A year after joining the city council, Cook led an effort to eliminate the city’s sewage waiver, which allowed untreated county water waste to be dumped into the ocean. Getting rid of the waiver would cost county taxpayers money, but Cook argued it was worthwhile because it would allow that water to be treated and eventually replenish the county’s supply of drinking water. At the time, Republican council member Peter Green served as the city’s appointee on the Orange County Sanitation District board. Green refused to vote to eliminate the sewage waiver, so Cook, who had become mayor that year, voted herself into Green’s seat on the board.

“I took some heat for replacing him,” she recalls. “But I was able to convince enough of the board to eliminate the waiver so that when it came down to the board, we won by one vote. Because we did that, it can go back to the aquifer. We are reusing a valuable resource instead of dumping it in the ocean.”

During her first term on the city council, Cook also took heat for refusing to vote to place yellow ribbons on all city vehicles, an initiative proposed by a local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. An unapologetic Cook publicly called the notion “jingoistic” and said it was a waste of taxpayer money—a stand that drew a stack of hate mail. “Feminazi, liberal, agenda-pushing ‘women’ like you make me sick,” wrote one constituent. “The people of Huntignton [sic] Beach deserve much better than you. I hear Communist China is looking to elect some new leaders.”

Debbie Cook at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
John Gilhooley
Debbie Cook at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Dana Rohrabacher
Dana Rohrabacher

Not long after Garofalo’s ignominious exit, another Republican on the council, Pamela Julien-Houchen, a local real-estate agent, followed him out of politics after the Weekly revealed her role in an illegal condo-conversion scheme (see “Condomania,” Oct. 18, 2003; “Putting the Con in Condo,” May 7, 2004; and “Slammer Time!” Oct. 28, 2005). In 2004, she pleaded guilty to several felony charges and was sentenced to three years in state prison.

Although she ran on a platform of bringing “good governance” back to city hall, Cook says she feels bad for Garofalo and Houchen.

“I really believe there are some people in this world who don’t realize they are doing things they aren’t supposed to do,” Cook says of the former council members. “This notion of public trust is so fragile and can be violated so easily.”

Cook is not without her own critics, however. One of the early victims of Houchen’s condo-conversion scandal complained to both city police and the council when her building was condemned shortly after she purchased it. “When I met with the council, nobody believed me until you guys [the Weekly] broke the story and the OC Register finally got on the ball,” the victim, who asked to remain anonymous, says. “But Debbie was probably the most resistant to me.”

Because city officials were slow to respond to her complaint, the source argues, many more people ended up buying bogus condos than otherwise would have. “I’m frustrated that somebody didn’t do something earlier to save all the people in 2003 and 2004 who were hurt. Nobody over there at city hall has a backbone.”

Another source close to the scandal laughs at the notion that Cook lived up to her campaign pledge to clean up city government. “Once she got in, she was completely seduced by the newfound fame, activity and the platform for her ideas,” this source, who also asked to remain anonymous, says. “But once it was time to stand up and take a stand with regard to the condo thing, she became a deaf-mute.”

Cook asserts that she did as much as she could as soon as she could. “As soon as we found out, the city bent over backward to help these people,” she says. “The city was a big loser in this.

“I can’t speak for what other people knew,” she adds, “but I can say I didn’t know about it until after the fact.”

Despite fierce criticism by some of her opponents, Cook took pains to reach across party lines to achieve consensus about issues facing the city council, recalls Boardman. “She looks for solutions,” the former council member says. “I remember some times on the council when I was thinking, ‘Why can’t everyone just agree with me?’ and then Debbie would come up with a solution, or at least she would try to find common ground. This will serve her well in Congress. A lot of politicians are ego-driven, and that’s not true of Debbie at all.”

After Cook’s eventful first term, her conservative critics predicted she would lose her seat. Instead, in 2004, she earned the largest victory margin in the city’s history—more than 10,000 votes.

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