The Manchurian Supervisor

The year in airport politics

Photo by Jack GouldLate last month, Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson made what he may have thought was a dramatic announcement. The Fifth District representative told a Leisure World community-association audience that he plans to seek re-election in 2002. Although we weren't there, we can only imagine that the seniors greeted the news with noisy shoulder shrugs and flatulence.

Wilson—one of the county's most uninspiring politicians—then quickly turned to a subject guaranteed to fire up even a geriatric South County crowd: county plans to build an international airport at the mothballed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. According to a Nov. 30 Orange County Register report of the speech, the supervisor claimed his reason for seeking a second full term is to ensure at least one anti-airport vote on the Board of Supervisors. In a statement as imaginative as he could make it, Wilson said, "We're not going to have an airport here."

But if 2000 saw the exposure of one bright, shining lie on the Orange County political scene, it was provided, albeit involuntarily, by Wilson, and it came on the controversial airport proposal.

You may recall that Wilson was first appointed to office in 1996 by Governor Pete Wilson (no relation). Wilson came to the governor's attention courtesy of a behind-the-scenes recommendation by the pro-airport Irvine Co. It was a beautiful strategic move. The powers that be had stuck wildly anti-airport South County residents with a representative beholden to pro-airport development interests in Newport Beach. (Wilson, a former engineer, had proved himself unwaveringly pro-development during a stint on the Laguna Niguel City Council.) When it came to an airport vote, the Weekly predicted at the time, Wilson would prove himself a Manchurian candidate—one who would vote anti-airport until his vote became truly crucial.

Wilson worked tirelessly to manufacture a reputation as an anti-airport warrior. Time and again during his four-year tenure, he barked with seeming conviction about the evils of the airport and its then-chief bureaucratic proponent, county CEO Jan Mittermeier.

But it is likely that even Huntington Beach's dimwitted Supervisor Jim Silva saw that Wilson's fiery rhetoric meant nothing. The Irvine Co.'s pro-airport board majority (Silva, Chuck Smith and Cynthia Coad) didn't need his vote to continue the airport project.

Until April 11.

On that day, the disorganized pro-airport majority became unglued when a temporarily conscionable Smith decided he was ready to hand the anti-airport minority of Wilson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer its first 3-2 board victory in the airport struggle: the firing of Mittermeier, who'd run the pro-airport campaign like a Stalinist.

But this is Orange County, and nothing of substance is decided without input from the millionaires at the Irvine Co. Like Wilson, Mittermeier had assumed office in 1995 based on a quiet nod from the Irvine Co., the company that has had the most to gain by how the county spends its annual $3.8 billion kitty. With Smith publicly against Mittermeier, everyone assumed the CEO's days were numbered—that Smith, Spitzer and Wilson would fire her. Local newspapers and countless political pundits believed the firing was all but officially done. The embattled CEO herself had angrily emptied her Hall of Administration office.

It turned out, however, that the only thing concrete about Wilson is his waxy 1950s-style hairdo. The supervisor met on the sly with ubiquitous Irvine Co. lobbyist Gary Hunt, who was intent on keeping Mittermeier on the job until a face-saving exit could be arranged. Note that Mittermeier, like Wilson, had long been an Irvine Co. loyalist.

Wilson once told cheering South County residents that the CEO had "contaminated" local government. But shortly after his last-second meeting with Hunt, Wilson flip-flopped to join pro-airport Supervisors Silva and Coad, casting the deciding vote to keep her in power.

Sadly, Wilson has repeatedly proved that communication is not one of his skills. Like a third-grader nervously making his first classroom presentation, Wilson's speeches—read in an unnerving monotone —are consistently as devoid of color as they are of content. But having cast a shock wave of a vote for Mittermeier, the supervisor dug deep for a plausible public explanation. He sided with the pro-airport forces because, he claimed with all the sincerity he could muster, Mittermeier was an incompetent CEO. In a rambling, contradictory statement released immediately after the vote, Wilson argued that keeping Mittermeier in her post was the best of all possible political worlds: terrific as a CEO in everything but the airport project, she would make certain the county ran well and—inadvertently, through her own ineptitude—that the airport fizzled.

Not surprisingly, gullible reporters at the Register and the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times took Wilson's laughable remarks seriously. But one high-ranking Hall of Administration insider wasn't fooled. He told the Weekly, "Everything you need to know about Tom Wilson happened on that day."

To that we would only add that Wilson and his outrageous vote for Mittermeier gave Orange County residents their best—though clearly disturbing—insight into year 2000 politics.

 
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