MISSION VIEJO — Despite nearly $500,000 in contributions from developers and real estate interests that were trying to oust him, City Councilman Robert A. Curtis easily won a hotly contested recall battle Tuesday.
"I feel fabulous," said Curtis, who won by better than a 2-1 margin. "This is the landslide victory that nobody expected."
With all 37 precincts reporting, the vote against the recall was 8,809 to 3,898. Slightly more than 33% of the city's registered voters cast ballots, election officials said.
The results, Curtis said, "will demonstrate that Mission Viejo voters are intelligent people who can cut through a half-million-dollar campaign of deceit."
In addition to bolstering Curtis' political standing, his victory constituted a stinging rejection of the Mission Viejo Co.'s role in the campaign. The company, which planned and built Mission Viejo, spent more than $250,000 to unseat Curtis, an amount that raised eyebrows locally and in Sacramento.
Other developers were also active in the fund-raising, and more than 90% of the recall committee's budget came from developer or real estate interests. That money bought the advice of a political consultant and paid for several mailers, along with phone bank and precinct workers. Still, the returns show, the recall found relatively few supporters.
The company also backed Measure A, which would require that city voters review all large annexation proposals. The measure won easily.
Wendy Wetzel, a spokeswoman for the Mission Viejo Co., said that company officials were not disappointed in the results. "We didn't look at this as a one-time expenditure," she said. "We looked at it as an investment in the community, and these issues have now gotten a thorough debate. . . . We will abide by what the voters decide."
Helen Monroe, who chairs the pro-recall Alliance for Mission Viejo, maintained that the group's intent was to remove Curtis from office because he was a divisive and rude presence on the City Council and because he supported a controversial annexation proposal even after residents petitioned the council to drop the matter.
In the South Orange County bedroom community of 75,000 residents that until two years ago had little experience with confrontational politics, tempers rose especially high in this campaign. Curtis' opponents called him a liar and said he distorted facts to suit his political purposes. He in turn lashed out at his opponents, referring to the three-member council majority as the "three stooges" and accusing them of consistently backing the interests of the Mission Viejo Co. over those of the city.
"It has just gotten to be too much," said Mayor Christian W. Keena, who endorsed the recall last week. "Meetings were being disrupted, Curtis was distorting facts so much that they just weren't facts anymore. I just couldn't stand by."
While the council waged its own struggles, the Mission Viejo Co.'s assertive opposition to Curtis made the firm almost as important an issue as the councilman himself. Throughout the campaign, Curtis, a 34-year-old lawyer, directed pointed barbs at the company, accusing it of trying to force him out of office as a way of ridding the council of his slow-growth views.
Recall proponents vigorously denied those allegations. "Bob Curtis just lies so often the truth doesn't seem to matter to him," Monroe said.
The issues raised by recall advocates, however, were overshadowed by the mounting campaign contributions that they accepted from the Mission Viejo Co., which poured more than $135,000 into the recall effort during the final two weeks.
Officials from the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento said they could not remember another recall election in which a single contributor had donated so much money. And local observers, including some Curtis foes, worried that the money was excessive.
"It's a shame that so much money had to be put into this campaign," said Councilman Norman P. Murray, a recall supporter. "It's meant that money has become the issue, and Curtis has never had to respond to the charges against him."
Keena agreed. "One can't help but be astounded by the amount of money, and I think that's definitely had a negative backlash," he said.
Monroe, however, denied that the alliance's decision to accept such large contributions from the company and other developers doomed the campaign.
In various guises, the recall battle had raged for years, drawing in the city's chief political players and polarizing an already divided City Council to the point where focused debate became all but impossible.
Fearful of antagonizing either Curtis' vocal constituency or supporters of the Mission Viejo Co., council members waffled on issues and badgered one another in public sessions. Members of the audience--and sometimes even the council staff--were often left to roll their eyes in amazement.