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Orange County

O.C. Supervisor of Different Stripe

November's runoff will put the first Democrat on the board since the '80s. But government at that level is less partisan; the effect may be minor.

March 08, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Socialized health care. Bigger welfare handouts. Marriage licenses for gays.

None of these are likely to happen in Orange County, political analysts say, despite next January's arrival of the first Democrat on the Board of Supervisors since the 1980s.

Two Democratic supervisorial candidates emerged in last week's 1st District primary as the top vote-getters from central Orange County, where Democrats have held seats in the Legislature and Congress since 1996. Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) got the most votes, followed by Bruce Broadwater, Garden Grove's elected mayor for the last 10 years.

Correa and Broadwater will face off in November. Neither is a wild-eyed liberal, at least by most political weathervanes: Correa has a bipartisan record of votes in the Assembly; Broadwater fits a traditional Orange County conservative mold that exists irrespective of party.

Whoever wins will be joining a board with members who, though they have run as Republicans, have bowed more to the structural realities of county government than to partisan ideology. In recent years, county government has essentially become a conduit for state and federal funds, with requirements on how the money can be spent.

"I've seen supervisors who were more inclined to be ideological before they joined the board and then, upon dealing with the complexities of county government and the sheer size of the county, they become less strident," said Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly, the only Democrat elected countywide.

The campaign comes at a pivotal time for the board, which will undergo a makeover in the next three years. Supervisors Jim Silva and Tom Wilson are completing the last of their four-year terms, which end in 2006. Chris Norby joined the board in January 2003; Supervisor Bill Campbell, a former assemblyman, was elected last year.

For the past eight years, the 1st District has been represented by Chuck Smith, a moderate Republican who will retire at year's end because of term limits. Smith endorsed Correa, saying the assemblyman had a good record of finding money in Sacramento for the needs of the district, which includes Santa Ana and Westminster and parts of Garden Grove.

"The hard right will never give up," said Smith, who was booted as an auxiliary member of the Huntington Harbor Republican Women Federated over his Correa endorsement. "The conservative wing will always try to get [board] votes to go their way."

Forty-three percent of the district's 183,000 registered voters are Democrats and 36% are Republicans. With those numbers, Correa and Broadwater must woo partisan and independent voters in the fall.

One Republican consultant has already hopped aboard to help Broadwater attract GOP voters.

"Bruce Broadwater is the more conservative of the two," said Adam Probolsky of Costa Mesa. "He doesn't want to grow government, he wants to accomplish things. As long as we're going to have a Democrat, I'd rather have the conservative."

Even with its GOP roots, the Orange County board has approved key initiatives against the recommendations of local Republican leaders. Board majorities voted to support an agreement guaranteeing union jobs for large county projects through 2005, and for sweetened retirement benefits for law enforcement employees and managers, which were authorized by a bill Correa introduced.

The votes were fueled by more pragmatic cues than ideology. The labor agreement, for example, was seen as key for the board majority to secure union support for a controversial plan to build an international airport at El Toro, which eventually died at the polls. The retirement bonuses, also backed by unions, were seen as a necessary thank-you for workers who put their lives on the line for public safety.

Some say adding a Democrat could introduce some conflict over the board's fundamental philosophy of government.

Broadwater, for example, has been a champion in Garden Grove of using redevelopment funds to improve the business prospects of downtown, including the granting of tax breaks for new hotels, prompting critics to nickname him "Bulldozer." Norby is an ardent opponent of redevelopment funding, saying it robs cities of tax dollars and creates incentives for large retail projects at the expense of housing and other needs.

Correa could clash with the others on social issues. In Sacramento he voted against the repeal of an Assembly bill granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- a controversial issue that helped lead to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis -- and helped pass a bill for marriage-type rights to gays and lesbians.

In the past 18 months, the arrivals of Norby and Campbell have nudged the board into more partisan territory, notably by expanding board involvement in state legislation. In the past, supervisors approved the county's legislative-advocacy agenda once a year. Now, at Norby and Campbell's insistence, supervisors conduct a continual review.

Having a Democrat on the board is likely to broaden the debate on those county positions and change government in more subtle ways.

Democrats who have been passed over for key job appointments, for example, may find it easier to break through a culture that has favored Republicans.

Norby said he could work with Correa or Broadwater because he shares views with each. With Correa, it's their approach to restructuring local government financing and suspicion of a proposal to merge the county's two toll road agencies. With Broadwater, it's dislike of the county's recently approved light-rail line and a desire to complete improvements on the Garden Grove Freeway.

"The advantage is that there's only five of us," Norby said. "There will be differences in approaches to issues and philosophy, but we can work together."

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