Behind the Smoke

Measure G to the countys poor: Go to the end of the line, and wait there for 20 yearsagain

"I'm trying to be calm about this," he said. "Some people have questioned my motives. Maybe it is not politically smart for me to take on the medical association, but I'm concerned about the taxpayers. They deserve something that is fair and equitable."

On the evening of Oct. 25, Todd Spitzer, Orange County's youngest but most skillful supervisor, stood in the den of a doctor's elaborate Cliff Drive estate in Newport Beach. He was flanked on his right by a grand piano and on his left by an oversized fireplace. Behind him, palm trees framed an impressive multicolored ocean sunset. Dozens of people —many holding half-full wine glasses—had formed an arc around him.

It was not quite the setting anyone could have imagined for Spitzer just a few months ago. Then, the fight over El Toro International Airport was raging, and residents of Newport Beach reasonably saw Spitzer as the enemy.

But on this night, the crowd had gathered not to discuss airport issues but to rally for Measure H. Spitzer was safe and his remarks were much anticipated. Two giggly middle-aged women—clearly awed by the supervisor's presence—remarked to each other that it was nice to have the him on their side "this time." When he said, "I am a huge supporter of H," you could sense relief and excitement sweep the room.

"I want to be proud of this county, but our five-member board is not making us proud right now," Spitzer said. Earlier this year, Spitzer's colleagues rejected his proposal to spend 60 percent of the tobacco money on health care and 40 percent on debt retirement. "Our goal should be to represent people who are underrepresented. It is not an accident that the other side is trying to shortchange the underrepresented in this county. [Former state Senator] Marian Bergeson has said that this issue is a no-brainer. Well, on my board . . ."

He paused and grinned. After a moment the rapt, energetic crowd dominated by well-dressed health-care professionals realized Spitzer had made a joke. They burst into laughter.

Not everyone laughs with the second-term supervisor. He is articulate, handsome, intelligent and ambitious. The excitement he sometimes generates could raise a jealous eyebrow among Hollywood celebrities. You can only imagine the bitter anxiety he causes other politicians, such as dim-witted Huntington Beach Supervisor Jim Silva or sniveling former Supervisor Bill Steiner. Since his surprise election to the board in 1996, Spitzer has repeatedly challenged the status quo by doing something other post-bankruptcy supervisors still can't bring themselves to do: routinely ask legitimate questions before voting. In his own way, he's a lot like Moorlach: he has blasted conniving bureaucrats, exposed crime and fought to block backroom deals where special interests hijack county decisions. For all that, he has figuratively taken several body punches from entrenched powers. At one point last year, Spitzer was on the ropes, bruised and reportedly considering adopting a less confrontational style. But by the time the anti-airport Measure F began sailing to victory earlier this year, the 39-year-old supervisor emerged with newfound confidence. Make no mistake: Moorlach may have taught Mittermeier an important civics lesson, but it was Spitzer who toppled Her Majesty from her third floor Hall of Administration throne in August.

In some ways, it's strange that Spitzer and Moorlach are in opposing camps on the tobacco settlement debate. The two are bound by more than their distaste for Mittermeier's political muscle-flexing. Moorlach is more blue collar and Spitzer more glitz, but both are solid fiscal conservatives who demand public accountability in government. They also share a knack—if not an affinity —for frustrating the establishment. Spitzer has mastered the art of burying a devastating premise in a sugar-coated question. The treasurer enjoys razor-sharp instincts when it comes to detecting political or bureaucratic bull.

So it's not surprising that Moorlach says Spitzer is one of the first people he contacted when he decided to challenge the health-care community's Measure H. He was disappointed, he says, to find they did not see eye to eye on the issue; the two men, allies on so many other projects, have drifted apart—perhaps temporarily—as election day nears.

"When I talked to Todd, he was mad that the board hadn't gone with his 60-40 compromise," Moorlach recalled recently. "I understand why he was irritated. I really do. But as a leader, he should have moved past that and looked at what is best overall for the county."

Spitzer insists he isn't the one who is misguided. During an Oct. 23 keynote speech to a bond-buyer conference in San Diego, the supervisor said both sides of the debate are "honorable," but that Measure G "steals health-care dollars."

"John Moorlach was there that day [in San Diego]," Spitzer said. "When I finished speaking, he came running up and asked me, 'Are you calling me an honorable thief?' And I said, 'Yes.' The county already has a debt-retirement plan in place. The tobacco settlement is needed more in health care."

Moorlach called the exchange "all friendly banter."

Orange County freshman state Senator Joe Dunn, who upset incumbent Rob Hurtt in 1998, is one of the most candid, relaxed politicians in California. Though passionate, he seems like the last guy to start pulling his hair out in a crisis. In a county where Democrats are routinely dismissed as irrelevant, Dunn is different. He backs traditional party issues but has shown a willingness to negotiate with Republicans to make legislative strides. A plaintiff's attorney by profession, Dunn helped represent California in its lawsuit against the tobacco companies. He knows the issues intimately. With Spitzer and Bergeson, he is one of the chief proponents of Measure H. Moorlach has sparred with Dunn at various public forums in recent weeks.

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