He's been nicknamed "Flipper" for flipping off and yelling obscenities at opponents during public functions. Others call him "Spanky" for his proposal to allow California teachers to paddle misbehaving schoolchildren. But his real name is Mickey, and for the life of me, I cannot think of a first name more ill-suited to Mickey Conroy, the pug-nosed, crotchety, Republican good old boy who wants the 3rd District seat on the county's Board of Supervisors now that term limits have thrown his hide out of the state Assembly.
My first in-person introduction to the 69-year-old Conroy was before an early October taping of a public-television debate with opponent Todd Spitzer, a deputy district attorney, at KOCE's studios in Huntington Beach. Conroy is smaller than I had imagined but quite stocky, and he'd apparently spent considerable time in front of a mirror before coming. His silver and gray hair was slicked back, parted on the side and combed into concrete perfection. He wore rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, his Sunday-finest dark suit, a Republican power tie and shiny black shoes. The one time he smiled, he looked the part of anyone's doting grandfather.
"Sex paper," Conroy snorted derisively, after asking which publication I reported for.
Ah, I thought. Trying to butter me up.
It's funny that the former state assemblyman would mention sex, since he has spent more than $583,000 of the taxpayers' money to defend himself against ongoing sexual harassment charges involving a porno magazine, crude sexual comments, unwelcome fondling, and a sign that hung inside his Capitol building office: "Sexual harassment will not be tolerated; it will be graded."
So there we were in KOCE's green room, gathered around a large wooden table, and Jim Cooper, the debate moderator, asked us all to introduce ourselves and identify our affiliations. When I said, "OC Weekly," Conroy stared at me, made a guttural sound and rolled his eyes back into his head. I didn't try to guess what was going through his mind, but I suspected an interview was out of the question.
After the introductions were done, producer Ed Miskevich outlined the debate ground rules and Cooper asked if the candidates were ready to move to the television studio.
"Let's go do it," said Conroy, with the twangy intensity of a cowboy ready to ride the bull. But the tough talk masked the ex-Marine pilot's nervousness. His short, stubby fingers were shaking as they groped campaign papers, his eyes were darting--though never at Spitzer--and he wouldn't stand still. As he left the ground-rules meeting and walked toward the studio, Conroy said to no one in particular, "Now I'm going to fix that empty suit."
Todd Spitzer was JFK cool to Conroy's sweating, agitated Nixon. He entered the KOCE green room relaxed, smiling and showing no fear of looking directly at his opponent. At 35, Spitzer is 34 years younger than Conroy and--regardless of the age gap--infinitely more composed.
Last March, Conroy--who had the name recognition and the backing of the all-male, all-far-right-wing local Republican inner circle--couldn't put away his seven opponents. That's why he now faces Spitzer in a Nov. 5 runoff. Spitzer, who is vice president of the Brea Olinda School Board, finished second in the primary and is, like Conroy, a Republican.
"It's going to be a piece of cake," Conroy told the Times O.C. immediately following the primary. "Young people don't have the moral fortitude of my generation."
But in the seven months since the primary, an articulate Spitzer has displayed the confidence of a seasoned politician, taunting Conroy by calling him an "embarrassing, visionless, close-minded man who is looking for a place to retire at taxpayer expense--on the Board of Supervisors."
"Orange County needs a supervisor with a fresh voice, new ideas and an ability to ask tough questions," said Spitzer, a Los Angeles police-reserve officer who considers himself a hard-line fiscal conservative. "If Conroy is elected, it will be more of the same failed leadership that led the county into bankruptcy. We desperately need somebody who is not beholden to local power brokers."
Such bold comments haven't sat well with Conroy, who comes from Orange County's political old school--where newcomers are expected to defer to the establishment's candidate of choice. Even though this election is theoretically nonpartisan, Congressman Bob Dornan, Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle and State Senator RossJohnson have endorsed their longtime pal Conroy.
Spitzer has also picked up backers, including a plethora of local elected officials, police associations and community activists scattered around Orange County. According to the latest campaign-finance reports, he also has a substantial fund-raising lead going into the final days of the election.
Conroy has gone from overconfidence to despair; his public behavior is making some Republicans wonder whether he's coming unglued. On Sept. 1, two female volunteers at the Orange Republican Women Federated voter-registration booth said the self-styled family-values assemblyman stormed up, called them bitches and tore down two Spitzer campaign signs.
On Sept. 19, at the grand opening of the South Orange County Republican headquarters, Spitzer says Conroy approached him, flipped him off and said, "Fuck you." When Spitzer asked if Conroy had just flipped him off, Conroy reportedly said, "You bet I did," before flipping him off again and repeating the obscenity. Spitzer says Conroy then turned to Emily Sanford, the party's sergeant at arms, who was holding a camera, said, "Take a picture of this," and extended his middle finger once more. Sanford says she was too shocked to take the photo.
Minutes before the koce taping, the candidates sat facing each other, but Conroy, twiddling his hands, reviewing his scripted answer sheet and overcleaning his glasses, still wouldn't look at Spitzer. There was light banter among Cooper and 1st District supervisor candidates Charles Smith and Mark Leyes, who shared the debate stage. Spitzer tugged on the lapels of his suit and slowly rolled his head, working out the kinks in his neck. He studied camera locations and smiled at the studio crew, which was finalizing their preparations.
Once the debate was under way, it became clear that Conroy and Spitzer agree on a majority of the issues raised by Cooper, including the proposed commercial airport at El Toro (oppose), a maximum-security prison in Lake Forest (oppose), term limits (support), and higher county taxes (oppose). Spitzer spoke extemporaneously, looking a little too polished. Conroy, whose scalp turned bright red during the debate, mouthed his answers word for word from his cheat sheet and appeared flustered when the discussion stumbled onto new turf.
It took less than five minutes for personal shots to dominate the debate; Smith and Leyes became near-silent bystanders. When Spitzer told viewers that if he is elected, they won't wake up to learn embarrassing news about their supervisor from the morning papers, Conroy unloaded a quick round of wild allegations, including the charge that Spitzer was shopping his vote on El Toro's conversion for pro-airport cash.
Cooper, a wily host, apparently decided to unleash the two candidates.
"Mr. Conroy, you've been kind of angry at Mr. Spitzer. I understand you've made gestures to him. What about that?" asked Cooper.
"He's made a lot of gestures at me, Jim, during the last several weeks," Spitzer said. "Mr. Conroy is immature and needs to grow up."
"Excuse me," said Conroy. "He asked me the question, not you."
Cooper again asked Conroy about his obscene gestures.
"Yes, I did it in front of four people, and I said to Mr. Spitzer, 'You're a damn Democrat.'"
Spitzer shook his head. "Why doesn't he just tell you why he flipped me off? It's outrageous."
"Keep quiet," Conroy said. "This is why you keep getting flipped off. Because you don't know when to shut up."
Conroy continued: "He says all these things about sexual harassment, and my wife of 40 years--40 years--does not have to take these insults from this young man here. And so I just became . . . I lost it, basically. And I flipped him off, and I'm sorry I did it. It's not in character for me to do that."
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Hours after the debate, I contacted Conroy by telephone to ask him what he thought of it.
"You were there," he said tartly. After mild cajoling, he added, "Okay, here's a quote for your hatchet job: Mickey Conroy is back."
If that thought isn't scary enough for local residents, consider this: campaign watchers say the odds narrowly favor a Conroy victory. That would mean the Republican insiders' club will maintain its stranglehold over the Board of Supervisors, its $3.7 billion annual budget, and the 3rd District--an area encompassing some of the last remaining open space in Orange County.