Beer Hall Politics

Photo by James BunoanGary Monahan originally ran for Costa Mesa City Council to save his job as a bartender at the Goat Hill Tavern. The city was threatening to shut the place down. Eight years later, the Goat Hill Tavern is still around—and so is Monahan, who now owns his own pub, Skosh Monahan's.

Monahan still doesn't have much of what you might call an agenda. Nonetheless, he just might be the most important member of the City Council because Monahan is the one person who can prevent city government from being overrun by a right-wing putsch.

When Allan Mansoor was elected in November, he joined sitting Council Member Chris Steel as ultra-conservative Republicans who want to shred Costa Mesa's safety net of social services—taxpayer-funded charities, low-income housing and, most especially, the job center. Meanwhile, Mayor Karen Robinson and Council Member Libby Cowan are viewed as mainstream centrists.

That leaves Monahan as the council's swing vote: a man without ideology who could either ensure that Costa Mesa becomes a city dominated by right-wing politics or prevent that from happening.

Monahan is rather amused by the perception that he wields such power. He thought he was in line to become Costa Mesa's mayor after November's elections, but in a surprise vote, the council opted for Robinson.

“People who think I'm powerful must be wrong because I'm not the mayor,” says Monahan, who doesn't sound too disappointed by the way things shook out. “It's a blessing.”

Since Mansoor joined Steel on the council, local charities and low-income-housing providers have been terrified that city government is dangerously close to being taken over by right-wing ideologues that want to get rid of all services for poor people.

“I believe certain members of the current City Council have a general disregard for the working persons of their community,” said Helen Brown, director of the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., which maintains 30 units of affordable housing in Costa Mesa. “They intentionally create regulatory blocks to improving substandard housing. While they enjoy having poorly paid service personnel available in their city, they do not feel the need to make a provision for decent housing for them.”

Mansoor, an Orange County Sheriff's Deputy who works at the county jail, also serves on the city's Human Relations Committee. He's fond of posting anti-homosexual rantings on a bulletin board maintained by a local group called the Concerned Costa Mesa Citizens. Steel became a council member two years ago on an anti-immigrant campaign; his slogan: “We cannot continue to mediate, domesticate and educate” illegal immigrants. Catchy.

Steel's campaign was managed by a founding member of the Concerned Costa Mesa Citizens, Janice Davidson, whose anti-immigrant messages on the group's bulletin board include one that says, “Hispanics . . . play their music too loud, [they] show no respect for our country or our flag, and most of them are dirty.”

Mansoor and Steel also received campaign support from Martin Millard, a member of Davidson's group and a well-known city council gadfly who routinely filibusters against illegal immigrants. Millard has also been a columnist for Citizen's Informer, the journal of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an anti-Semitic group that opposes racial intermarriage. Millard has written articles saying racial mixing will lead to the creation of a so-called “tan man” and a “slimy mess of brown glop.” You get the picture.

Liberal critics worry that Costa Mesa's newly configured City Council may try to use redevelopment as a means to get rid of all low-income housing. Emboldened by the presence of Mansoor and Steel at City Hall, members of the Concerned Costa Mesa Citizens (including Davidson and Millard) have swollen the ranks of the residents group that advises the city's redevelopment committee.

“I think they are trying to take away crumbling buildings and put in mansions,” said Sandy Genis, a local activist. “Chris Steel is on the record as opposing any kind of [federal low-income] housing. And Mansoor has been on the record as wanting to make new housing only for more affluent people.”

But while activists like Genis fear Monahan will join ranks with Steel and Mansoor to wage war on poor people, Monahan seems to lack the requisite passion for any of the hot-button issues—namely illegal immigration, gangs and low-income housing—that have come to dominate Costa Mesa politics. “Gary has been very negative on some of these issues, but he's also been very supportive,” said Genis, a former councilwoman.

Take, for example, Costa Mesa's controversial job center, which provides a gathering point for mostly Latino day laborers, allowing them to wait in line for manual-labor jobs that pay the minimum wage. “Monahan, Steel and Mansoor all want to close down the job center,” Genis said. “But it will be interesting to see where Gary goes on this. It's easy to say you want to shut something down, but when it comes down to voting for something that will hurt people, it's hard to say what he'll do.”

In a recent interview, Monahan said he wouldn't support a vote to shut down the job center. “My concern is financial,” he said. “I think the employers are getting a freebie. They pay no taxes or workers' comp, they pick up cheap labor, and they're not paying anything for the service. They ought to pay a fee for the service rather than the taxpayer.”

At council meetings, Steel and Mansoor spend much of their allotted time railing against the job center or grilling city staff about such pressing matters as whether vendors at the Orange Coast College swap meet are legal residents. Meanwhile, Monahan has nothing to say. He fidgets and yawns, staring blankly or rubbing his eyes. If a fellow council member, staff adviser or member of the public speaks continuously for more than five minutes about any given issue, he starts to drift into a sleep-like semiconsciousness.

In short, Monahan's a guy who seems more comfortable behind a bar than behind the council dais. And while he describes himself as a conservative, he says he has a “very different philosophical bent” than either Mansoor or Steel. Monahan credited both his right-wing colleagues' electoral victories to a sense of frustration among many Costa Mesa residents who are fed up with crime and gang activity on the city's west side.

“There's a lot of feeling that the council hasn't been doing anything about it,” he said. “Chris [Steel], Allan [Mansoor] and Martin [Millard] have all tapped into that. I don't have an ideological agenda like Allan and Chris. Chris is kinda whacked out there, and Alan is much more reserved and knows the limitations of what government can and cannot do. But we definitely have some big philosophical differences.”

While he refused to elaborate, Monahan spoke disparagingly of Steel. “There's no love lost between him and me,” he said. But Monahan said he gets along with Millard “at arm's length.”

“There are things that he has a reputation for that I would not buy into at all,” Monahan said. “If you talk about rounding up brown-colored folks and shipping them off to a desert island, you won't have a lot of support for that.”

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