At about 7:15 p.m. on April 29, a woman posing as an independent pollster--but who was apparently part of a secret political dirty-tricks operation--called the home of a South County Republican housewife. Polls like this one are common in Orange County politics: designed to appear impartial, the "pollster" asks questions that are really barely disguised attacks on a political opponent. After mentioning ultraconservative icon Oliver North and the upcoming governor's race, the caller focused on California's 73rd Assembly District primary contest among Republicans Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel city councilwoman; Jim Lacy, an attorney and conservative activist; and Steve Apodaca, an insurance-company executive who doubles as a San Clemente city councilman. The affable-if-pseudo pollster asked a series of questions laced with false and inflammatory accusations: Did the voter know that Bates "pretends to be conservative but that she is really a liberal"; that she has been "honorary chairwoman of a gay and lesbian organization"; that she is lying about her opposition to building an international airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station; that "Bates should just put a 'for sale' sign on her door"; that she "openly supported" [former Republican Assembly Speaker] Doris Allen; and "If Mr. Apodaca stated that Pat Bates had been investigated by the state, would you still vote for her?" The housewife--who maintained her support for Bates throughout the "poll"--was furious. "Based on the caller's questions--and if I did not know Pat Bates--my conclusions would be that Apodaca is a nasty person, Bates is a sleaze bag, and Lacy should get my vote," she said. "I thought it was disgusting, and I was angry at the implications and unfairness of it all."
Three weeks later, on May 20, Bates--who wore her trademark purple pantsuit and gold Republican-elephant pendant--stood at a candidates forum sponsored by the Capistrano Valley Republican Women's Club. To a chorus of moans, she told the group about the telephone smear campaign against her. She also said that opponents had circulated rumors among Republican voters that she is pro-choice and against the Second Amendment.
"They are all unadulterated lies," said a visibly frustrated Bates, 58. "I have never been pro-choice, and I have always been a defender of the right to bear arms."
One of her supporters later said that Bates "just cannot believe people would stoop so low, that people can be so evil."
The smear tactics didn't end, however. That same day, Bates--a leading critic of the proposed airport at El Toro--attended an anti-airport strategy session. When the meeting adjourned, she walked to the parking lot to find that another hit piece against her had been tagged to all of the parked cars. The flier--ostensibly the work of "Citizens for Local Control" (a non-registered group without an address or treasurer) --challenged Bates' loyalty to the anti-airport cause, which is undoubtedly the top concern of South County voters.
"In the case of the 73rd Assembly race, there is one candidate whose record is suspect: Pat Bates. . . . Don't be fooled," the flier states. "Any candidate can say anything to get elected. Do you really know who is and who is not in favor of an airport at El Toro?"
It was not lost on Bates' supporters that campaign brochures touting Lacy's candidacy had also been left on the cars in the parking lot.
Lacy, a 45-year-old who once served as a director of the Costa Mesa-based Beer Drinkers of America and counts among his supporters ex-Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed, officially disavowed any responsibility for the mudslinging. He told reporters that the controversial brochures were "news to me."
Bates, who narrowly lost an Assembly race in 1992 thanks to a last-minute hit piece funded secretly by a group of Republican campaign-money launderers, found an upside to the latest attacks. "Maybe that's good news," she said. "Frankly, to do this, they must consider me a serious threat to win. Why else would they do it?"
It would be ironic--given the controversial fliers--if Lacy's supporters were behind the dirty-tricks operation, particularly when it comes to the airport issue. It is true that Bates has taken contributions from the pro-airport Building Industry Association and has the endorsements of such prominent pro-airport officials as Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and state Senator Ross Johnson (R-Newport Beach). But Lacy's tangled associations make his anti-airport stance appear even more suspect. His campaign treasurer is Dana Reed, a longtime political adviser to the undisputed king of pro-airport politics, George Argyros. Reed is also the treasurer of Citizens for a Sound Economy, Argyros' pro-airport committee. Lacy also has received contributions from Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Christian-Right funder Howard Ahmanson, and Doy Henley--all outspoken advocates of the airport.
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There's more. Lacy's pal and political adviser Stewart Mollrich designed Argyros's direct-mail campaign for the 1994 pro-airport Measure A. Mollrich's hiring was formally announced by Argyros consultant David Ellis of the Newport Beach firm Ellis/Hart. Ironically, Lacy said during a televised April candidate forum that "the best thing you can do as a government official for business is to step aside." He did not explain how his philosophy applies to South County city councils, which are trying to represent the wishes of a majority of citizens who oppose business plans to build an airport in their back yard.
For his part, Apodaca--a slick speaker who has mastered the art of sincere facial gestures and impassioned hand gestures--spent much of the campaign tap-dancing around a solid, irrefutable stance against the airport. It is easy to walk away from one of Apodaca's speeches thinking you've heard an emotional anti-airport position--until you consider exactly what he was willing to say. At a debate in April, Bates--who has the unanimous support of all of the major anti-airport leaders, including Bill Kogerman of Taxpayers for Responsible Planning--said she was unequivocally against the airport. Apodaca, whose record at San Clemente City Hall shows him to be a consistent friend to developers, followed by blasting county officials for the airport-planning process. In the middle of the anti-bureaucrat barrage, he slipped in a statement: "I'm against it until we study all of the options" (my emphasis).
A week ago, a South County voter asked Apodaca "if there were any circumstances under which [he] would support the airport." He smiled warmly at the questioner and said he appreciated the opportunity to clear up "several misstatements floating around" about his position, but he sidestepped the question. "I do not support an airport at El Toro," Apodaca said calmly. "And," he continued with increased emotion, "I don't know how anyone could support an airport at El Toro until all of the alternatives have been examined" (my emphasis). He went on to slam Lacy for failing to take a clear-cut position. The vigorously anti-airport crowd apparently did not notice Apodaca's rhetorical sleight of hand and applauded generously.
Bates tried hard not to play word games. "I want to make sure that communities have the ability to control their own destinies," she said recently. "That is why I am not shy about fighting against the proposal to build an international airport in our South County neighborhood. I am the one who will protect our quality of life from that kind of government-driven development. That is the kind of honest, conservative leadership the voters can count on from me."