Righeimer: Costa Mesa's ax man
Righeimer: Costa Mesa's ax man
Chasen Marshall

Jim Righeimer Has Earned the Hate of the Unions

California union leaders' opinion of James Martin Righeimer, a wealthy, 52-year-old, Newport Beach real-estate developer and one of the state's most vociferously anti-labor union activists, is pretty much what you'd expect.

"Jim Righeimer is a right-wing nut," says a high-ranking Orange County union official who asked to remain anonymous. "He's against fair wages, he's against the working class, and his motives are political. He is the quintessential Republican operative."

That sentiment isn't surprising. Righeimer's efforts to damage public-employee unions, a primary funding source for Democrats, predates by 17 years the newfound fame for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who wants to end collective bargaining for public-sector unions in his state. In 1993, Righeimer helped to write Proposition 174, a failed school-voucher law that threatened the California Teachers Association. Five years later, he was involved in creating Proposition 226, which, had it been successful, would have outlawed the lifeblood of union power: automatic deductions from members' paychecks for dues. At one point, Righeimer admitted he'd been "kicking sand" in the faces of union bosses, who've spent at least $42 million to defeat his statewide initiatives and campaigns for public office.

Yet, despite that history of success, tired-looking union officers forced smiles when they recently emerged from a lengthy meeting in Righeimer's private Newport Beach office—the one that's decorated with photographs of him embracing the likes of Newt Gingrich, John Thune and Dana Rohrabacher, a former roommate. The union leaders had come in hopes of converting their old nemesis, at least temporarily, into an ally. Were they out of their minds?

"Hey, you've got to talk stuff out with people," replies Righeimer, who makes it no secret that he loathes pretty much everything that could be defined as liberalism. "But I'm not going to be pushed around by emotional pleas. I want to see facts. If somebody brings me information that I didn't know, I'll consider it. That's only fair."

If Righeimer weren't a gentleman, he could have simply declined to meet with them—and no one would have been surprised. After all, in the November election for Costa Mesa City Council, unions spent $200,000 on negative mailers against him. (They called him a "deadbeat" based on old, settled financial woes.) Police officers, members of the union with the most generous city contract, tailed and photographed his volunteers on the campaign trail.

Says Righeimer, "Tell me that wasn't intimidation."

Then, city employees watched in horror as he won.

From a union perspective, the election couldn't have been worse. The Christian conservative was the top vote-getter, became mayor pro tem, and was named co-chairman of a committee overseeing union contracts and all city spending.

"Go back two years, and the public wasn't yet with me on the issues," says Righeimer, referring to his losing 2008 council bid. "Now people understand we've got to do something. We can't keep kicking the can down the road. We can't keep spending money we don't have."

The national economic collapse rocked Costa Mesa, a suburban city of 116,000 people. City officials, who'd gone on a spending spree for more than a decade, found themselves staring at a $16 million deficit at the beginning of this fiscal year, even after having already depleted $35 million in reserves.

Also alarming to Righeimer is this projection: In five years, one-fourth of the city's budget will be devoted to retired-employee pensions, some of which top $250,000 or more annually. Many city employees are "paid way too much," he believes, noting that city staff have been reluctant to share complete numbers with the public.

"It's crazy," says Righeimer, who claims he is determined to stop "the bleeding." To execute his ideas, he joined a four-person alliance on the five-member, all-Republican city council. Councilwoman Wendy Leece, a recipient of generous union financial support, is alone in arguing that taxpayers can't pay police and fire employees enough. Mayor Gary Monahan and councilmen Eric Bever and Stephen Mensinger have consistently sided with Righeimer to do what previous councils avoided: confront budget woes head on, though Righeimer cringes at the suggestion he has played a more important role in that effort than have his allies.

This month, the council notified 203 city employees—about 40 percent of the staff—that they face layoffs. Companies can submit competitive bids in coming weeks to take over certain services. Outside consultants are being asked to help find more than $1.4 million in additional emergency cuts. Righeimer says that other municipalities in California are recognizing the need for such moves and contacting him for advice— because Costa Mesa "came out of the gate first."

"For far too long, we didn't downsize when we needed to," says Righeimer, a pal of Orange County Republican Party boss Scott Baugh, a corporate lobbyist who has equated any union political activity with corruption. "Therefore, the cuts that are now unavoidable are more painful. That's sad for everyone, including me."

Even a sacred-cow subject—police-department spending—isn't spared. Working closely with Monahan, Righeimer successfully championed the end of an expensive police-helicopter program called Airborne Law Enforcement Services (ABLE) that was "clearly an unnecessary luxury" because, he says, it never produced results to justify its costs.

"You hear the argument that spending more on police reduces crime," says Righeimer, who calls himself pro-law enforcement. "I don't think that's true. You could double the number of cops, and it wouldn't change the crime rate. We'd just have more speeding tickets being written on Harbor Boulevard."

It's remarkable that Righeimer, a longtime member of the county's warped Republican establishment and an unrepentant backer of corrupt ex-sheriff Mike Carona, is emerging as an agent of change. A place dominated by conservatives, OC has rarely been a successful incubator of government reform. Indeed, the county's Board of Supervisors often presides over cesspools of incompetence and corruption. The modern world's first municipal bankruptcy occurred here in 1994, when county supervisors, all Ronald Reagan disciples, lost $1.6 billion in public funds almost overnight because of gross negligence.

But, like it or not, Righeimer—also a proud Reaganite—isn't likely to sleepwalk through his term in office. He's establishing that he's detail-oriented, willing to question all spending and fearless. Despite the parade of angry city employees and residents who line up at meetings to protest cuts, he's aiming to cut $15 million more from the next fiscal-year budget.

If he also finds it satisfying that those cuts are likely to politically neuter an old enemy, Righeimer won't say so.

"Ideology doesn't really matter at the city level," he says. "It's all about delivering services."

Given past bad blood with unions, I pressed him on the point.

"I'm not trying to beat up anybody," he replies. "I know people—good, hard-working people—are upset, but I'm trying to keep the rhetoric down. The bottom line is that we don't have the money to sustain our spending in the short, middle or long term. That's my focus."

This column appeared in print as "The Hate of the Unions: Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer finally has union bosses where he wants them."

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