While supervisors say that is simply not true, they and others acknowledge that development money plays an important part in supervisorial campaigns. Of the $8.7 million that candidates for the board reported receiving during the past 14 years, $3.7 million came from companies or individuals who make their living through property development and sales.
Second place went to the finance industry--bankers, stockbrokers, accountants and a few other related fields. But it was a far distant second, contributing 7.7% of the total, compared to more than 42% from development interests. Lawyers and law firms ranked third, contributing a little more than $543,000--or about 6.2%.
That means land-development and real estate companies and individuals contributed 548% more money than any other industry. They also gave more than the finance industry, the legal community, the tourist trade, the manufacturing industry and organized labor combined.
Still, most observers agree that the development industry is far less dominant than it once was. Before the enactment of the 1978 county campaign law, known as TINCUP, it was not unusual for supervisors to raise 80% of their money from developers, according to one of TINCUP's drafters, former Planning Commissioner Shirley L. Grindle. But the overarching role that developers and their allies still play in financing local campaigns troubles many observers.
"Those numbers are staggering," said Lisa Foster, executive director of California Common Cause, a leading campaign-watchdog organization. "The danger is obvious. When you're dependent on one industry for (nearly) half of your contributions, that's extraordinary. It certainly suggests that you'd think twice before offending that industry."
Foster and other campaign finance experts who reviewed The Times' findings say they show a far more pronounced influence by a single industry than anything they have seen at the state or federal levels.
"There is no one industry that dominates the state that way," Foster said. "We worry when 10% of the Speaker's (Assembly Speaker Willie Brown) money comes from a single industry. There's nothing like 40% or 50%. That's truly astonishing."
A San Francisco Chronicle study of fund-raising during last year's gubernatorial campaign also suggests that no industry contributed as overwhelmingly in that race as the Orange County development community does here.
The Chronicle found that during one key, five-month stretch of that campaign, developers, including real estate interests, gave then-Sen. Pete Wilson $563,849. That was the most of any industry, but it still came to just 10.2% of his total.
The state development industry gave former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein $513,774, or about 8% of the money she raised during that same period.
Not one of the five sitting Orange County supervisors has ever raised such a small proportion of their campaign cash from the development industry, campaign disclosure statements show.
But while each of the 16 people interviewed for this article agreed that the Orange County development industry was far and away this area's most potent political force--especially when it comes to campaign financing--many sharply disagreed on the reasons for it and the implications of it.
Representatives of several local developers and builders--including the Koll Co., the Irvine Co., the Mission Viejo Co. and the William Lyon Co.--say their firms and executives make contributions not to influence decisions but rather to assist candidates whose views they support.
"We have what I would probably characterize as a corporate ethic of activism in public affairs," said Larry Thomas, the Irvine Co.'s vice president for corporate communications. "We give to candidates who stand for ideas that we share as a general philosophy."
Some significant contributors also note that they give for purely personal reasons.
"My contributions to politicians are not in terms of business interests," said William E. Cooper, a local executive who has an interest in Orange County real estate but is not a builder or a developer. Instead, he said, he gives money to support "good, capable candidates to run for political office."
Although Cooper said his business ventures have profited from the Orange County land development boom "as everybody else has," he added that he has never had a project that required approval of the Board of Supervisors.
And Dana Reed, a Costa Mesa lawyer who specializes in political campaigns, said that Orange County development contributions are bigger than other industries' because developers are based here while those other businesses usually are headquartered outside of the county.
"With the exception of the development industry, Orange County is a branch managers' town," he said. "And branch managers don't give with the frequency and magnitude that the corporate headquarters do."