At an election night party celebrating the council victories of slow-growth candidates Larry Agran and Ed Dornan, an exuberant homeowner shouted to Irvine Councilman Ray Catalano: "Isn't this going to be terrific?"
Catalano shot back with a smile, "It's not going to be much fun being in the middle."
The 40-year-old Catalano was referring to his potential swing vote on thefive-member council, which, in the aftermath of the June 3 election, is divided over how fast and how much this city of almost 90,000 should grow.
Indeed, the election's political fallout is expected to put Catalano in the spotlight as well as on the political hot seat on occasion, as the Irvine Co. and Catalano's pro- and slow-growth colleagues compete for his ear and vote on key development issues.
As one local observer put it: "The story for the next two years will be the battle for Ray Catalano's soul."
However, the nationally regarded UC Irvine urban planning professor and former Irvine plan commissioner says he owes nothing to either camp. He points to the fact that it was his planning expertise that made him the unanimous choice of a divided council last year when he was tapped to replace David Sills--a pro-development vote. Sills resigned to become a Superior Court judge.
In fact, Catalano says he relishes the opportunity of using his academic training to "keep faith with Irvine citizens" and make the the city an even better place to live.
"It would be foolish to waste all this opportunity and knowledge to do what makes sense politically," said Catalano, who supported Agran and Dornan and is likely to side with them on several key development and transportation issues, including voting against Irvine's involvement in the building of three proposed freeways.
"Let's not kid ourselves. I'm not going to be a U.S. senator someday. I'm going to be a professor all my life. . . . I'm not going to vote to please whatever political (constituency) there is now."
No matter how earnest his intention to remain above the political fray, Catalano clearly has the development community, particularly the city's major property owner--the Irvine Co.--on edge.
For example, Catalano will likely vote with Agran and Dornan and against Irvine Co. interests on the building of the three proposed freeways and on how much of the Irvine Co.'s land to set aside for permanent open space and agricultural use. But on most issues, Catalano said, he has an open mind about growth.
"I've tried to reassure the Irvine Co. that I'm not coming in with my Daniel Ortega fatigues to shut down Irvine," Catalano said, referring to Nicaragua's Marxist leader. "Irvine is not (yet) whole. And Ed, Larry and I are not going out with hammers and nails to build the rest of Irvine."
For their part, Irvine Co. officials are trying to put the best possible face on the new council alignment--and Catalano's role in it.
"I just see Ray as a person who thinks through issues very thoroughly and who will bring to the table the broadest range of possible solutions," said Irvine Co. President Thomas H. Nielsen, who recently was assigned more direct responsibility for obtaining government approvals for the company's development projects.
"Certainly Ray is articulate and communicates well with the community, the council and the company," Nielsen added. "He will be in a position to play a strong role." Catalano, for his part, tries to downplay the new labels being thrown his way by local political observers, such as "power broker" or "crucial third vote."
"A lot of people have said to me: 'You are going to be the most important vote on the council.' But no politician is stupid enough to allow one politician to be the power broker."
He said that in due time, council colleagues like Sally Anne Miller or Ed Dornan will say to themselves, "Why don't I broker the deals?"
'Lure of Power'
"I think the lure of power will be greater than the need to be consistent with what one said during the election," said Catalano, whose appointment runs through 1988. "The City Council will be a lot less predictable than you think."
And then, savoring the thought for a moment, he said: "It's unlikely that those four people are going to allow me to be the swing vote every time. It would be nice, but. . . ."
Irvine Mayor Dave Baker, who along with Miller has voted for faster-paced development and the building of the controversial San Joaquin, Foothill and Eastern freeways that would skirt the city, said the perception of Catalano's new influence is overrated. Still, he expressed some concern about Catalano's potential new role.
"I voted to put Ray Catalano on the council although I may live to regret it," Baker said good-naturedly. "I did so because Ray would be independent."
Agran, on the other hand, is counting on Catalano to complete a new slow-growth council majority that would also include himself and Dornan. He has been on the losing end of many crucial development votes during the last eight years, and was thus somewhat humorless when asked about Catalano's perceived new role as the big man-in-the-middle.
"Ray better not be in the middle," said Agran, who is relying on Catalano's and Dornan's support next month to be selected the city's new mayor.
Unlike Agran, however, who has been the Irvine Co.'s most vocal critic, Catalano has generous praise for the city's major landowner and architect of the 42-square-mile, master-planned city.
Company Not 'Bogyman'
"The city can't take all the credit for what has happened on the land," Catalano said. "The Irvine Co. is not a bogyman out to rape central Orange County. They are a quality developer.
"However," Catalano added, "they are not a philanthropic organization either. Donald Bren borrowed a lot of money to get (the majority ownership of) the Irvine Co. and he knows just how much the rate of growth has to be in order for him to make good on those loans."
Meanwhile, Catalano said the new council will undoubtedly ask more questions about proposed development projects.
"It's when things are proposed and their impact hasn't been thought through that is disturbing," said the Boston native and 14-year Irvine resident. "The new council will be more demanding about knowing beforehand what the impacts of development projects will be."
For now at least, Catalano says he has no future political ambitions and doesn't know whether he'll seek a term of his own in 1988, citing an already hectic schedule.
"I'm about as busy as I can be," Catalano said, ticking off a list of commitments including his position as assistant vice chancellor at UCI, full-time teacher and city councilman. Moreover, he and his wife, June Webster Catalano, who is director of community development for Laguna Beach, are expecting their first child in August.
Although Catalano had several job offers when he completed his doctorate at Syracuse University in the early '70s, he said he was sold on Irvine sight unseen.
"For someone interested in urban planning and whether communities could shape their own future, Irvine was an offer I couldn't refuse," he said.
"Irvine is a noble experiment, a self-governing new town. There is a certain romance and attraction to it."
Looking ahead to July 8--the first meeting of the new council--and beyond, Catalano cautioned against any snap predictions about how he will vote during the remainder of his term.