In South Orange County’s political landscape, the city of Irvine has always been the correct answer to a game of “which one of these things is not like the others.”
Unlike just about everywhere else in that heavily conservative area, the Democrats of Irvine are a force to be reckoned with and have maintained control of the City Council, while in recent years the Republicans have struggled to match the strength of the Democrats’ campaigns. At worst, as in the 2010 election, the GOP succumbed to infighting and couldn’t put it together enough to gain control of City Council.
That is the script that played out two years ago when Tea Party activists and party regulars spent most of the election season at each other’s throats and never delivered a slate of candidates to go up against Larry Agran’s slate of Democrats.
The result was, from some Republicans’ point of view, a missed opportunity. Tea-partier Lynn Schott -- who didn’t receive a party endorsement until weeks before the election because of the conflict – lost to Agran by only 3.3 percent.
But out of that dysfunction came hope.
This year’s crop of Irvine Republicans – which bears a striking resemblance to previous crops -- claim to have accomplished what was not in 2010 -- they’ve formed “Team Irvine,” a united, three-member Republican slate. The team consists of Steven Choi, a councilman who is running for mayor, Christina Shea, a former councilwoman known for her combative challenges to the Democratic council majority, and Schott.
“When you unite you win,” Choi said. “So it’s very fortunate that the three of us got together to form our slate, team Irvine, I'm so happy about that.”
But political consultants and establishment Republicans say that unity, despite Shea and her allies’ contention in 2010, isn’t the determining factor in council elections. And if the three Republicans win, there are questions as to whether such a team, which was once embroiled in open warfare with each other, can get along.
But right now all they’re concerned about is November, and all they have to do is flip one seat. And they've got one thing going for them that they didn’t in 2010 -- Agran, one of the county’s best fundraisers, isn’t fighting to stay on council.
Instead, he will be competing with Choi for the mayor’s seat, which Sukhee Kang is vacating as he runs for Congress. If Agran loses, he can keep his council seat for at least two more years.
Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who won in 2010, thinks this year that the GOP can tap into voters’ distaste for career politicians.
“The Democratic majority has created almost a full-time city council, which is involved at all levels… and in my opinion the way California government is structured, it’s supposed to be citizen legislators and not full time council members,” Lalloway said.
Also, the basic dynamic of the election looks far better this year, says political consultant Scott Hart, president of Newport Beach-based Hart & Associates -- though the analysis has more to do with the number of open seats and the name ID of the candidates than the benefits of running as a team.
For one thing, Shea is well known, has a strong support base and has only been off the council for two years. It’s almost like running as an incumbent, Hart said.
And while incumbent Democrat Beth Krom will most likely be reelected, according to Hart, if Agran wins the mayoral race, a third council seat would be vacant. That third seat could go to Schott, whose chances are good because she has residual name ID from her 2010 race, Hart said.
And if Agran loses to Choi, well then the Republicans would have a majority, assuming Shea wins a seat.
“Lynn’s got to be able to try and ride on Christina’s coattails… so probably Schott’s the biggest beneficiary of the whole thing,” Hart said. “It’s just predicated on what kind of resources they can put together to conduct their campaign. I think they’ve got a pretty good opportunity of winning.”
But the Agran political machine is formidable. A slate-mailer campaign heavily bankrolled by Great Park contractors has been vital to keeping the Democrats in their seats. And Agran will be running on a slate that includes Krom and Senior Citizens Council Chair PK Wong.
And as far as Republican resources go, Schott appears to be on her way to receiving a GOP endorsement. A subcommittee last week voted 5-1 to grant her the endorsement, according to party Treasurer Mark Bucher, a subcommittee member. The endorsement is to then go before the full Central Committee later this month.
However, Bucher’s lone vote against Schott reveals that tea-partiers like Schott – while less strident than two years ago – still run the risk of offending the party establishment. Bucher said he voted against Schott’s endorsement because her Central Committee alternate, former police officer Patrick Rodgers, harshly criticized Jim Righeimer after the Costa Mesa council leader publicly blasted an alleged police union plot to have Righeimer arrested.
The earlier endorsement and slate unity is important, Schott’s allies argued last year, because then conservative voters would have clear choices at the ballot box.
But Bucher says the issue is more complicated.
“The key is that you have the right candidates that can illicit support -- financial and volunteers -- and get the enthusiasm of the people in that area to turn out the vote,” Bucher said.
Assuming a Republican majority is elected, there’s also a chance that the in-fighting could resume.
In a power-play during the last election, Shea fired Lalloway from the city’s finance commission, erupting an acrimonious public rivalry in which accusations of deceit and corruption flew both ways.
And Shea’s confrontational style in facing the council’s Democrats could clash with Lalloway’s measured opposition.
Shea is already sounding alarm bells over the Great Park Neighborhoods project, a planned 10,700-unit housing development around the park. While Lalloway has yet to criticize, Shea calls the traffic impacts “very troubling.”
Lalloway and Shea, however, say they’ve buried the hatchet and that they are committed to working together.
“That was a bump in the road if you want to call it that,” Shea said. “I think Jeff and I agree on 98 percent of everything -- we just do.”
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.