In the final days before the March 5 election, north Orange County voters received a coordinated series of mailers attacking Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad and lauding her opponent, Chris Norby.
But Norby, who became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent supervisor in 22 years, didn't send those mailers--which in smaller print on the back also urged voters to cast ballots for various other candidates and measures.
They were from the Voter Education Project, a slate mailer operation run by veteran political consultants Arnold Forde and Stu Mollrich of Newport Beach. The two were the consultants behind Measure W, whose passage defeated the county's plans for an airport at the former El Toro Marine base.
Norby paid an initial $17,500 to be featured on some Voter Education Project mailers and still owes the consultants about $140,000, according to his campaign manager.
But critics say the Norby-Coad slate mailers from Voter Education Project cost $420,000 to $700,000. The difference, they say, is tantamount to an unreported campaign donation for Norby--one that circumvents Orange County's landmark political contribution limits, which don't apply to slate mailers.
"You have a local county ordinance that has been completely scuttled," said Bruce Nestande, chairman of a pro-airport group that opposed Measure W. "It's like it didn't exist.... In terms of political reform, it's the most significant thing that happened in California this election."
Coad said the Voter Education Project mailers--one a day two weeks before the election--forced her to run against two campaigns, Norby's and the anti-airport slates backed by pro-Measure W forces. "It's really a big loophole," she said of the slate mailers.
But Norby campaign manager John Lewis bristled at the suggestion that Norby owes his win to the slates. If that were so, he said, Measure W also would have won in north Orange County, when in fact it lost in every city in Coad's district. "It took a superb candidate and a superb campaign to beat an incumbent supervisor," said Lewis, who denied that Norby's campaign will pay less than his share of the slate mailer costs.
Coad campaign manager Dave Gilliard contends that candidates must pay fair-market value for being listed on slates, which historically have been campaign pieces that promote four or more candidates and ballot measures. Anything less makes the value a contribution, he said. But the difference for the more elaborate mailers sent by Voter Education Project is "where it becomes murky."
Reform advocate Shirley Grindle, who helped write the county's campaign laws, called the slate mail "dirty politics"--but legal. Attempts to control contributions to slate mailers at the state level have been unsuccessful, she said.
"I don't know a way around this other than it's certainly an argument for total public financing, which this county is not ready for," Grindle said.
So far, the tactic is limited to Orange County because other counties don't impose such restrictive contribution limits on candidates. But political experts, including Gilliard, said they plan to copy the "hit slate" strategy.
Orange County voters first passed campaign contribution limits in 1978 to control undue political influence by capping contributions--and in turn controlling the amount spent by campaigns. Supporters called it TINCUP--for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics.
The current law, approved in 1992 and dubbed TINCUP II, bars candidates from collecting more than $1,000 from each donor for each race. There are no restrictions on how much candidates can give to their own campaigns or on donations for slate mailers. Throughout California, 75 cities and nine counties restrict campaign contributions, including a dozen cities in Orange County.
Norby, who backed Measure W, raised money for his campaign from anti-airport forces, mostly in south Orange County. They rallied behind his bid to unseat Coad, a key member of the Board of Supervisors' three-vote, pro-airport majority.
On his own, he faced a daunting task: raising enough money to tackle not just an incumbent, but a wealthy one who had spent nearly $700,000 of her own money to get elected four years earlier.
That's where Voter Education Project stepped in.
In the two weeks before the election, Voter Education Project flooded the north Orange County 4th Supervisorial District with 14 pieces of anti-Coad or pro-Norby mail, according to a review of the mailers and interviews with officials at both campaigns.
The mailers included eight "hit pieces" slamming the incumbent with headlines such as "Arrogance," "Coad Betrayed Public Health," "Breaking Faith," and "Why Does She Lie?"--a large fold-out that faulted Coad for saying Norby hadn't signed a "Fair Campaign Practices" pledge--which he had.
Four of the mailers carried pro-Norby messages. Two were centered on Measure W but included plugs for Norby. A list of 12 candidates and issues--which qualified the mailer as a slate--was crowded onto the mailers' back pages.