villa Park, Tustin, North Tustin, Costa Mesa, Irvine, part of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Lake Forest and unincorporated areas.
Norberto Santana Jr. can be contacted at email@example.com.