All That Glistens

The Irvine Co. has always kept generous friends in influential positions. When the company needed unswervingly pro-developer appointments made to the county's Board of Supervisors and superior court, Republican governors Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson routinely obliged with the likes of 5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson and Judge David Sills. When the company wanted to swap undevelopable marshland for prime Newport Beach Back Bay real estate, the State Lands Commission quietly acquiesced. When the developer boldly decided that a portion of taxpayer-built Newport Coast Drive should be given—for free—to the county's Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and converted into a toll road, then-Attorney General Dan Lungren—a recipient of more than $250,000 in company contributions —issued a favorable legal opinion.

Now comes Mark Baldassare, the self-described "advocacy free" professor of urban and regional planning at UC Irvine. Mention of Baldassare's name brings bubbly cheers on Orange County's corporate cocktail-party circuit, and for good reason: the professor has long provided academic cover for real-estate developers' special-interest agenda. He has been consistently there for them—in debates on the toll roads, sprawl, former county CEO Jan Mittermeier and the proposed international airport at El Toro. The elite who run the county must have been supremely pleased, for example, when Baldassare opined that the county's $1.7 billion 1994 bankruptcy was the fault not of incompetent supervisors but of citizens demanding luxurious services. "Local officials need to be more wary about citizen pressure," Baldassare warned. He also advocated that the open-government requirements embodied in California's Brown Act "should be suspended during fiscal emergencies." In the professor's world, apparently, citizen involvement in local government should be kept to a minimum.

So it should come as no surprise that Baldassare recently weighed in on the current hot issue in Orange County: the inability of the county to attract budding high-tech companies. According to a controversial but largely solid story on July 9 in the Los Angeles Times, a major reason high-tech entrepreneurs have rejected launching businesses here is because they view the county as far too socially conservative in comparison to, say, Seattle or San Francisco. One person told the Times that "there isn't that buzz that [OC is] cool and innovative" and able to serve as an open-minded incubator for tech ideas.

The unapologetic corporate cheerleaders at OC Metro and the Orange County Business Journal immediately blasted the Times' findings as laughable. Orange County conservative? No way, wrote the Metro's Steve Churm and the Business Journal's Rick Reiff. The aristocratic Irvine Co., the county's largest landlord, which has for years trumpeted the virtues of its "master planned communities," also pooh-poohed the story. "It was wrong," peeved company executive Dick Sim told Reiff. "When you're recruiting people who don't know Orange County, [the Times story] can hurt you. It's image."

Enter Baldassare, armed with cloak and tassels. As the debate raged over whether the county's ultraconservative image hampers recruitment of high-tech firms, the professor produced an unusually worded May poll and then, in late June, released the results: "Orange County is becoming more like everywhere else, more like the rest of California."

The report caught the attention of outsiders. Fab, a Los Angeles-based magazine, responded with a June 21 headline, "Orange County's Liberal Trend." The ultraconservative Washington Times reported on July 10 that the county had "gone liberal" and that there have been "massive changes" in the local social and political scene. The Orange County Register and the Times, of course, dutifully reported the poll's results as credible news, too.

A May telephone poll of 1,005 persons and poof: Orange County was suddenly, inexplicably "liberal."

Only God knows how fast the Irvine Co.'s infamous public-relations department Federal Expressed the overnight makeover to trendy high-tech entrepreneurs nationwide.

Was it a mere coincidence that the timing and results of Baldassare's poll mirrored the needs of the Irvine Co., which stands to profit handsomely if the county's high-tech center at the Irvine Spectrum ever takes off? Perhaps. It is, however, remarkable that the professor's "19th Orange County Annual Survey" was conducted five months earlier than any of the previous 18. It is also puzzling that none of his other polls even hinted at the county's supposed dramatic shift to the political Left. In fact, his 1997 poll touted the county's conservative environment.

Not that such questions come to mind over at the Times OC. With all the sickening flair of a Chamber of Commerce press release, the Times editorialized on July 2 that Baldassare's work demonstrates that Orange County "glistened with summer sunshine and an attitude that nearly all is right with the world."

What high-tech genius considering OC as a possible home could doubt those chipper words?

 
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