With less than three weeks to go before the general election, opposing sides in the Measure A contest say the issue remains a tossup, but both promise to turn up the heat in a campaign they say has really yet to begin.
The initiative, which would require the county to build a commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when the base closes in 1999, is perhaps the most controversial political race on the local ballot. Strangely, it has also been one of the quietest.
The UCI Orange County Annual Survey found in September that the initiative is favored by 51% of registered voters, with 33% opposing it. However, the poll also showed 16% of voters are undecided, and the pro vote is soft, pollsters said.
It is this large, potential swing vote that both sides said they will try to convert in the coming days.
"If the election were held today, it would be closer than I would want it to be," admitted Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes, a key Measure A backer who has campaigned for the initiative.
"People are trying to tune in and make up their mind as we get closer to Election Day," said Jeff Adler, campaign consultant for Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a group formed to defeat the initiative. "They're the people we have to target, because the more they focus, the more questions they're going to have."
Political observers are surprised that the campaign has been low key so far, given that the measure was sponsored by a group of millionaire businessmen with strong ties to the Orange County political establishment.
The initiative could have a major impact on the county's economic future. In addition, a civilian airport at El Toro is sure to affect the quality of life in solidly middle-class South County communities. However, to date neither side has done any mailings or purchased any political advertising.
Polls show that the race has divided Orange County along geographic lines. In the latest poll, 55% of South County voters said they would vote against Measure A, while 57% in north and central Orange County would vote in favor.
"I would've expected a lot more activity and discussion of the issues by now. After all, we're only three weeks away from Election Day," said pollster Mark Baldassare, who conducted UC Irvine's annual survey.
Dave Ellis, a spokesman for airport proponents, said that political consultant Stewart Mollrich was hired recently to direct the campaign as Election Day nears. Ellis predicted that the hiring of Mollrich would invigorate the "yes" forces.
Mollrich--of the Newport Beach-based Butcher, Forde and Mollrich political consulting group--played key roles in Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13 campaign in 1978 and the successful 1986 campaign by conservatives to oust state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
Mollrich declined to comment on his upcoming strategy.
Airport proponents have raised $280,000 through two committees for their campaign, much of it in donations from business groups and business people, while opponents have raised $153,000. Both amounts run through Sept. 30, when the most recent reporting period ended.
Although airport supporters have raised $130,000 more then their opponents, the pro-Measure A campaign is also heavily in debt, reporting about $150,000 in outstanding bills. Measure A is supported by is two campaign committees, the Yes on Measure A group and the Committee for 21,000 New Jobs.
Adler said that airport opponents recently stepped up their efforts. In the past three weekends, small groups of South County residents have walked precincts in North County, targeting Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, where support for the initiative is strong.
"Our goal is to take our message to as many people in North County as possible and expose them to the many questions being asked about an airport at El Toro. The taxpayers are signing a blank check for wealthy developers who want to get wealthier from an airport at El Toro. Nobody knows what the tax burden will be on taxpayers and how much it's going to cost over the years. That's what we're telling voters," Adler said.
Leyes said the opponents' arguments are misleading, but he acknowledged that airport proponents still have their work cut out for them to persuade voters to support the initiative.
"This airport isn't going to be paid for any differently than other airports. It's going to be paid for with federal funds, bonds sold to private investors and ticket fees. We need to communicate this to voters and explain it to them in a very personal way. I know there's still some confusion about this," said Leyes.
He said that Measure A supporters will attempt to deliver the message in the coming days through direct mailings to registered voters' homes, but declined to talk about other campaign strategy.
Adler also declined to talk about airport opponents' campaign strategy in the coming days, but said he expects airport proponents to blitz the electorate with radio ads in the last week of the campaign.