Minutes before the koce taping, the candidates sat facing each other, but Conroy, twiddling his hands, reviewing his scripted answer sheet and overcleaning his glasses, still wouldn't look at Spitzer. There was light banter among Cooper and 1st District supervisor candidates Charles Smith and Mark Leyes, who shared the debate stage. Spitzer tugged on the lapels of his suit and slowly rolled his head, working out the kinks in his neck. He studied camera locations and smiled at the studio crew, which was finalizing their preparations.
Once the debate was under way, it became clear that Conroy and Spitzer agree on a majority of the issues raised by Cooper, including the proposed commercial airport at El Toro (oppose), a maximum-security prison in Lake Forest (oppose), term limits (support), and higher county taxes (oppose). Spitzer spoke extemporaneously, looking a little too polished. Conroy, whose scalp turned bright red during the debate, mouthed his answers word for word from his cheat sheet and appeared flustered when the discussion stumbled onto new turf.
It took less than five minutes for personal shots to dominate the debate; Smith and Leyes became near-silent bystanders. When Spitzer told viewers that if he is elected, they won't wake up to learn embarrassing news about their supervisor from the morning papers, Conroy unloaded a quick round of wild allegations, including the charge that Spitzer was shopping his vote on El Toro's conversion for pro-airport cash.
Cooper, a wily host, apparently decided to unleash the two candidates.
"Mr. Conroy, you've been kind of angry at Mr. Spitzer. I understand you've made gestures to him. What about that?" asked Cooper.
"He's made a lot of gestures at me, Jim, during the last several weeks," Spitzer said. "Mr. Conroy is immature and needs to grow up."
"Excuse me," said Conroy. "He asked me the question, not you."
Cooper again asked Conroy about his obscene gestures.
"Yes, I did it in front of four people, and I said to Mr. Spitzer, 'You're a damn Democrat.'"
Spitzer shook his head. "Why doesn't he just tell you why he flipped me off? It's outrageous."
"Keep quiet," Conroy said. "This is why you keep getting flipped off. Because you don't know when to shut up."
Conroy continued: "He says all these things about sexual harassment, and my wife of 40 years--40 years--does not have to take these insults from this young man here. And so I just became . . . I lost it, basically. And I flipped him off, and I'm sorry I did it. It's not in character for me to do that."
Hours after the debate, I contacted Conroy by telephone to ask him what he thought of it.
"You were there," he said tartly. After mild cajoling, he added, "Okay, here's a quote for your hatchet job: Mickey Conroy is back."
If that thought isn't scary enough for local residents, consider this: campaign watchers say the odds narrowly favor a Conroy victory. That would mean the Republican insiders' club will maintain its stranglehold over the Board of Supervisors, its $3.7 billion annual budget, and the 3rd District--an area encompassing some of the last remaining open space in Orange County.