Los Angeles Times

74th Assembly candidates meet at Feet to the Fire forum

Working well in Sacramento and sending money back to Orange County were among the ideas marking the 2014 election season's first Feet to the Fire forum Thursday night.

The roughly hourlong debate in the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center featured five candidates for the 74th Assembly District: Newport Beach Councilman Keith Curry, Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper, teacher Anila Ali, Assembly aide Emanuel Patrascu and small-business owner Karina Onofre.

Almost 100 people showed up to hear the positions of the candidates running in the June's primary. The top two candidates will face off in the November general election.

Moderating the event at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center was Daily Pilot and Orange County Register columnist Barbara Venezia. Panelists were Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis and City Editor Alicia Lopez, Register columnist Jack Wu and Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr.

Off the bat, Venezia asked the candidates how much they've raised — independent of money they donated to their own campaigns. Curry solidly led the pack with about $250,000, followed by Patrascu with some $100,000, Harper with between $30,000 and $50,000, Ali with $20,000 to $25,000 and Onofre with about $11,000.

Harper, a Republican, said he objected to the question.

"I think it's about the issues," he said. "I prefer that we get to the issues."

Curry, a Republican, contended that his war chest demonstrated the breadth of community support.

Santana, after prefacing his question by declaring that Sacramento is controlled by Democrats, asked: "What's the point of sending another Republican to Sacramento?"

Curry replied that Republicans can represent the 74th better.

"Things do change," he said. "Republicans will be relevant again."

Patrascu, a Republican, commented that Orange County can't keep voting in "fake conservatives."

"We can't keep sending up people who keeping voting for every tax and fee," the Laguna Beach resident said.

Ali, a Democrat, said voters should consider her party affiliation a strong point, given the Democratic super-majority.

"So you, as voters, need to choose a candidate that's actually going to get things done for you," the Irvine resident said.

"I will have a seat at the table," she added. "I will have a voice."

Harper said, "Republicans should never surrender in the state of California," to which Wu, also a Republican, chimed in: "We can talk about surrendering, and we can talk about real life."

Onofre, of Irvine, called herself a "conservative Democrat," who can represent women and Latinos.

"I can cross the aisle and work with both parties," she said.

Wu was critical of Onofre's recent party switch, particularly the former Republican's request for a GOP group's endorsement a few days before her campaign filing.

Onofre, who ran for the Santa Ana City Council in 2012, responded: "It doesn't matter what I was. The fact is I'm here to stay and I'm a Democrat."

She said Republicans don't show respect for women and ethnic minorities and that, if elected, she would work to cut government costs and "maximize profits."

"I didn't leave the Republican Party," Onofre said. "The Republican Party left me.... I'm still a conservative — a Latina, Christian conservative."

Harper said he favored less government and would push for repealing "nanny state" rules.

Venezia asked the candidates about the roughly $140-million Newport Beach Civic Center.

Curry touted the merits of the facility, which includes a new library, park, bridge and dog park. The center had its grand opening in May, when Curry was mayor.

"I'm proud of the fact that in Newport Beach, we build infrastructure that will last for the next 80 years," he said.

Patrascu said the Civic Center project showed Curry's complacency despite escalating costs and the use of taxpayer-subsidized loans.

"You might be able to afford those payments, but you're not fiscally conservative," Patrascu said.

Curry responded that "people like these projects," which help property values. "That's what makes Newport Beach the city it is," he said.

Ali called for more "21st century thinking" in her "vision for California." She said she comes from a political family in India and has been "in the trenches and on the front lines" of political life.

"My family, for the past 200 years, has been in public service," Ali said.

She said she won't be raising taxes amid a state budget surplus, though when asked about Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's previous support for voter-approved initiatives that raised taxes to fund education, Ali responded: "That was the need of the day. That was the recession. He brought us back from it."

Curry said voters should credit his political expertise, which he added will help him "hit the ground running." He also called for fully funding the 74th District's state parks.

Harper credited his political experience on Huntington Beach's council, where he was elected in 2010, and on the Huntington Beach Union High School District's board.

Onofre said she has an "aggressive" voter registration campaign that will help bring thousands of first-generation Latino voters to the polls. After hearing some jeers from the audience, she asked for their respect and added that, often, voters will support someone who is like them.

When it came to the heated debate over beach fire rings, which some residents have called a health hazard, the candidates agreed that the fire pits are an integral part of Southern California culture.

Curry and Onofre said they believe each city should decide if the rings are appropriate. Patrascu was critical of Curry, saying that the Newport politician just doesn't want any "gangbangers" around Corona del Mar's bonfires at night.

The 74th District includes Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods and Newport Beach. The seat is held by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa), who is running for the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

The event will be broadcast on Costa Mesa and Newport Beach's respective public-access television stations.

The next Feet the Fire forum is scheduled for April 28 in the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave. It will feature candidates for the 2nd District seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

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