Nearly 20 candidates are running for office on the San Clemente City Council, setting up a crowded race that will determine the future political balance of what has been a divided council.
With two full four-year term seats and one two-year term seat up for grabs, the new council will take over after a hectic year that so far has seen two interim city managers, intense arguments between council members and a threat by the Orange County Sheriffs’ Department to pull deputies out of the city.
This election will restore the council to its full five members, after months of deadlocked votes following former mayor Dan Bane’s resignation when he moved to Missouri earlier this year.
The new officeholders’ first major actions on the council will be resolving budget concerns and management issues that have plagued the city over the past year, with a search for a permanent city manager and the appointment of a new mayor after months during which the council could not reach a consensus.
With no agreement on the next mayor, Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson has run the meetings, but has had a strained relationship with the rest of the council, resulting in regular disagreements on the dais.
Voters will also be given a choice to establish term limits for council members under a new proposition that would limit elected officials to two consecutive four-year terms, after which they would need to wait at least two years before running again.
Ten candidates are running for the city’s two four-year terms up for grabs.
Councilman Chris Hamm has announced he’s not seeking reelection to his seat on the council, but incumbent Gene James is looking to win his first full term. James won a special election in 2019 after the sudden death of then mayor Steven Swartz in May that year.
James, an Army veteran, will be running against nine other challengers looking to take his place. Former Department of Homeland Security attorney Chris Duncan, pub owner Jeff Provance Jr., small business owner Joseph Kenney, 35-year Navy veteran Aaron Washington, small business owner Thor Johnson, insurance agent Patrick Minnehan, and health care sales director Jeff Wellman, along with city commissioners Charlie Smith and Bill Hart are all fighting for a seat.
Eight others are running to fill the two remaining years of Bane’s seat, and will be back up for reelection in 2022 alongside Councilwomen Laura Ferguson and Kathy Ward. Candidates include former councilman Steven Knoblock, local business owner Tyler Boden, contractor George T. Gregory, retired fire captain Jim Dahl, property manager Jerry Quinlan, architect Zhen Wu, businessman Laron Rush and Donna Vidrine, a nurse and the only woman running for any of the open seats.
The race hasn’t picked up massive amounts of outside spending, but several candidates have pulled ahead of the main pack.
Duncan has led the fundraising push, bringing in nearly $48,000 for the year as of Oct. 17. Most of that money has come from individual donors, with large donations from Planned Parenthood and several branches of the Democratic Party.
Smith has also brought in nearly $40,000, largely from individual donors, with several local business owners contributing as much as $5,000 on their own.
James comes in third despite his position as an incumbent, but has not submitted any updated information since September. In the last year, he brought in just over $16,000, with big donations coming from the Association of OC Deputy Sheriffs, along with individual business owners.
Among the candidates vying for the two-year position, Boden has raised far more than any of his competitors at more than $23,000, with donations from the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., and Business For A Better San Clemente.
The new mayor will be chosen by a majority vote of the new council, along with the mayor pro-tem.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.