If California's new "three strikes" law governed civic leadership, most every elected official in Orange County would be looking for other employment.
When asked to name a leader in the county--and given three chances to do so--more than half of the 600 registered voters interviewed in a Times Orange County Poll May 19-22 could not utter a single name.
Of those who could provide names, respondents most often mentioned county Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Gaddi H. Vasquez, and Sheriff Brad Gates, but no leader was named by more than 11% of those questioned.
Some looked more to Orange County-based corporations, naming Taco Bell and hamburger giant Carl's Jr., rather than individual politicians or business leaders. One respondent even named Richard Nixon to the local leadership list in the poll taken nearly a month after the former President's nationally televised funeral.
The void cited by poll respondents seems to be taking its toll on the public's general confidence in government's ability to deal with such serious issues as the lagging economy, increasing concerns about crime, immigration, gridlock and lack of affordable housing.
Only 9% of those polled said they have a lot of confidence in their city's elected officials to deal with the area's problems, while 40% said they have little or no confidence. And only 5% have a great deal of confidence in county leaders, while 46% have little or none.
"If people don't have a clear sense of who their leaders are, I think it's very difficult to solve some of the troubles we're facing today," said Mark Baldassare, who conducted the poll. "I think people sense there is a void."
For San Clemente florist Cheri Miramontes, 43, one of the poll respondents, local leadership has been virtually "invisible." Although Supervisor Riley has represented the South County for two decades, Miramontes said she barely recognized the name, let alone knew him as her county supervisor. The other four supervisors didn't even register on her political radar screen.
"I don't see what any of them are doing," Miramontes said. "I know they aren't doing anything about crime. Maybe they are having lunch in Newport Beach."
Miramontes said the absence of any identifiable guidance is particularly troubling as the county struggles to deal with rising unemployment and, especially, crime.
"This county used to be such a prosperous area," she said. "Now people are struggling, and they don't know where to turn."
Daniel Kim, a 20-year-old tutor and college student of Buena Park, was one in the 56% who could not identify a single county leader.
"They don't make a significant impact," Kim said. "That's why I don't know who they are. Orange County has always been more of an upper-class area, where there is money in politics. It's kind of a game. If they are just going to play that game, I guess it doesn't matter who is (in charge)."
Like Miramontes, Kim said he is concerned about increasing crime and the spread of violence to areas virtually untouched in the past.
"Whoever is in charge of the Sheriff's Department needs to tighten up," he said."
County supervisors may be the ranking political leaders in the county, but poll respondents found them to be either unknown quantities or not very popular.
For example, state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who is running unopposed to succeed the retiring Riley, is better known and better liked among voters than the supervisors she is expected to join, according to the poll.
About 25% expressed favorable views toward Riley, Vasquez and Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder. Supervisors Roger R. Stanton, who took office in 1980, and William G. Steiner, appointed last year, were the least known on the board.
The popularity rating of Steiner, newest member of the board, stood three points below that of his predecessor, Don R. Roth. The Roth rating was taken two years ago, before Roth's resignation and conviction on state ethics charges.
While 40% of the voters found the board members to be performing well at promoting the county as a business center, three in 10 or fewer gave them equal grades for leadership, maintaining high ethical standards and representing the views of local residents.
Retired Newport Beach businesswoman Lucy Erickson, another poll respondent, said she believes politicians are often and unfairly the target of community discontent. Part of the minority in the poll who believe government and business leaders are doing a good job, Erickson said she is "shocked" that more people don't take greater interest in their communities.
Erickson knew the names of several county leaders. And she said she was more than familiar with state Sen. Bergeson as a leader--Erickson described Bergeson as an acquaintance and has followed her political career closely.