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State GOP leaders have launched a behind-the-scenes offensive aimed at gaining control of the boards of regional government agencies, and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido is in their crosshairs.
Pulido, a Democrat, has been the Orange County cities’ representative on the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) governing board for over a decade. He’s widely known as a champion of the still budding green energy industry, and he also chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Energy Committee.
But in recent weeks, Pulido’s reappointment to the board, once considered routine, has become hotly contested. Lake Forest Councilman Dwight Robinson, a Republican, is seeking appointment to the seat, and he has the backing of some of the most influential Republican power brokers in Orange County.
But ousting a well-connected mayor and longtime fixture on the AQMD board isn’t happening without a fight, not to mention some collateral damage.
Already, it’s caused what was left of the fragile Republican coalition that has in recent years controlled Irvine’s city council to implode. Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway — livid over a move by Mayor Steven Choi to snatch away his participation in the AQMD appointment — says state GOP leadership has gone too far in meddling in local politics.
At the heart of the dispute is a call from state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte — who is also a principal at the statewide lobbying firm California Strategies — for more Republicans to be appointed to local governing boards, according to Lalloway and other sources. The motive is to make the governing boards more business friendly, sources say.
Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker apparently took up the call and last month sent out a letter to Republican mayors across the county.
The letter asked them to appoint Robinson instead of Pulido to the AQMD board when they gather for Thursday’s meeting of the Orange County City Selection Committee, a group of local elected officials that makes appointments to the boards of regional government agencies.
The letter touts Robinson’s conservative credentials and says he’s been dedicated to “pro-business” policies. It also criticizes Pulido as a Democrat “who has not shown regard for the businesses that support jobs.”
Specifically, sources say, the Republicans want to protect the oil industry. And like with so many other back-room political efforts in Orange County, influential lobbyist Curt Pringle and his firm Curt Pringle & Associates are rumored to be involved.
According to sources, Pringle is doing this on behalf of his client the Western States Petroleum Association, which wants to see Pulido removed from the AQMD board, presumably because of his staunch support for alternative energy.
At least that’s what’s being whispered from the Pulido camp. Other sources have also confirmed Pringle’s involvement.
There could also be other reasons why local politicos would be more willing to vote against Pulido than in the past. Pulido’s tardy arrival at the City Selection Committee meeting last December helped cause a mess in which the county counsel’s office found violations of the state’s open meetings law.
Pulido himself didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did Robinson, Pringle, or a representative of the Western States Petroleum Association. A spokeswoman for Brulte, meanwhile, said he “generally doesn’t speak to the press.”
Lalloway – who has become a prominent figure in GOP politics, with positions on both the state Republican Party board and the local GOP — says Whitaker’s letter represents Brulte’s wish to strong-arm local Republicans to vote in lock-step with the party. And he says he’s having none of it.
He was supposed to be Choi’s representative at the City Selection Committee meeting. But Choi, who is running for the 68th state Assembly district, replaced him with Councilwoman Christina Shea, who Choi says he can count on to vote for Robinson and against Pulido.
Lalloway responded harshly.
“I will be pulling my endorsement of you and supporting another candidate in your assembly race. As a matter of fact, I will be doing everything I can to make sure you lose in every race you ever run again,” Lalloway wrote in an Oct. 29 email to Choi. “Say goodbye to your political career.”
Choi called Lalloway’s remarks “childish” and said that Lalloway should have understood that he wants a representative, who is essentially filling in for Choi, to vote the way Choi would vote. Choi says he heard from other sources that Lalloway was going to vote to appoint Pulido.
Lalloway denied having made up his mind about who he would vote for. He said local and state party leaders wanted “someone to vote for Dwight, no questions asked.” An earlier email from Choi to Lalloway shows Choi recommending a vote for Robinson, but left it up to Lalloway’s “judgment.”
Choi, Lalloway went on to say, has shown himself to be a shill of the Party leadership willing to sell out his local colleagues.
“Someone got [Choi] to sell his soul, and I won’t support a candidate that doesn’t have the character to support their colleagues on the City Council and will sell out for someone promising him something,” Lalloway said.
Choi insisted Lalloway would be the one saying goodbye to his political career for reacting that way and for not voting “in the party’s interest.” He said Lalloway had been supportive to the point of effusive in the past, and that Lalloway’s reaction has left Choi disillusioned.
“I simply don’t understand how a person one day calls me best mayor of the city, he will support me no matter what, and turns just like that. How can you trust that person?” Choi said. “It was all fake, now you can tell.”
“When Republicans know this, no Republican will take it lightly… he dug his own grave.”
Reporter Nick Gerda also contributed to this article.