Its the Airport, Stupid

Photo by Jack GouldIn 1996, Republican Party insiders privately predicted that time would reveal Todd Spitzer's cynicism. Spitzer had just been elected Third District Supervisor partly because of his opposition to the proposed international airport at El Toro. The insiders—all connected to Newport Beach billionaire and airport booster George Argyros—portrayed Spitzer, a fellow Republican, as an "empty suit" concerned more with setting his hair than public policy.

But Argyros' bagmen were wrong. In the past six years, Spitzer has taken an airport ready for takeoff and grounded it—perhaps permanently. His victories are numerous: exposing environmental and financial flaws in the airport plan; chastising county bureaucrats for unconscionable secrecy and deception; marshaling a decisive win in 2000 for an anti-airport initiative; and plotting the successful, four-year effort to fire county executive officer Jan Mittermeier, once the pro-airport campaign's most ruthless tactician.

The former deputy district attorney from Brea even had the gall to violate a major tenet of the county's old boys' club: in a 1998 supervisorial race, he publicly endorsed underdog anti-airport candidate Dave Sullivan over pro-airport incumbent Jim Silva.

If the clock stopped now, Spitzer has already earned his reputation as the Churchill of the battle over El Toro. He's intelligent, articulate, inspiring and dogged. He has terrified the pro-airport camp. Yet his most brilliant strike against the airport may be yet to come.

Last summer, Spitzer announced his plan to run for state Assembly; that race will be decided in November. If successful, he will leave the Board of Supervisors in the middle of his second four-year term—which is why Spitzer worked to place Measure V on the March 5 ballot. That measure would give local voters—not the California governor—the authority to fill vacancies on the county's Board of Supervisors when a term of office goes unfinished.

Despite its simplicity, Spitzer's measure has generated hand-wringing throughout Orange County. Pro-airport strategist Dave Ellis—who runs Argyros' Newport Beach-based Airport Working Group and signed the ballot arguments against Measure V—is portraying the charter change as "undemocratic," a scheme laid by an egomaniac hoping to pick his successor. Others see the measure in terms of party affiliation. They claim it's a ploy designed by Spitzer, a Republican, to rob Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, of the plums of office enjoyed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who appointed two Orange County supervisors.

Both groups are wrong. The measure has nothing to do with ego or partisanship and everything to do with South County citizens continuing to enjoy at least one energetic, loyal anti-airport fighter on the five-member board. (As has been chronicled in these pages, Fifth District Supervisor Tom Wilson—appointed to the seat in 1996 by Governor Wilson on the behind-the-scenes recommendation of the sly pro-airport Irvine Co.—is untrustworthy.) If Third District voters have the opportunity to name Spitzer's replacement (assuming he is victorious in November), the new supervisor will be legitimately anti-airport.

If Measure V fails, however, Davis gets to make the call. In that case, he will likely turn for advice to Orange County's two biggest Democrats: Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a longtime George Argyros ally, and Democratic Foundation heavyweight Wylie Aitken, a major Davis contributor who already advises the governor on local judicial appointments. As Spitzer certainly knows, Sanchez and Aitken are adamantly pro-airport.

When Republican Party insider Dave Ellis lines up with Democrats Loretta Sanchez and Wylie Aitken to support the right of Governor Gray Davis to name Spitzer's replacement, it ain't about party politics, Democrat and Republican, left and right. It's the airport, stupid.

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