A casually dressed Shawn Nelson sits in the boardroom of his Santa Ana law offices, takes a long sip from a chilled can of Diet Dr. Pepper, smiles and shakes his head.
“There are five hit pieces on me in the mail right now,” says Nelson, a Fullerton city councilman, private attorney and, if polling is right, the leading candidate to nab Orange County’s empty Fourth District supervisor’s seat. “Some attack ads are saying, ‘What is Nelson hiding?’ Well, nothing. . . . My life is an open book.”
Asked who is attacking, Nelson—who calls himself “a Republican with lots of libertarian views”—grins more widely, takes another sip of his soft drink and shoots back a single name with a hint of annoyance: “Nick.”
That would be Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), a public employees’ union that, if Nelson gets elected, will likely face its most potent nemesis, perhaps ever. For years, Supervisor John Moorlach has served as the most outspoken union foe on the board, but consider this: Moorlach is an accountant by trade and a man prone to temperance; Nelson is a highly successful plaintiff’s lawyer with superb oratory skills. He also relishes confrontation when he thinks it’s necessary.
As Nelson sees it, if he wins the supes seat, the clash with union bosses is inevitable. For example, he calls the deal that allows Orange County sheriff’s deputies to retire at the spry age of 50 while taking home 90 percent of their annual pay, plus full benefits, for the rest of their lives “just plain wrong.” He also vows to take steps to reform “out-of-control” public-employee pension plans. Local taxpayers are on the hook to pay county workers an additional $3.3 billion in presently unfunded benefits.
“We’re not stupid,” said one union official, who asked to not be identified. “We know Shawn Nelson is going to screw us. The question is how hard is he going to fuck us? From our view, he’s dangerous.”
The war of words has shifted to mailboxes. A recent OCEA campaign direct-mail advertisement claims Nelson is morally unfit to be a supervisor not because he’s anti-union, but because he allegedly favors child molesters.
“We want the public to know who this guy is,” Berardino told me. “His law firm has represented sex offenders and child molesters. Right before he announced his candidacy, his firm tried to delete that fact from the Internet. But we’ve done our research and obtained it. He was hiding the fact. We [OCEA] represent county employees who try to get sex offenders off the streets. Shawn Nelson wants to put them back out on the street. Should he be in charge [as a supervisor] over the budget that is related to catching sexual predators? No.”
“What in the hell is the matter with this guy?” fumed Nelson in response. “I have two daughters. I don’t represent monsters. I’m with everybody else: Sexual predators make me sick. Nick has come up with the one thing he thinks will raise the eyebrows on old ladies getting election mail. It’s total nonsense. Have I ever done criminal-defense work? Absolutely, and there’s nothing to apologize about that. But my firm doesn’t even get child-molestation cases.”
He described Berardino’s tactics as “a desperate effort” to keep him off the board, which annually doles out more than $5.2 billion and negotiates contracts with public-employees’ unions.
“I’m a black-and-white type guy,” says Nelson, 43, who has won accolades for his work (and a $10,000 personal contribution) to help save the historic Fox Theatre in Fullerton while leading a relentless fight to block a bloated city-employee pension plan. “Nick’s job is always to want more employees hired [by the county] and at the highest cost to the taxpayer. I think the goal of government should be to provide as many services as possible for the lowest cost.
“I have a personality with a bit of a martyr streak,” he added. “And if county departments think I’ll be looking the other way, they are wrong. We should explore the idea of more privatization. I know some people won’t like that at all.
“A lot of people just want to feel good without accomplishing anything,” he adds. “I’m not touchy-feely.”
When it comes to spending tax dollars, Nelson says, he has a simple philosophy: “There’s no such thing as generosity when you are spending other people’s money. That’s not generosity!”
Democrat Lorri Galloway, an Anaheim city councilwoman, a vocal union supporter and the second-ranked candidate in some polls, didn’t return calls for comment on her campaign or her opponents. But her supporters told me they believe Nelson’s solution to every problem is the word “no.” They also suggest he is a cold-hearted GOP soldier, a notion Nelson dismisses.
“What I try to be more than anything is a normal person,” he said. “I think I have a great sense of humor, keep things in perspective. Others may perceive me as too serious. But I coach youth football, and we have fun. I’m not a hard-ass dad. I try not to use the words ‘I know,’ when I really don’t. I’m a real quick study. Some people might say that’s arrogance. No. It’s just one thing that I’m good at.”
Nelson, who first won his city council post in 2002, says he discovered his own political naiveté during the current campaign. In February, he attended the California Republican Assembly convention in Costa Mesa believing that delegates would enter “with an open mind and listen to the candidates” before making an endorsement.
“But the vote was in the bag for Harry Sidhu before it happened,” he recalled, referring to the fast-food-restaurant owner who is a Republican member of the Anaheim City Council and one of Nelson’s opponent in the race. “When I saw that Harry had brought his wife to vote there and Janet Nguyen [a supervisor who supports Sidhu] working her BlackBerry in the back of the room, I knew I was in trouble. But losing taught me I really had to focus on getting the two other endorsements I wanted: the Republican Party and the Lincoln Club. And I knew I had to get hustling, making dozens and dozens and dozens of calls.”
Nelson’s efforts succeeded with the two powerful GOP groups, in part, because he sold Sidhu as someone who has “run for eight offices in three years—that’s an opportunist running for self-promotion.”
Tim Clark, spokesman for Sidhu’s campaign, responded, “Criminal defense lawyer Shawn Nelson is skilled at distorting facts to twist and confuse the truth. The fact is, Harry and Shawn have both been on the ballot four times in the past decade. So, by his own accounting, it’s Shawn Nelson who is the ‘ambitious’ perennial candidate. It’s a typical, seedy, defense-lawyer trick to accuse your opponent of the very act that you’ve committed.”
The OCEA isn’t officially backing any candidate in the Fourth District race, but the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) has been making independent expenditures through direct-mail and cable-television campaigns on Sidhu’s behalf. The union’s cable ad hails Sidhu as “a common-sense leader who embodies the values of integrity and hard work . . . and is dedicated to protecting taxpayers.”
At candidate forums, Sidhu says he’s greatly concerned with creating local jobs, defending pro-life policies and “fighting” the housing of large numbers of early-released prisoners in the district. He has also said he backs serious government-employee pension reform, though apparently not enough to offend the unions.
Nelson rejects the notion that Sidhu, 52, can represent the district and thinks he’ll capture tea-party voters. “As far as I know, I’m the grandfather of the tea party in Orange County,” he says, noting that in 2009, he organized a rally to burn copies of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies to protest state government spending.
“Shawn is certainly the candidate of the tea-party movement,” said Chris Thompson, a conservative resident of the Fourth District and self-described tea-party “sympathizer” who has volunteered to campaign for Nelson. An entrepreneur who calls Sidhu “not ideologically pure” and Galloway “basically dumb,” Thompson, also believes that “if Shawn kicks ass, that will certainly imply that the tea-party movement has had some significant traction.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
“These people are saying, ‘I’m tired of this. What did I do wrong?’” Nelson says. “‘I’ve just been working hard, and now I’m wondering why my president is trying to blame me. How much is expected of me? They’re trying to redistribute wealth. Aren’t I already doing my share? We are the ones pulling the wagon. Why whip us? Enough already!’”
It was a passionate speech that only an accomplished plaintiff’s lawyer could deliver. It was my turn to smile. I didn’t need to ask another question.
“The key to this primary is who is motivated,” Nelson concluded. “From jury work, I know if you get people mad, get out of the way.”