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Six candidates are vying for the north Orange County seat on the county Board of Supervisors, which oversees the $6 billion county administration of homelessness, mental health, social services, law enforcement and other services.

The June 5 primary election comes as Republicans look to preserve their five seats on the five-member county board, which officially is non-partisan. Democrats are aiming to gain what would be their first full supervisor term in three decades.

Among the six candidates, four – two Republicans and two Democrats – are considered front-runners based on campaign spending and name recognition.

On the Republican side are La Habra Mayor Tim Shaw, who is supported by realtor associations and most of the current county supervisors; and Anaheim councilwoman and attorney Lucille Kring, who is supported by top business leaders in Anaheim.

The frontrunners on the Democrat side are Joe Kerr, a retired county firefighter, fire captain, and firefighters’ union president; and Fullerton mayor and attorney Doug Chaffee.

Two other candidates, both Democrats, have raised and spent far less campaign money than the other four candidates. They are Rose Espinoza, a La Habra councilwoman and director of the nonprofit Rosie’s Garage; and Cynthia Aguirre, a county budget analyst who also is an elected school board member at the La Habra City School District.

The north county 4th District includes most of Anaheim and Buena Park, as well as the cities of Fullerton, Brea, La Habra, Placentia, and unincorporated areas.

Issues include homelessness and affordable housing, sharply escalating law enforcement spending, problems with the mental health system, and Sacramento short-changing Orange County’s property tax revenue to the tune of $200 million or more per year.

Under Orange County’s “50 percent plus one” system for electing supervisors, a candidate would win the seat outright in the June primary if they receive more than half of the votes. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent – which is considered likely in the 4th District race– then the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff in November.

Since 1987, Democrats have only occupied a single seat on the five-member board for just half of a four-year term, from 2005 to 2006, when then Supervisor Lou Correa was elected to the state Senate.

Democrats have a 9 percentage-point lead in voter registration within the 4th District, with 40 percent of voters registered as Democrats versus 31 percent Republican and 25 percent with no party preference.

One of the biggest factors in elections is who actually turns out to vote, and primary elections in non-presidential election years have the largest advantage for Republicans, who turn out in larger proportions than Democrats.

The 4th District’s registered voters are 50 percent non-Latino, Asian, or African American; 34 percent Latino; and 15 percent Asian, according to the firm Political Data, Inc.

The winner will replace Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who cannot run again due to term limits and is campaigning instead for Congress.

There are four front-runners in campaign spending, as of the latest reports, which ran through May 19: Kerr ($130,000 in direct campaign spending plus $67,000 in outside support from the county firefighters’ union), Chaffee ($159,000 in direct spending), Shaw ($92,000 in direct spending plus $43,000 in outside support from realtors’ groups), and Kring ($91,000 in direct spending).

The other two candidates were far behind, with Espinoza reporting $6,000 in spending and Aguirre not reporting any fundraising or spending.

What Makes Each the Best Candidate?

In a phone interview, Shaw, who works as government affairs director for the Pacific West Association of Realtors, cited his experience working for county supervisor Janet Nguyen for about a year in 2007, his service on the La Habra City Council for almost 10 years and his experience on the Orange County Transportation Authority board.

Kring noted she’s won four elections to the Anaheim City Council, including in an “overwhelmingly Democrat” district, and that unlike Shaw, she’s “never voted to raise sales tax.”

The La Habra City Council voted to place the sales tax increase on the ballot before Shaw joined the council in December 2008. Shaw said as a private citizen he voted for the increase on the November 2008 ballot because the city’s utility tax to pay for police and other services was expiring and the sales tax increase would “partially offset” the loss of the utility tax.

Kerr pointed to his position as an official liaison for the Orange County Fire Department starting in 1982, and said he’s “been very successful” at reaching across the aisle and working with legislators bringing money back from Sacramento.

Chaffee said he’s lived in the 4th District all his life, is “fiscally responsible,” has worked to address homelessness, and is close to the city’s police officers, who “have endorsed me in my past races.”

Espinoza cited her 17 years of experience on the La Habra City Council, and said she has been “very accessible to the community,” including setting up a table in front of the local theater, grocery store, and community center to hear from residents.

Aguirre cited her “knowledge of county services and county programs,” including through her job as a county budget analyst.

What Would Each Do About Homelessness?

Shaw said he supports the ongoing goal of 2,700 permanent supportive housing units divided throughout the county, and said Mental Health Services Act money should be freed up.

Kring said she agrees with state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) about opening up part of Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa to help address homelessness. “That is a beautiful campus” and “is already set up for the developmentally challenged.”

Kerr called for the creation of a “unified command to bring all parties together to have ownership of this issue so we can deal with the…root cause of the problem.” He said mental health money needs to be spent, long-term supportive housing should be created, and the use of Fairview should be explored

Chaffee also called for Fairview to be re-opened, and said the county’s housing authority “needs to become far more proactive than it has been. Among other things they can allocate some of that mental money for housing.”

Sheriff’s Department Spending is Escalating Much Faster Than Other Departments, While Service Levels Have Remained Essentially the Same

The candidates said the cost escalation is a problem, but they offered few specifics of how the costs – which largely stem from a September 2016 labor agreement – could be controlled, other than through working with labor groups and management.

Kring said she would immediately commission an audit of the department and look at cutting costs for services like park maintenance to free up money, perhaps through privatizing services.

Kerr said he would work with the Sheriff’s Department and deputies’ union to help them find “efficiencies without adversely impacting public safety or staffing.”

OC is Short-Changed at Least $200 Million Each Year in Property Taxes

Getting Sacramento to change the property tax issue has been a top county priority with the Legislature for a number of years.

In separate interviews, Shaw and Kring each said they would “beat the drum” with state legislators but didn’t have specifics beyond that.

“It is a huge inequity and injustice, I mean there’s no denying that,” Shaw said.

“We’re gonna beat this drum until you can’t stand us anymore,” Kring said of what she would do in Sacramento.

Kerr said he has “a track record” in helping secure the vehicle license fee money from Sacramento and he would bring his “good advocacy in Sacramento” to the Board of Supervisors. Chaffee said the inequity is unfair to Orange County and that he would advocate to fix it.

Aguirre said she would first seek detailed information from the county tax collector about the shortchanging of funds, something she said the current supervisors apparently have not done.

Kerr Residency Questions

Other candidates have criticized Kerr for running in the district given his longtime residency in Coto de Caza, where he continues to own a home in the south county gated community. Kerr said he grew up in north county, lived in north county for over two decades, and moved to the 4th District in January 2017, two months before announcing his run for supervisor.

“Residency’s gonna be an issue in this district,” Shaw said in the phone interview with Voice of OC. “I went to La Habra High School,” he said, adding, “our kids are in public schools in La Habra.”

Kerr, he said, announced he was running for the 4th District seat “while he was registered to vote in Coto de Caza” in south county. “I mean, come on man.”

“My team has looked into his tax record for his house, and his tax record says he lives in Coto,” Kring said, adding “his kids go to school down there.”

In response, Kerr said, “I lived 26 years in north Orange County. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I went to school, where I played football, where I played baseball, where I went to the La Habra boys’ club, where I got my first communion,” he said. “It’s where my first fire station was…I’ve lived in four of the six cities in the 4th District.”

“The idea that someone’s living in one district their whole life is a fallacy,” Kerr said, noting the district lines change every decade after the U.S. Census.

In January 2017, “I moved back to the district where I grew up and went to school,” Kerr later added, referring to the 4th District. He said he “graduated in the Anaheim Union [High School] District.”

Two Other Supervisors’ Seats Are Up for Election, But They’re Not Considered Competitive

Two other supervisors’ seats are up in the primary – Lisa Bartlett in south county and Michelle Steel’s coastal OC seat – but the seats aren’t considered competitive, given the voter registration advantage for the incumbent Republicans.

Bartlett is running unopposed for her 5th District seat. Steel faces two challengers in the 2nd District: Democrat Brendon Perkins and Libertarian Michael Mahoney, each of whom trail far behind her $500,000-plus campaign war chest.

Over the last couple months, the sheriff’s deputies’ union has been spending on ads supporting Steel, who has said she’s planning to run for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s seat in Congress when he retires.

Outside Groups Spending Big on Shaw and Kerr

With the county’s strict contribution limit of $2,000 per-donor, the largest campaign spending by single groups is done through independent expenditure groups, or “IEs.” These groups can legally raise and spend unlimited amounts of money supporting and opposing candidates, but are banned from coordinating with candidates.

The outside spending reported so far has been supporting and opposing Kerr, and supporting Shaw.

The county firefighters’ union, which Kerr formerly led, spent at least $67,000 on campaign mailers supporting him earlier this month.

And realtors’ groups spent at least $43,000 on ads supporting Shaw.

But the biggest spending has been by the sheriff’s deputies’ union, which reported spending $148,000 this month on ads opposing Kerr.

Kring said money is how campaigns are paid for.

“It’s the money, honey. It’s the money that pays for this game.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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