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Faded O.C. Star Seeks Votes and New Life

October 28, 2002|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Eager but humble, the silver-haired politician waits politely while the front door swings open.

"Hi, Mary, I'm Roger Stanton. I don't know if you remember me," he says with a smile.

"I sure do; you bet," responds Mary Talbot, a senior citizen who has lived on a quiet Fountain Valley cul-de-sac for years.

Stanton, 65, is campaigning with a vengeance for a seat on the Fountain Valley City Council -- and political redemption.

A decade ago, Stanton was one of Orange County's rising political stars, a dominant figure on the Board of Supervisors often talked about as a candidate for Congress or statewide office.

But that was before 1994, when Orange County plunged into bankruptcy. Stanton, chairman of the board at the time, was harshly criticized for letting the financial crisis happen on his watch.

Eight years later, Stanton says he's "refreshed and ready" to reenter the political fray.

Veteran political observers, longtime foes and even old friends said they are stunned by his run, especially because he says he wants to restore fiscal accountability to the city.

"I just almost fell off my chair," said Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political science professor. "I guess in Fountain Valley it is possible to run away from your past."

Stanton seems to be banking on the fact that many voters don't remember or care about the county bankruptcy, and his strategy could prove to be a winning one.

Many voters either don't remember Stanton, and are glad to see a candidate at their front door, or seem to be willing to let bygones be bygones.

"I always thought he was pretty good to us when he was up at the county," said Gemma Novello, 79, vice president of the Fountain Valley Senior Club. "He got money for us."

Ghosts of the past do pop up.

"No, I won't vote for him," said Jack DeFratus, a Fountain Valley resident since 1966. The bankruptcy "was pretty stupid. All these politicians, they think you forget it, what they did in the past. Well, we remember. I'd vote to keep him out."

Stanton responded that everyone is entitled to an opinion and that he will be grateful for every vote. He said he decided to run again while having coffee this summer with other former city politicians who thought it was time for a change. The day before the deadline, he went to City Hall and filed. For a council race, he is conducting an aggressive campaign, gathering endorsements that include Sheriff Michael S. Carona; Gaddi Vasquez, Peace Corps director and also a former supervisor; other former and current supervisors; and school board trustees.

Nearly all of his reported contributors so far are from outside the city, including longtime county lobbyist Frank Michelena, former Irvine Co. executive Gary Hunt and other developers. Stanton is not using the $120,000 he still has in the bank from county races. He would not rule out using those funds for possible future, higher office -- perhaps a run for Assemblyman Ken Maddox's seat in 2004.

"Never say never," he said with a smile.

The race in this tidy, older bedroom community of 57,000 could be close, and the field is crowded. Since Mayor Laurann Cook chose to step down after five terms, seven candidates, including three incumbents, are seeking to fill three seats. Stanton is returning to the public stage after spending six years in academia, as a professor of business management at Cal State Long Beach and as a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A 22-year veteran of public office, he says that he would support a city ballot for term limits if that's what the voters want and that it's time for "new blood" in government.

"I'm new, experienced blood," he said.

Chairman of the board when the county lost $1.7 billion through bad investments, he is now campaigning on a platform of fiscal accountability. He says that sitting council members have spent way too much money -- more than $800,000 -- on a "gaudy" new fountain in front of Fountain Valley City Hall and that seniors and kids are being wrongly charged fees for paramedic services and access to ball fields.

Current officials seem almost bewildered by the charges.

"I haven't heard one citizen complain about the fountain," said veteran council member John Collins, who notes that Stanton endorsed him in 1994 by saying, "Collins is a tough fiscal manager whose leadership and hard work have saved taxpayers significant money."

Collins and city staff say the fountain and plaza were paid for with a $100,000 donation from a software company, set-asides from developer fees, and redevelopment money.

Longtime foes question Stanton's campaign platform.

"Fiscal accountability? That is the most hysterical thing I have ever heard, for a guy who was in charge of the board at a time when the county went bankrupt," said former county administrative officer Ernie Schneider.

He and others note that Stanton voted to approve $600 million in speculative investments that eventually led to the bankruptcy.

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