Time to Chuck Smith

Except for 3rd District Republican Supervisor Todd Spitzer —who has speaking skills and intellect—Orange County's supervisors have long been public embarrassments. At public hearings, Tom Riley—deceased former supervisor to the developers—acted as if nosey citizens had trespassed into his living room. Supervisor Don Roth was convicted in 1993 of improperly taking gifts, loans and favors from businessmen. Supervisor Jim Silva of Huntington Beach has—bless his cold heart—difficulty forming complete sentences.

So it really shouldn't have come as a surprise in January when current board chairman Chuck Smith's televised State of the County speech turned out to be a lifeless, pro-status-quo performance that, in a more candid era, would have caused an audience to pelt the droopy-faced supervisor with rotten eggs and apples.

But this is Orange County, and the Newport Beach real-estate developers who blatantly control the board and its $3.8 billion annual budget are more than satisfied with the low-grade politicians they sponsor.

On Tuesday, voters in Santa Ana, Westminster, Fountain Valley and parts of Garden Grove have a rare opportunity to register their displeasure with that establishment. Though it has received scant attention in the daily press, the 66-year-old Smith faces re-election against Democrat Eleazar Elizondo, a 28-year-old Santa Ana elementary-school teacher. While out-of-district corporate interests have showered Smith with more than $60,000 in campaign contributions, Elizondo—a rising community leader who grew up in Santa Ana, attended Mater Dei High School and was a Chapman University baseball star—is relying largely on word of mouth. The part-time little-league baseball coach and volunteer food-drive organizer says he has raised about $15,000. He likely could have raised substantially more funds had he agreed to anti-El Toro International Airport groups' demands that he make their issue his campaign priority. That, he says, wouldn't have been honest.

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"I don't think that the process for building that airport has been fair to the people in South County," said Elizondo. "But it's not the No. 1 issue in my district."

The fund-raising disparity is only surpassed by the candidates' stances. In four years on the board, Smith has been a consistently solid vote for special interests that—for example—favor the proposed El Toro Airport at any cost, demand public tax subsidies of private housing developments, and want county health funds to pay for new jails.

In contrast, the articulate Elizondo—who has served as an aide to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer—says he feels passionately about the issues that effect the average "hard-working" people of his district. He launched his last-minute campaign in November, prompted by the supervisors' controversial decision to divert $900 million in expected tobacco-settlement funds from health-care programs to pay for county bankruptcy debt, new jails and government-office maintenance.

"I was in my classroom with my students when I read that the tobacco-settlement money would be used for the working poor of my community who have tremendous health-care needs," Elizondo said. "I was ecstatic. But that excitement turned to anger when Smith and the other supervisors decided to spend the money on things like jails. That was outrageous, and as far as I could tell, nobody was really doing anything about it. That money could have had an amazing impact."

Win or lose, Elizondo is also frustrated that Smith has refused to engage in any public debate over "the issues blue-collar people care about."

"This race is about making health care a priority in this county," he said. "But Smith thinks he's king and acts like he doesn't even need to campaign. He doesn't understand democracy. There needs to be leadership on the board, and that's what I'd like to do. The supervisors need to be more accountable to the people."

In his January State of the County, Smith laid out in monotone his "vision" for the board. "We are operating a business," he said. "We want to keep our investors happy and confident in the future."

No doubt the Fashion Island-based real-estate developers—Smith's campaign investors—raised their overflowing Waterford champagne flutes in cheer.

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