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Voting is now underway for the March 2020 primary election and below is a rundown of the races up for a decision by Orange County voters.
A host of competitive local, state and federal seats are up for grabs, with voters’ choice potentially deciding how state and local officials will handle priorities like homelessness, housing affordability and immigration. In most of the races, the primary election will determine which two candidates will face off in the November general election. In other races, the final winners will be decided in the primary, including the hotly-contested county Board of Education and 3rd District supervisor races.
For the first time, OC voters are casting their ballots in a dramatically-overhauled system that changes when, where, and how people vote.
Election Day in Orange County technically started Feb. 3 – a month before the election – when officials started sending out mail-in ballots to all 1.6 million registered voters in OC.
Voters also can instead vote in person up to 11 days ahead of the election – starting Saturday – at any of 188 new vote centers countywide, which allow voters to cast their ballot regardless of where they live. The first batch of vote centers opened Saturday, with all vote centers scheduled to be up and running starting this coming Saturday and during the four days through Election Day.
In local races, a handful of voters – sometimes as few as 15 – can end up deciding who wins when the results are close.
About 12 percent of voters had cast ballots as of Tuesday, a week before Election Day, through mailing them in or dropping them off at ballot drop boxes.
Click here to see which races are on your ballot. And click the links below to skip to a particular contest.
Orange County Board of Supervisors
U.S. House of Representatives
In one of the hottest local election battles of 2020, three Democrats are facing off with Republican Andrew Do for his supervisor’s seat in next week’s primary election.
Do is running on a campaign that he’s been solving homelessness and wants to continue doing so, while his Democratic challengers have said the county has failed to move fast enough to create affordable housing to get people off the streets.
Challenging Do are three Democrats from three different generations: Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who’s a baby boomer; Westminster Councilman Sergio Contreras, who’s a Generation X’er; and Kim Bernice Nguyen, who’s a millennial.
The top two vote-getters will advance to a November runoff, in what’s considered one of the most competitive races in Orange County this year.
Do is facing the prospect of a tight re-election this year, with the Democratic voter registration advantage increasing from 14 percentage points the last time he ran, to nearly 20 points currently. He and Pulido also have faced corruption investigations in recent years.
Due to Do’s advantage of incumbency and large financial backing – as well as being the only Republican – the primary election is largely considered a race for which of the three Democrats will advance to face Do in the runoff.
Dominating spending on the race, by far, is the Orange County sheriff’s deputies’ union, which has spent over $430,000 on mailers and other ads supporting Do. Do voted last year for $151 million in raises for sheriff’s deputies, and moved $24 million from departments like the Health Care Agency to pay for sheriff cost overruns.
Other big spending has included $25,000 each to a committee funding ads for Pulido and against Do from the Santa Ana police officers union, billionaire George Argyros’ real estate firm Arnel Development, and developer Mike Harrah’s company Caribou Industries.
Keiu Hoang, a billionaire who lives near Ventura County and founded a medical services company, has also given $50,000 to the pro-Pulido, anti-Do committee.
Contreras’ support has been largely from individual small donors and labor unions, and Nguyen’s donors have mostly been small contributions from individuals.
Orange County Republican Supervisor Don Wagner and his Democrat opponent, attorney and OC Fair Board member Ashleigh Aitken, are both facing off against each other in a high stakes, winner-take-all primary campaign next Tuesday that will impact the future of county representation for residents of Irvine, Tustin, Orange, Yorba Linda, part of Anaheim and Villa Park.
The result also will shape how the county spends $7 billion per year on local law enforcement, homelessness, mental health, social services and health care.
With issues like homelessness, development and open space drawing intense concern from many residents of the 3rd District, Wagner and Aitken’s race has drawn hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars.
Wagner, an attorney and former Irvine mayor who won his supervisor seat one year ago, says he’s made significant progress on issues like homelessness, sober living home regulations, and fire prevention – and is asking voters to give him the opportunity to continue serving.
Aitken, a former federal prosecutor and current member of the Orange County Fairgrounds board, says a new direction is needed because the county hasn’t been proactive in creating housing needed to get homeless people off the streets. Her father is Voice of OC’s board chairman, Wylie Aitken.
The stakes for the 3rd District race are high. With voting already underway, the March 3 primary election comes as Republicans and Democrats battle over who have a majority on the county Board of Supervisors.
The biggest spending in the race has been more than $400,000 from the OC sheriff’s deputies’ union on ads supporting Wagner – far more than any other group or individual.
Aitken’s largest financial backing comes from individual donors ($207,000), labor unions, and $30,000 in ad services from consultant John Shallman that disclosures list as being donated by Shallman to an independent expenditure committee that advocated for her.
In this heavily Democratic district (49 percent to Republicans’ 20 percent), Rep. Linda Sanchez is facing one challenger, Michael Tolar, who hasn’t fundraised. Sanchez was first elected to Congress in 2003 and has been easily reelected since then.
The District was leaning Republican heading into the 2018 primary election, according to the Cook Political Report, but it’s now leaning Democrat after Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Fullerton) beat former Assemblywoman Young Kim (R-Fullerton). The two are going to battle in the ballot box again this year and the fundraising levels are nearly equal. A third candidate, Steve Cox, also is running with no party preference.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) is squaring off against several Republican challengers, including three current city council members in the district: Greg Raths of Mission Viejo, Don Sedgwick of Laguna Hills, and Peggy Huang of Yorba Linda, who’s also a deputy attorney general. The other Republican challengers are retired teacher Rhonda Furin, attorney Christopher J. Gonzales, and Chapman University dean Lisa Sparks.
In this heavily Democratic district (48 percent to Republicans’ 21 percent), incumbent Democrat Lou Correa is facing off against fellow Democrat and businessman Pablo Mendiolea, as well Republican retired postal worker James S. Waters and two no-party candidates: IT project manager Ed Rushman and caregiver Will Johnson.
In another heavily Democratic district (37 percent to Republicans’ 32 percent), incumbent Democrat Alan Lowenthal is facing two Democrats and three Republican challengers. The Republicans are planning commissioner Sou Moua, entrepreneur Amy Phan West and Ocean View School District board member John Briscoe. The Democrats, aside from Lowenthal, are professor Peter Mathews and teacher assistant Jalen Dupree McLeod.
In what’s considered a competitive district, incumbent Harley Rouda is facing Republican County Supervisor Michelle Steel and four other candidates. Local election experts said the race could be tight because voter registration favors Republicans and Steel has name recognition in the district. The other Republican candidates are businessman Brian Burley, real estate broker James Brian Griffin, filmmaker John Thomas Schuesler, and retired educator Richard Mata of the conservative American Independent Party.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-Oceanside) faces only one challenger this year, as San Juan Capistrano Mayor Bryan Maryott, a Republican, looks to unseat the freshman Democrat. Maryott’s behind in fundraising and Levin had a landslide victory against Diane Harkey in 2018.
It’s another rematch between incumbent Republican Ling Ling Chang and Democrat Josh Newman, whom Chang defeated in a 2018 recall election. It’s considered a key swing district statewide that will help decide whether Democrats retain their supermajority in Sacramento, which allows them to raise taxes without voter approval.
Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) is up against two Democrats, Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley and UC Irvine law professor Dave Min. Republicans continue to hold a voter registration advantage, with 35 percent of the registered voters to Democrats’ 33.5 percent. Voters without a party preference are 26 percent of registered voters in the district.
Incumbent Republican Steven Choi is facing off against two Democrats: Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox and Eugene Fields, former Orange County Register reporter. One Republican is challenging Choi: Benjamin Yu, a Lake Forest traffic and parking commissioner.
In this heavily Democratic district (51 percent Democrat to 18 percent Republican), incumbent Democrat Tom Daly is challenged by a single candidate, Republican Jon Paul White.
A looming showdown between current 72nd District State Assemblyman Tyler Diep and challenger Janet Nguyen, a former state senator, will showcase a split among Orange County Republicans that most recently led the OC GOP to drop their endorsement of Diep over his support for labor union-friendly policies at the State Legislature.
The match-up also marks a divide amongst the Vietnamese community in the 72nd District’s Little Saigon, where a wealthy Vietnamese American entrepreneur named Kieu Hoang has emerged as a key donor to local political movements and is putting financial support behind Nguyen for the state assembly race.
Two Democrats are running for the Assembly seat as well: attorney and LGTB rights advocate Bijan Mohseni, and Garden Grove Councilwoman Diedre Nguyen.
After being accused of sexual harassment and questionable campaign spending earlier this year, incumbent Republican Assemblyman Bill Brough has drawn a challenge from fellow Republicans Laguna Niguel City Councilwoman Laurie Davies and Mission Viejo City Councilman Ed Sachs. While the district voter registration is solidly Republican, two Democrats, Scott Rhinehart – who lost to Brough in 2018 – and Chris Duncan are both vying to unseat Brough.
Freshman Democratic Assembly woman Cottie Petrie-Norris faces off against two Republican challengers, Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon and Kelly Ernby, who works at the OC District Attorney’s office. While the district voter registration tilts slightly Republican, the area also backed Hillary Clinton for President and Gavin Newsom for Governor.
Elections for the Orange County Board of Education have been a sleepy affair in the past.
But this year, the board – which oversees school district finances and can approve or reject charter schools – is hotly contested.
Republicans have long held a majority on the five-member board, and this time around Democrats are seeking to take the majority – with charter school approvals a key issue in the campaigns.
Three seats are up for election this cycle, and Democrats would have to win three for three in order to take a majority – which some close to the party consider an uphill battle, since three Democrats are running against one Republican in one of the districts.
In Area 1, incumbent Democrat board member Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez, who is backed by trade unions and Planned Parenthood, is running against Republican challenger Jim Palmer, who’s been the longtime leader of the Orange County Rescue Mission and is backed by charter school advocates. Steve Rocco, who does not have a known party affiliation, also is running for the seat.
In Area 3, incumbent Republican board member Ken L. Williams Jr., who is backed by pro-charter school PACs funded by Walmart’s family owners and businessman Howard Ahmanson, is running against Democrat Andy Thorburn, a millionaire businessman who’s backed by teacher’s unions and Planned Parenthood.
Area 4 has no incumbent and has drawn a field of three Democrats against Republican La Habra Councilman Tim Shaw. The Democrats are Paulette Chaffee, a former schoolteacher who dropped out of running for Fullerton City Council in 2018 when she was caught on video stealing campaign signs, for which she later pled guilty; Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman, who’s backed by trade unions, school employee unions and Planned Parenthood; and Vicki Calhoun, a counselor who hasn’t reported any fundraising for her campaign.
For both political parties, everything is riding on the March primary. Unlike other county-level races, there are no runoffs in November, so the top vote-getter in the primary wins each seat outright.
There’s one candidate in Orange County who’s already won his race.
Nobody filed to run against Assistant District Attorney Tony Ferrentino for a vacant judge position – either on the ballot or as a write-in candidate – and he is guaranteed to win on Tuesday.
Ferrentino apparently was the prosecutor who declined to charge the Santa Ana police union’s president, Sgt. Gerry Serrano, on a DUI hit-and-run arrest in 2011, before he became the union’s leader. District Attorney Todd Spitzer has endorsed Ferrentino, but also has said publicly that the decision to not charge Serrano was a mistake.
While 44 judicial seats at the Orange County Superior Court were up for election this year, no one filed to run against any of the 43 incumbent judges, so they won a new term without races appearing on ballots.
Only one race – for a vacant judge position – is on the the ballot. Ferrentino, who in charge of the DA’s office division at the Harbor courthouse in Newport Beach, was the only person to run, and has racked up endorsements from dozens of judges, prosecutors and public employee labor unions.
Ferrentino did not return phone calls and an email message seeking an interview about his run for judge.
He apparently also was involved in a controversial decision to not prosecute a police officer, in a case the current DA – who has endorsed Ferrentino – has said should have led to charges.
In an interview last year, former DA Tony Rackauckas said he believed Ferrentino made the decision in 2011 to not prosecute Santa Ana police Sgt. Gerry Serrano for DUI hit-and-run, after Westminster police said Serrano failed a field sobriety test and refused to take a blood test. When reached by phone last year, Ferrentino declined to comment about his role in the Serrano case, and he did not return calls for comment in recent weeks.
DA records obtained by Voice of OC contradicted the public reason for why prosecutors did not file charges against Serrano, who now leads the Santa Ana’s influential police officers’ union.
While DA officials had cited the lack of a blood test for why they didn’t prosecute, the DA’s own data showed thousands of charges have been filed against people who refuse blood or breath tests after they’re arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Serrano refused to submit to a blood test after he crashed into another car, slurred his speech, and was arrested for misdemeanor DUI hit-and-run by Westminster police, according to the police reports, which note audio and video evidence.
After reviewing the police reports, the current district attorney, Todd Spitzer, said last year that Serrano should have been charged.
Voters can cast their ballots for Ferrentino or write in a candidate. But since no one filed to run against Ferrentino, including by the Feb. 18 deadline for write-in candidates, he is guaranteed to win the judicial election.
For last last few decades, California state law has required that write-in candidates officially file paperwork by a certain date before the election in order to be eligible to win.
If you’d like to support coverage of local elections, please consider becoming a monthly donor to Voice of OC through this link.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Jordan Brandman is a former Anaheim City councilman, Ling Ling Chang as a former state senator, and Josh Newman as an incumbent state senator. Brandman currently sits on the Council, Chang is the incumbent senator, and Newman is the challenger.
This post has been updated as new information has been reported and to include all of the candidates.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.