They Froze Silva's Brain

Orange County's conservative white-male elite gathered Jan. 14 inside a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Irvine to hear Jim Silva--the prosaic new chairman of the Board of Supervisors--deliver his State of the County address. Served lunch by an assortment of hourly wage-earning minorities, the local nouveau riche spent a relaxed 45 minutes chowing down before Silva finally grabbed the microphone. I couldn't eat--probably because of the suspense--and waited outside on a lobby couch for the festivities to begin. Orange County Forum--which is composed primarily of insatiable land developers and their accountants, politicians, bankers, lawyers and public-relations flacks--sponsored the event. The group's roster is a who's who of the local establishment: the Irvine Co., The Orange County Register, George Argyros, C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, Latham & Watkins, Rockwell, Nelson Communications and Merrill Lynch. I learned from a brochure that forum members call themselves "thought leaders." They also report their "mission" is to bring "together people from different backgrounds and persuasions [which--I guess--explains the luncheon's waiters] for enlightened discussion" (which fails to explain Silva's presence). In fairness, the brochure does give prominent play to a homosexual, Brian O'Leary Bennett. Bob Dornan's former longtime top aide, who now works as a lobbyist for Southern California Edison, Bennett is quoted as saying that the forum allows him "to keep pace with the latest trends." I wondered if the group caught the camp quotient in Bennett's remarks. Despite the forum's motto of "Keeping Orange County Informed," I concluded no. Historically, State of the Union, State or County speeches aim to enunciate an inspiring new government agenda. Silva certainly had the venue to deliver a knockout speech: a large, unquestioning audience and ample television-news crews. But the 53-year-old Huntington Beach Republican isn't the brightest porch light on the block. (He does, however, get high marks for stubborn consistency.) In the first six seconds of the speech, it was obvious that there would be nothing new or inspiring. Silva used the word "very" four times in two sentences from scripted remarks.

"We have been down some very deep and dark valleys, but we can also see some very shining peaks out there," he said. "And I know next year is going to be a very, very good year for Orange County."

I couldn't help but think that Silva is Dan Quayle on a very bad day. No one else in the room appeared too bothered by the start. One guy nervously folded his blue cloth napkin, a few suits picked at their pecan pie and strawberry dessert, and everyone else stared expressionlessly at Silva. Mercifully, the sound system crashed, leaving the chairman suddenly frozen at the mic. Divine intervention, however, was not in the cards that day: the system quickly restarted. "We in Orange County have a year of tremendous promise ahead of us," continued Silva in a painfully slow style reminiscent of a California version of Forrest Gump. "I appreciate this chance to share with you my vision and my goals for this wonderful place we call home, Orange County, California. I am grateful to the members of the Board of Supervisors, who have given me the opportunity to serve as chairman. It is indeed a great honor and a privilege. I appreciate the confidence my colleagues have shown me. I am especially . . . I am particularly . . . I am very . . ." Enough about you, Jim. What well-designed, inspirational plans does your $3.8 billion-per-year county government have for 1998? "More jail beds," said Silva. "I will do everything I can for this most drastic need."

That's it?

"It is my hope that the board will agree to continue to make early payments of the [bankruptcy] bond debt its top fiscal priority." How thrilling. "No. 3 is El Toro [Marine Corps Air Station] reuse," Silva said. "My position on the [proposed international cargo and passenger] airport is no secret. That position, I might add, is based on the majority of Orange County voters who spoke loud and clear of their wishes, not once but twice." For dramatic effect, Silva's eyes momentarily left his text. "Twice," he barked. "No. 4 is improved county government. . . . It is no secret that the public's confidence in county government could use some improvement. . . . No. 5 is to improve the county's own internal operations," he said. "These are my main goals for the coming year. . . . 1998 will be a year of promise and opportunity." Ten minutes after he started, Silva's State of the County became history. Not a word about traffic woes or the thousands of homeless citizens or pollution or health care or insane real-estate development. You might be surprised to know that Silva also sits on the California Air Resources Board, the South County Air Quality Management District and the Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors. Christine Diemer, a Building Industry Association lobbyist, stood in the audience, grabbed a microphone, and planted a big one on the board chairman's ass. "Congratulations on your, uh, on, uh, your ability to rally people. . . . We are really looking forward to working with you."

Silva left the stage to backslaps, smiles and handshakes. As two business executives exited the ballroom, one said, "That was wonderful, wasn't it?" My thoughts returned to the brochure: "In a world in which we are bombarded with information through the news and advertising media, the Orange County Forum provides an uncluttered channel to ideas that are driving our nation and our county." Ideas?


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