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Party Leaders Differ Over Voting Results : Republicans Discount Democrats’ Claim That GOP Lost Ground in County Election

Times Political Writer

One day after an off-year election in which only 11.8% of the voters bothered to vote, Republican and Democratic leaders in Orange County disagreed strongly about whether either party had gained from the local races.

Candidates backed by local teacher unions won in four school and community college districts in the county Tuesday. A slate of fundamentalists lost school and community college board seats in two traditionally conservative south county districts. Meanwhile, Latino candidates in Santa Ana failed to oust the school board’s Anglo incumbents.

Significant Shift

Also Tuesday, voters chose representatives to less-publicized races involving seats on area water, sanitation and community service district boards.

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Local Democratic leaders on Wednesday claimed that even though the turnout was poor, the results in these nonpartisan races indicated a significant shift among Orange County voters.

With their votes against fundamentalists and for teachers’ union candidates, voters appear to be exploding the myth that the county is a land of hard-nosed conservatives, county Democratic leaders said.

“The bottom line on the election is that it’s not a Republican victory. It’s not a Democratic victory. It’s a victory for the people of Orange County for common sense,” said attorney John Hanna, chairman of a countywide Democratic fund-raising group, Democratic Associates.

Tuesday’s results, including voters’ support for teachers’ union candidates, prove that “Orange County is not an ultra-conservative county,” he said. “It’s really more moderate than people believe.”

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Effect of Special Interests

But Republican leaders Wednesday countered that if the races showed anything, it was that on a day of light turnout, special interests--especially the special interests of teachers’ unions----can swing an election.

“I don’t think you can draw any conclusion about Republicans or Democrats from this election,” said Rudy Montejano, a Rancho Santiago Community College board member who is a key Latino leader in the county Republican Party. “Voter turnout was so low there clearly is no mandate of any type.”

Tom Fuentes, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Orange County, called the image of a union sweep just interpretation--and a questionable one at that.

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“As I look at the list (of school board members elected Tuesday) there are some very substantive, recognizable conservative-oriented incumbents which have been reelected,” Fuentes said.

Incumbents Reelected

Two incumbents reelected by wide margins, Mary J. Pryer to the Santa Ana Unified School District Board and Shirley A. Ralston to the Rancho Santiago Community College District Board, are “conservative-oriented and traditional-value school leaders,” Fuentes said.

And in races in the Huntington Beach Union High School District, the Tustin district and the Saddleback and Coast community college districts, where union-backed candidates all won, “I don’t know that voters endorsed union candidates,” Fuentes said.

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“I am told that there were late and substantive union dollars spent in some races in the county,” he added. “I believe money always has an impact.”

Meanwhile, the leader of one special-interest group blamed lack of money for his candidates’ defeat.

The Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the Anaheim-based California Coalition for Traditional Values, had backed candidates in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District who embraced the values of returning prayer in schools and supporting the traditional family.

Although area Democratic leaders claimed Sheldon’s candidates lost because voters rejected their “extremism,” Sheldon strongly disagreed. “We didn’t really cover our bases. We raised very little money” ($5,000 shared by Richard Neuland and H.A. (Al) Beaubier) contrasted with the incumbents. “That’s peanuts,” he said. Sheldon vowed to be better organized for the next election.

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Lack of Money

Lack of money and significant support from either county Republicans or Democrats were blamed by some Santa Ana Latinos for the failure of voters there to elect any of three Latino candidates to the Santa Ana Unified School District board.

Incumbents Pryer and James A. Richards held their seats in that district, which has a Latino enrollment of about 70% but which has not had a Latino on its board for more than five years.

“Both political parties missed the boat entirely” in failing to support any Latino candidate for the school board, said Montejano, a former board member in that district. He said Latino leaders in Santa Ana would be seeking a meeting soon with top leaders of both the county Republican and Democratic parties to ask why no Latino candidate received their support.

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Elections for local officials are supposed to be nonpartisan, but increasingly both parties or their members have become actively involved in these races, Democratic and Republican leaders in Orange County said.

Smooth Operation

Late Wednesday, county Registrar of Voters Al Olson said Tuesday’s election had generally run smoothly, with the last votes counted by 12:15 a.m. Wednesday, many hours earlier than in previous years.

About 150 of the county’s new voting machines malfunctioned, he said, forcing a second computer count in a few precincts where ballots had not been perforated completely. But the recounts appeared unlikely to change the results of any race by more than one or two votes, Olson said. He added that he expected all of the new ballot-counting machines to be fixed in time for the June primary election.

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