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Orange County | ELECTION 2002

'Untouchables' Go by Board

Election: Chris Norby's upset victory over Cynthia P. Coad disproves notion that supervisors can't be beat.

March 07, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than two decades, Orange County supervisors have been nearly untouchable, enjoying a political free pass for reelection that became as routine as going through a turnstile at a Disneyland ride.

Until now.

Fullerton City Councilman Chris Norby's stunning victory over incumbent Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad has left political scientists and pundits pondering why she lost and Norby won. On this they agree: Norby's win was extremely unusual.

Incumbents on the Board of Supervisors have time to build campaign war chests, dole out patronage and cement name identification during their tenure. It's a combination that should spell an easy victory on election day, said Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at UC Irvine.

"You could make an argument that this is more significant in historic terms than Measure W, which was a culmination of a long war that has gone on since 1994," said Petracca, referring to the anti-airport ballot initiative voters approved Tuesday to stop airport planning at the closed El Toro Marine base.

No incumbent has been unseated since Roger Stanton defeated former Supervisor Phillip Anthony in 1980, who had been indicted in 1977 on campaign finance charges.

"It's extremely unusual for an incumbent to get beat," said Stan Oftelie, president of the Orange County Business Council and longtime county political observer.

In fact, Stanton, during a telephone interview Wednesday at his residence, leafed through old news clippings that called his victory "political history."

Coincidentally, both Norby and Stanton are educators. Both were city councilmen and both faced incumbents who outspent them.

"That's exactly what I thought last night while seeing election results," Stanton said. "Anthony was a first-term supervisor, like Coad, and he outspent me 10 to 1."

Though an analysis of county vote totals suggests Measure W was opposed by a majority of north Orange County voters, Petracca credits Norby's victory, at least in part, to his anti-airport views.

"Probably Norby's defeat of [Coad] would not have been possible without Measure W," he said.

Indeed, Coad contends she had to battle two campaigns: Norby's and an onslaught of campaign mailers bought with South County money.

Tired and emotionally drained, she chose not to go into the office Wednesday. Instead, the 68-year-old former educator and community college board member said she awoke and had coffee and doughnuts with two of her grandchildren. Relaxation is what she wanted.

Coad has yet to offer the 52-year-old Norby congratulations. Instead, she has asked county staff to investigate any possible ballot-counting errors that could have occurred because her name was printed second under Norby's on an estimated 70,000 ballots.

Though election officials are confident the results will stand, with Norby getting nearly 54% of the vote to Coad's 46%, they will run tests to ensure ballot-counting machines had correct tallies, said Steve Rodermund, chief deputy registrar.

The tests, done as part of a state-mandated quality-control measure, will be done this week, he said.

Coad, who is planning a vacation to Spain in the next few weeks, said she intends to return and vigorously carry out the remaining nine months of her term, which ends the first week in January with Norby's swearing-in ceremony.

"I'll still be there fighting for my district," she said.

Her district, at least as it was reshaped to reflect the latest census numbers, may have been her downfall.

"You can trace it to the redistricting and how the boundaries were designed," Oftelie said. "She lost Anaheim, where she was strong, and picked up Fullerton and may have overestimated her name I.D. in Fullerton compared to the areas she let go.

"In many areas she was virtually an unknown running for the first time," he said.

With Norby's arrival, the dynamic on the five-member Board of Supervisors is guaranteed to change. A 3-2 pro-airport majority for years has battled anti-airport forces that have marshaled successive ballot measures aimed at killing El Toro. Now that Measure W has rezoned the former base to block any airport use, El Toro probably will give way to other county issues. New alliances will form.

Said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, favored to defeat Democrat Bea Foster in November in the heavily Republican 71st Assembly District and leave a vacancy on the board: "There's going to be a lot of changing dynamics, but we've got to concentrate on the people's business, and we've got to focus on the job we do--the job we got elected to do."

With Coad as a lame duck and Spitzer's probable exit, many political observers say it's too early to tell what power shifts may take place.

In the meantime, Coad and fellow supervisors will be busy dealing with the fallout from the U.S. Navy's decision to auction off the El Toro base land and choosing a successor to replace county Clerk-Recorder Gary Granville, who died last week.

Supervisor Chuck Smith said Wednesday it is far too early to begin analyzing the board's new composition.

"I'm still extremely disappointed and shocked that Coad lost the election," he said.

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