An Orange County supervisor seat is up for grabs next month, and while the Democrats and Republicans on the ballot don’t agree on much they all say management of the coronavirus pandemic, and helping keep residents healthy while reviving the county’s economy, will be the winner’s first job.
The five candidates for the Second District seat are Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, former supervisor and state senator John Moorlach, Newport Beach Councilman Kevin Muldoon, Corona del Mar attorney Janet Rappaport and Fountain Valley Mayor Michael Vo. The special election, slated for March 9, became necessary in November, when former supervisor Michelle Steel won her bid to represent the 48th Congressional District in Washington.
The three men are Republicans; the women are Democrats. And, while supervisor posts are non-partisan, that matters. The OC GOP wants to claim the District 2 seat to keep the party’s four-fifths majority on the board, while OC Democrats hope to increase local power in a county where their party now holds a voter registration advantage.
But don’t try to guess the winner based on who’s getting support from the four sitting supervisors. Doug Chaffee, who represents District 4 and is the board’s only Democrat, is backing Foley. Andrew Do, representing the First District, is backing Vo, while Third District Supervisor Don Wagner supports Muldoon and Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett backs Moorlach.
The winner will serve until next year, completing Steel’s four-year term. The GOP leaning District 2 includes Costa Mesa, Cypress, Huntington Beach, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Seal Beach, Stanton, the unincorporated area of Rossmoor, and portions of Buena Park and Fountain Valley.
Here’s what each candidate had to say about their priorities and, if elected, how they’d handle key county issues:
An employment litigation attorney who has served as a council member, mayor and school board member in Costa Mesa, Foley has criticized the board’s handling of the pandemic, pointing out that some supervisors initially questioned the use of masks and undermined county health experts.
“They lost a lot of time because they were too busy politicking and not protecting the health of the community.”
Foley said she would press to increase the vaccine supply in the county and push for a 24-hour inoculation site “so that we could get everyone vaccinated within 100 days.”
Foley also thinks the county can do more to help cities deal with homelessness. She would back a task force to look at how money from the 2004 state Mental Health Services Act could be used to aid people on the streets suffering from mental illness and to fund mental health programs in schools.
“I know where the cities are hurting and how I can help.”
To address the county’s coming budget crunch – revenues have dropped and COVID-related expenses have exceeded federal aid – Foley said a faster vaccine rollout will boost businesses. She also would look to trim non-essential expenses, as Costa Mesa did before ending the fiscal year without a deficit.
Moorlach, an accountant by training and a vocal critic of public pension debt, is a long-time county politician, having won multiple races for treasurer and supervisor. Most recently, he served as a state senator, but lost that job in November to Democrat Dave Min.
He said his relationships in Sacramento will help the county get its share of pandemic money. He also views his experience as an asset when making what he views as necessary spending cuts and in working with business groups to keep entrepreneurs from leaving the county.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep Orange County as solvent and sustainable as possible,” Moorlach said. “If you have a struggling government, it’s going to impact the business community.”
Moorlach recently has drawn some criticism for his response since a former employee in his state Senate office, Patricia Todd, accused a former state Assemblyman, Bill Brough, of raping her in 2015. Though Brough, of Dana Point, has not commented on the allegation, which is under criminal investigation, and Moorlach was not initially a key part of Todd’s story, the fallout from her allegation has become an issue in the supervisor race.
In December, when Todd made her allegation public, Moorlach said he was only then hearing about the incident, though he’d been told about it in August. Later, in a meeting, Moorlach described Todd as a disgruntled former employee. Todd disputes that characterization, and has asked why Moorlach is discussing her background in any context.
Todd also pointed to information in her personnel file that suggests Moorlach was happy with her when she worked for him. But while she accurately said Moorlach and his staff weren’t critical, a 2016 letter from the Secretary of the Senate did say Todd “exercised poor judgement” during an event that took place shortly before she left Moorlach’s employ.
Moorlach indicated he’s focused on the supervisor’s race. He said he didn’t plan to seek the job and could retire if he chose, but he was asked to run.
“This is a case of voters having an experienced pilot who knows the county,” Moorlach said. “You can have that, or you can have someone who hasn’t flown a plane or is a new pilot.”
In his second term as a Newport Beach councilman, Muldoon is an attorney who does consulting and business development for tech companies.
He believes the board’s decision to focus on education last year instead of punitive enforcement of pandemic restrictions, such as public mask requirements, was the right choice.
“When we shut down businesses, it hurts the economy and people go the opposite way and disregard precautions because they feel the orders are overbearing,” Muldoon said. In April, when Gov. Gavin Newsom temporarily closed the county’s beaches, Muldoon filed a lawsuit arguing the closure was unconstitutional.
As the pandemic has strained local government budgets, Newport Beach has avoided cutting city services by delaying any non-urgent projects, and he said, if elected, he’d look for similar opportunities at the county. Muldoon also believes in government supporting nonprofits that serve the homeless rather than taking on expenses, such as shelters, “in perpetuity.”
Muldooon, who opposes any move to defund law enforcement and the early release of prisoners from county jail, said public safety is a top priority.
“I believe that local government is often the best way to serve the people; it’s the most accountable to the people. It’s not as political, it’s more about problem solving.”
A first-time candidate for office, Rappaport, from Corona del Mar, is an an international tax attorney who thinks her experience – including helping clients navigate regulations and logistics – would make her an effective supervisor.
Improving the county’s pandemic response would be Rappaport’s top priority. In fact, she said she’s running because she was distressed by what she saw as a lack of planning in handling coronavirus and the vaccine rollout. She said she’s heard from residents who have struggled to get access to testing, vaccines and even basic information.
“Had I been in charge, the minute I knew the vaccines were coming out I would have started the logistical planning on how we’re going to get this vaccine to every person.”
To shore up the county’s finances, and get funding for the county’s needs, she said she would try to build better relationships with state and federal legislators — though she’s wary about how any spending. “We need to be very conservative in our use of tax dollars.”
Rappaport, who said she has no political ambitions beyond supervisor, said she would strive to bring civility to public discourse, boost government transparency and show fiscal responsibility.
“I am driven by my belief that I can help get to the solution to get a better distribution of this vaccination and everything related to this pandemic,” she said.
Vo was a teenager in the 1980s when he and his family came to the United States from Vientam. Since then, Vo has started and run businesses, opening a traffic school, selling life insurance and offering financial planning.
He’s been in Fountain Valley city politics since 2010, and was the city’s first Vietnamese American councilman and then mayor.
Vo views the pandemic is an unprecedented situation, and said there will be “a lot of hit and miss” in the county’s response. But he believes some vulnerable residents – people who are disabled or who have little access to computers – are being left out of the vaccination effort.
He’s working with his city’s senior center to help older people get vaccinated, and he’d like to open a county service center in his district to better help residents.
Vo said he’d find ways to trim county spending. But he also imagines creating a regional tourist attraction of some kind that, post-pandemic, could boost revenue.
“What do you think about a Chargers football stadium in the heart of Orange County?” he said, laughing.
Vo also said he would create a homelessness task force to look for ways the county can work with volunteer groups and nonprofits. He also supports public safety and lower taxes.
“What I bring to the table is my real life experience from a refugee to a public servant,” Vo said. “I’m a story of fleeing from communism to freedom.”