New mayor reflects on tumult, looks forward

Fourth in a series of profiles about those in the trenches of Costa Mesa's political battles.

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Each Sunday the new mayor of Costa Mesa prays to God to help him forgive others, to help him not hold a grudge, to give him guidance for the week before and the weeks ahead.

Jim Righeimer says that ritual is when he gets a chance to bring it all together. It's a time to think about what to work on, what might've gone badly that week and perhaps what he must do in the coming days. He describes it as making "an inventory count" in his mind.

Prayer, he says, is what helps him deal with the duties of an elected official that, while winning him some support for his causes, also brings the inevitable backlash of political and personal disagreement, even vitriol, with it.

When people ask him how he deals with berating public comments during City Council meetings — which sometimes go for two hours — he answers: "I go to church on Sunday. After communion, I just pray."

May God "give me wisdom," he says, "help me make the right decisions, help me do what's right, as painful as the cause may be."

Ever since Righeimer's election to City Hall in 2010, the 54-year-old Mesa Verde resident has been the central figure in Costa Mesa's political landscape. Such status, as his prayer suggests, can be painful.

The road to reform that he and his colleagues seek for the City of the Arts has been that way. They want to control city spending. Address employee pension liabilities. Reinvest in capital improvement projects. Enact a city charter to make such things happen.

These are worthy causes, Righeimer supporters say.

But what of his dissenters? Among them are grass-root types, community activists and organized labor leaders.

They disagree with his blunt governing style, disapprove of his hard-line tactics and question his decision to sound the fiscal alarm that led to proposed cuts in the first place. Some just plain don't like him.

They make such views known each Tuesday night the five council members meet, and in seemingly endless online comment streams and letters to the editor.

But there's a majority, the new mayor and his supporters say, who quietly support the policy changes. They say conservative members of the community constantly reassure them that they are doing the right thing to repair the city.

"It's not a God thing, and it's not a religious thing, but it's definitely how I was raised," Righeimer says. "Once you know, once this has been brought to you and you're here to fix it, your job isn't to just walk away and let it somehow fix itself, especially when you've been around and you realize no one else is gonna fix it.

"Maybe that's why you're here to do this. You need to do it, and you need to take responsibility for doing it."

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No politics at dinner

The faint hum of passing traffic permeates Righeimer's office off MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach. His name is one of a few on the door to the second-story office suite.

He shares the space with Scott Baugh, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County and a former state assemblyman for the 67th District. Busts of Ronald Reagan are on either side of the main room that's also complete with a long conference table and couches.

Righeimer owns LMC Management Group, which manages offices and retail space. And, given his political roles, he says doesn't do business in Costa Mesa.

"There's more than enough business to be done everywhere else," he says.

Righeimer's office overlooks the street. A stuffed pheasant from South Dakota hangs from the wall, but more noticeable are the many photographs of his family and him alongside GOP leaders: Mitt Romney, Dana Rohrabacher and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Amid those is a drawing of him by Thomas Pitilli that ran alongside a 2011 article from the OC Weekly, "It's Gotten Costa Messy in Costa Mesa."

A framed copy of the Pilot hangs on the wall as well. It's a Dec. 2010 issue when he made the front page as the No. 1 entry of the "DP 103," the Pilot's annual listing of newsmakers and notables.

Righeimer may be political now, but for the Midwestern native growing up, it was more subtle.

"We were aware of it, but it wasn't like we had political discussions at the dinner table," he says. "It was nothing like that."

Righeimer's parents were Chicago-area Democrats and were involved in some party activities. Righeimer says Midwestern Democrats are similar to Orange County Republicans: They have a strong work ethic, concern for family and community issues.

Righeimer's dad, for whom he's named, was a teacher who coached football. After retiring, he became a deputy sheriff and ran a "scared straight" program. His mother was a teacher who later became a real estate broker.

Righeimer keeps the memory of them close: In addition to his wedding ring, he wears a signet ring they got for him. "Love Mom and Dad" is engraved on the inside.

They were an Irish-Catholic family in Lincolnshire, Ill., a suburban village north of Chicago with half-acre lots and a few thousand residents. Five of them were the children of the Righeimer family. "Little Jim" was the second oldest.

Righeimer gives a lot of credit to Loyola Academy, a Jesuit prep high school in Wilmette, not far from his hometown. It was an all-boys campus then.

"I got educated by the Jesuit priests, and that's really where my education came from," he says. "That affects me more today than any other education I got."

He says the campuswide philosophy of service to others has stayed with him. "What are you doing for other people?" he remembers them saying.

After high school, Righeimer attended USC as a film student. He likes to joke that he came to California, heralded as a free land of opportunity when compared with the Midwest, with a "duffel bag and a box."

But because he was paying his own way, he says, he couldn't afford to continue and had to leave SC after two years. Several years later, he earned a bachelor's from Pepperdine University.

During his time at SC, though, he got his real estate license, and after dropping out he continued on in the business world. It was there that he learned how cities work, how planning commission and council decisions could affect projects.

"At a young age, I knew pretty quickly who was who," he says.

"It's important to you how that all works out," he added. "I was 19 years old when I got in the business. [Those decisions] of whether or not you're going to close a transaction and get your $1,200 commission check mattered on how a vote happened at a city council meeting somewhere."

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'Ridiculous lawsuit'

"One day it dawned on me, these political issues," Righeimer says. "I understand them. I follow them. I watch them. I know when people are being snookered."

That's how he describes his entry into politics, which for him seemed like a natural step from his business leadership roles.

Before moving to Costa Mesa in 2006, for 18 years Righeimer lived across the Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley, about a mile from his current home near the Mesa Verde Country Club. He says the manicured, upscale Costa Mesa neighborhood reminded him of his hometown Lincolnshire.

In 2000, Righeimer ran for the state Assembly's 67th District. He lost in the open primary to Tom Harman, though not without an unofficial recount.

It took a ruling from a federal judge in Sacramento to determine that Righeimer's constitutional rights weren't violated by the open-primary system enacted with the 1996 voter approval of Proposition 198. Righeimer contended that if the race counted only Republicans, he would've edged out Harman, who ended up getting voter support from Democrats and independents.

"The party is who we really are. It's what we're all about," Righeimer told the Huntington Beach Independent at the time. "And I felt that the Republican voters here had made their choice and [I] owed it to them to see the whole thing through."

Harman, however, took offense. According to the Los Angeles Times, the California GOP supported Righeimer and challenged Harman, who went on to serve the 67th District from 2000 to 2006.

"I am greatly disturbed by the fact that the California Republican Party and its state chairman, John McGraw, supported and encouraged this totally unnecessary and ridiculous lawsuit," Harman told The Times.

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Loyalty to his friends

Baugh, who doesn't do business with Righeimer, only sharing the Newport office suite, met him some 18 years ago. The have been "great friends" ever since.

After returning from Sacramento during his Assembly terms, Baugh recalls a determined Righeimer meeting him on Thursday nights. They'd work 'til the wee hours to the point where "our wives would call and wonder when we were gonna finish up," Baugh says.

"There's a loyalty for his friends that is second to none, deeper than anything I've seen in people," Baugh adds. "I don't know where he gets it, but it's deep."

He says Righeimer, a real estate expert, is "the kind of friend that everybody wants. He'll bend over backwards and sacrifice to help his friends out of any situation."

There was a time when Baugh needed help with a property he had in Fort Bidwell. Getting to the remote Northern California town involved a flight to Reno, then a drive four hours north.

"He went with me," Baugh said. "We did an overnight trip ... it's just another example of a guy who sees his friend struggling with a transaction."

Righeimer is generous with his time, Baugh said. "If you had a nickel for every hour he's helped his friends, he'd be a wealthy man."

Former Daily Pilot Editor Tony Dodero met Righeimer in the early 1990s and years later made him a conservative columnist.

"I have a lot of good friends who dislike him, and I just have to agree to disagree with them," Dodero says. "I like him a lot, and I think he's a stand-up guy ... he knows that I don't share his politics. I don't think that's ever made a difference to him."

When Dodero left the Pilot, Righeimer was there to help him start his own business.

"I was trying to find work, and Jim was one of the few people out there who always did his best to help me out," he says.

Councilman Steve Mensinger, who's known Righeimer for 25 years, worked alongside Righeimer on the city's Planning Commission, on which Righeimer served for four years before being elected to the council.

"I think first and foremost, he's a great husband and father, and he's probably one of the smartest, instinctive, political people I've ever been around," Mensinger says.

He's the kind of guy who has "read it and understands it five minutes before everyone else," Mensinger added. "When I think of Jim, I think of a guy who is unflappable. He's just solid."

Adds Baugh: "He's got an amazing capacity for compassion and concern for other people, which isn't always the public image the Daily Pilot writes about ... but on a personal level, he cares deeply about people."

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'Animosity and conflict'

Righeimer's political opponents, however, might claim otherwise. They contend that, especially in the past general election, he was a man who didn't listen to those who may disagree, a person prone to outrages fit for the city's heated campaign season.

One frequent critic, Perry Valantine, says he shouldn't have to spend so many of his Tuesday nights at 77 Fair Drive. The Costa Mesa resident and retired city government employee of more than 30 years has already been to far more than his fair share of council and planning meetings. He's now a regular fixture in the Council Chambers, taking his three minutes of public comment time to speak his mind on the issues.

"I'd like to think that as a citizen, I could enjoy my Tuesday nights and do what I'd rather be doing ... but when they come in here and do things for the wrong reasons or in the wrong ways, and create the kind of animosity and conflict that they did ... you just can't sit home and let that go on.

"I just kind of felt that I had to get involved and say, 'Hey, we the citizens don't agree with what you're doing here and the way you're doing it.'"

Valantine was referring to a few of the council majority's decisions since Righeimer was elected.

In March 2011, there was an attempt to lay off nearly half the city's staff, outsource some of the work and reinvest in capital improvements.

Proponents said the widespread austerity move would save Costa Mesa from financial ruin; some community activists opposed it, and the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. filed a lawsuit in response.

The lawsuit led to a temporary injunction against Costa Mesa outsourcing to the private sector. Beyond that, it remains in the legal system. The remaining layoffs, however, have since been rescinded.

There was a 29-year-old city employee who committed suicide at City Hall after receiving his pink slip. However, he had been handling other personal issues, and it was never fully clear why he took his own life.

Then there was a man who called Costa Mesa police and claimed Righeimer was driving drunk. In addition to Righeimer passing a field sobriety test, the saga twisted after the man was identified as Chris Lanzillo, a private investigator and ex-cop hired to track Councilman Gary Monahan and Mensinger.

Now, there is a recall petition, led by math teacher and two-time council candidate, Chris McEvoy, that's circulating to unseat Righeimer. All parties admit it will be an uphill battle to get more than 9,000 signatures from resident voters to determine whether there will be a recall question on the ballot.

Many with Costa Mesans for Responsible Government, a grass-roots group of residents that includes Valantine, feel the same way he does.

The organization's president, Robin Leffler, says she doesn't know what to think of Righeimer these days, but "I'm really glad that the layoffs have been rescinded, and for some of the things he's said publicly and in council meetings that indicate a willingness to collaborate."

Righeimer and his council colleagues, excluding Councilwoman Wendy Leece, through their votes, have cost the city funds they're supposedly trying to save, dissenters say.

"We think that the whole thing about the lawsuit could've been avoided," Leffler says.

"It wasn't so much what they were doing, as it was how they were doing it," Valantine says.

Valantine says he hasn't had a lot of personal interaction with Righeimer, though of the three times he has spoken with the councilman, he says two involved yelling.

"His attitude and approach to things were very offensive to me," Valantine says. "That makes me not want to sit down and have a one-to-one conversation with him."

Leece has long known Righeimer. As a fellow conservative, he donated to her various campaigns over the years. Within the past two years, however, she's found herself on the lonely side of 4-1 council votes. Earlier this month, she hoped her colleagues would appoint her mayor or mayor pro tem, but the votes weren't there.

And while she's disagreed with the council majority's actions and echoes CM4RG beliefs that the employees' lawsuit has cost the city too much money, she says Righeimer's style shows a few similarities to her own years ago. Back then, she says, she might have been too strident in her approach, and it cost her a school board election.

Besides, there's no rush, Leece contends; it's not a "sky is falling" scenario in town.

"We need to listen to residents," she adds. "We need to do all things decently and in order."

She wrote in an email that she would "encourage the mayor to please put aside his strict agenda and any political aspirations he may have and truly listen to the heartbeat of Costa Mesa. It doesn't help when we read about our city in the headlines or hear about it on the radio all the time. We need to keep our 'family' problems in house.

"I hope Jim enjoys the honor of being the mayor and unites the community toward common goals. He has a great opportunity here to bring diverse opinions together."

Righeimer's friends, however, testify to his calmness in difficult situations. Righeimer himself admits he not may be of "Great Communicator" status like Reagan, but that he's very reasonable. Still, he says he doesn't suffer "fools" lightly.

"And when people tell me things that are just absolutely off and wrong, I won't agree with them just to be politically expedient," he says, adding, "There isn't a person in my business life of 30-plus years of ups and downs, strenuous times, hard issues that I can't meet in a room today. There's just not.

"It may be uncomfortable, but I've always been a person who works it out to figure the best that we can. And sometimes the best doesn't make people happy."

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Righeimer vs. labor

Righeimer's battles with unions have gone on for years.

In 2010, when he was a planning commissioner and running for council a second time, the Costa Mesa Police Assn. bought Righeimer.com and used the website to publicize Righeimer's past troubles, particularly some liens during the 1990s and lawsuits. Association organizers also advertised the website on a billboard trailer, which they drove around town throughout the campaign.

"I'm not going to respond on the issues they are bringing up," Righeimer told the Pilot at the time. "It has nothing to do with pay, benefits and pension. This group does not want to talk about any of these issues."

All that? It's attack-style politics, Righeimer says. "And so what happens is the labor unions are clear that they have to destroy Jim Righeimer and say horrible things about him to make it about him."

Righeimer sums it up as voters who are going to believe it all, others who won't and "another chunk in the middle who goes, 'Ya know, I'm not real sure, honey, about what's happening here.' That's when a husband a wife talk. 'But gosh, when there's smoke, there's fire. There must be something here.'

"Anybody else who knows me or meets me goes, 'That's not Jim Righeimer. What are they talking about?'"

Baugh said a conversation he had with Righeimer helped spur an OCGOP policy: Don't help candidates who take money from public employee unions.

There were "too many Republicans taking money from the public employee unions, then voting to give them rich and unsustainable benefits," Baugh says. "We had to stop supporting those Republicans."

Righeimer says when lost his Assembly bid in 2000, he thought his time was up.

"They won. I never really thought I'd ever be in politics again because of being a homebuilder and having all those things happen," he says. "Yet I paid back all my debts. I never filed for bankruptcy. I got through it all, but it still looks [bad] on paper."

Trying to stifle the financial prowess of unions has long been a goal of his. He helped with Proposition 226, though the measure failed in the 1998 California primary. It would have required employee permission for employers and labor organizations to use wages or dues for political purposes.

"Unions can take money out of your union dues and spend it on politics? Even if you disagree?" Righeimer asks. "It just seemed so obviously ridiculous."

Within the past two months, though, Righeimer has toned down some of his talk and indicated he's more willing to negotiate with labor.

This has been well-received by the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents about 200 of Costa Mesa's workers.

"I hope we receive national attention for coming back from a raucous and acrimonious relationship to a relationship that fosters creativity, that fosters innovation, that fosters growth and a new way to deliver services in a more efficient way to the citizens," OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino said during the Nov. 20 council meeting, when Righeimer formally proposed rescinding the remaining 70 layoff notices.

The OCEA has certainly had its differences with Righeimer, says OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir, and some of those differences are still there.

"But coming in 2013, OCEA is committed to working together and figuring out a way that we can again have a collaborative relationship that is in the best interest of Costa Mesa, its residents, the community and the city employees," she says. "We're really looking forward to that with Jim in the coming year."

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Exemplary South Coast Plaza

"We got out of the ER, but we're still in the hospital."

That's how Righeimer describes his city's financial situation. In an interview, he repeatedly goes back to what he contends is an unsustainable employee pension system. "It's just please, OK. Thank you for sharing, but you're out of your mind. There's no math that makes this work."

He's proud of the five-year capital improvement budget that's been put together and points to South Coast Plaza an exemplary. The city should be maintaining itself like the top-rated shopping center does.

"Do you see anything torn up over there and not right?" Righeimer asks. "They put away money to repaint it, to fix it, to put a new roof on it every 12 years. They reseal the parking lot every five years. It's just what the rest of the world does — and cities used to do — until they ran out of money."

Those priorities can't be put off until the city has "a good year," he says.

"Those good years do or do not happen," he says. "That doesn't make any difference on what your parks are."

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'Never, never give in'

Righeimer has repeatedly said he's not interested in a higher office. Rather, he says he's more apt to look to his neighbors, especially the older ones walking their dogs

"I wanna be like them. I want to be in my same neighborhood where I live now walking my dog when I'm 80," he says. "I'm not gonna want to worry about the whole 'streets weren't taken care of and things weren't done' and all that."

Righeimer is married and has three children who are receiving a religious education in a private school.

Tragedy struck, though, for Righeimer and his wife, Lene, nine years ago when their first daughter, Rebecca, suffered a cardiac arrest and died at age 4 and a half.

Righeimer's friends credit his resilience through that difficult period, and Righeimer says he is a different person today because of it. But it's an event he considers very personal and does not talk about with many people.

Though he may be mayor, he doesn't see himself as different than many other fathers.

"I'm a guy with kids, a family," he says. "I run a business and make sure that the bills are paid. I don't think I'm any different. I have the same cares and concerns and desires and wants for my kids and their future, but that once you dig into things and you know how things are, you realize that there's some tough decisions and things have to be fixed."

Through all that, he's influenced by Winston Churchill's rallying cry to "never, never give in."

"On a problem that's not gonna go away, you can't quit," he says. "It's not gonna go away. You gotta fix it."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @bradleyzint

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