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"The most important ingredient in the success of a relationship between candidate and consultant is trust."—Tom Shepard
A leader of the battle against George Argryos' plan to bring a massive international airport to the former El Toro Marine Air Station has recently become a chief strategist for Argyros in the developer's fight to build a Wal-Mart on the site of the former Crest View School in Huntington Beach.
Meet Tom Shepard. Both of him.
Shepard's ability to divide his loyalities has helped him become, in the rather ironic words of one insider, "one of California's most respected political consultants."
In the past year, two South County cities paid Shepard more than $20,000 for his advice on their effort to kill the county's plan for building the nation's fifth-largest international airport at El Toro. Shepard has worked as the lead strategist for the March ballot campaign to pass Measure F, the "Safe and Healthy Communities Act" that would make all big county projects (including the airport) subject to a two-thirds majority vote of the people—an electoral hurdle likely to put an end to El Toro. In that job, Shepard is also directly responsible for the campaign's strategy budget, as well as for hiring the effort's professional fund-raiser.
But campaign-finance statements filed Jan. 11 with the Huntington Beach city clerk's office show Shepard has a new client: the group dedicated to building a Wal-Mart.
That might seem harmless enough, except that the developer on the Wal-Mart project is none other than Argyros —the airport shogun himself.
Argyros sits on the pro-airport El Toro Citizens Advisory Council. He chairs the pro-airport group of fellow tycoons and right-wing execs called Citizens for Jobs and the Economy. He has already spent $2 million of his own money on two earlier El Toro ballot campaigns, and personifies the greed and contempt that pervade the drive to build an 824-operations-per-day airport at El Toro. And Shepard is trying to stop him.
Meanwhile, more than any other individual, Argyros stands to make a killing off the Huntington Beach Wal-Mart. And Shepard is helping him do it by strategizing against the citizen-backed March ballot measure designed to rezone the Crest View School site back to residential, ending Argyros' dreams of shoving a massive, anti-union Wal-Mart into the working-class Crest View neighborhood.
In short, Shepard has been working for Argyros at the same time he's been working against him.
But in Shepard's world of political mercenaries—peopled by the mercurial likes of Dick Morris, who simultaneously advised President Bill Clinton and Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott—this is the norm. Political affiliation is irrelevant beside simple financial calculation: "The reason I deal with developers so much is because developers frequently have the money to pay for campaigns," Shepard told us a year ago.
According to statements filed by the campaign to build the Huntington Beach Wal-Mart (felicitously called Save Our Schools, Save Our City, No on Measure I), Shepard has received very generous compensation for his work on Argyros' behalf. During 1999, the pro-Wal-Mart group, consisting of Huntington Beach high rollers, political sophisticates and Mayor Dave Garofalo, paid $12,000 to Shepard's consulting firm Campaign Strategies Inc. The money came from much larger payments made to the giant San Diego-based public-relations firm Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger, which oversees Shepard's firm. The Wal-Mart crowd paid Stoorza $21,928.78, with an additional $20,647.89 in billing still unpaid.
Where did the money come from to pay Stoorza and Shepard? The statement shows that $111,000 of the group's $112,000 in contributions came from a single, completely unsurprising source: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., through the retailer's North Carolina bank.
Shepard refused to comment for this story. But sources close to the pro-Wal-Mart campaign say he appeared at a Nov. 17 meeting held at Coatings Resources Inc.—the HB paint-manufacturing firm that doubles as the headquarters for the pro-Wal-Mart effort. Other participants at the strategy session included Huntington Beach City Council Members Shirley Dettloff and Ralph Bauer; Bill Borden, who writes for The Local News, published by Garofalo; planning commissioner Fred Speaker; and Ed Laird, who owns Coatings Resources and The Local News and until last week also sat on the planning commission. According to one source who attended the meeting but requested anonymity, San Diego resident Shepard discussed the importance of writing letters to the editors of local papers and said he'd recently written a pro-Wal-Mart letter to the editor of the Times-owned Huntington Beach Independent, which he signed as a resident of Huntington Beach.
In 1998, his San Diego work included smashing four slow-growth campaigns while raising nearly $4 million from corporate and developer interests. The efforts boosted a $411 million downtown-redevelopment project centering on a new San Diego Padres ballpark, promoted a vastly expanded San Diego Convention Center, and successfully killed two slow-growth measures aimed at preserving open space in the backcountry around San Diego. Shepard also assisted a host of right-wing candidates, including Congressman Brian Billbray (R-Imperial Beach), who secured re-election with a scant two-point margin.
Last year saw Shepard working as lead strategist for the developers of Treasure Island in Laguna Beach. In that effort, he received tens of thousands of dollars for planning the campaign against an April citizens measure calling for more parkland and open space at the beachfront project.
But in Orange County, at least, Shepard is best-known for his consulting work for the South County cities allied against the Argyros-backed El Toro International Airport. His credibility there is now further in doubt.
"It certainly doesn't surprise me," one anti-airport activist and Shepard critic said when told of Shepard's work on Argyros' behalf. "I've been wondering for months how we can trust the guy."