3 Potential Candidates for Supervisor : Possible Riley Retirement Clouds GOP Focus in O.C.

Times Staff Writer

The election is still 15 months away, and Thomas F. Riley, the powerful chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, has not decided whether he will seek a fifth term.

Yet three local Republicans have begun lining up support and contributors to run for Riley’s coveted seat in the 5th Supervisorial District, should the former Marine Corps brigadier general choose retirement over running for another 4-year term.

Riley, 76, who has been noticeably slowed in recent years by asthma, acknowledged that his political future hinges on his health.

“I love the job I’m involved in, and I have a desire to serve longer,” he said. “But . . . I want to go out feeling like a full-time supervisor. I would hate like heck to have my health diminish that reputation.


“If I don’t feel up to it, I’ll step aside.”

Waiting in the wings are at least three would-be supervisors, including Newport Beach lawyer Dana W. Reed, who Monday announced that he has formed an exploratory committee to raise money for a probable run for Riley’s seat in June, 1990. But Reed and the two other potential candidates--Peter F. Buffa, mayor of Costa Mesa, and Peer A. Swan, president of the Irvine Ranch Water District board of directors--said they would withdraw from the race if Riley seeks reelection.

All three praised Riley’s leadership on the board and within the county GOP. Mounting a challenge against the supervisor, who has been easily reelected four times since his appointment to the board in 1974 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, would be foolish, they said.

Riley, a political conservative, said he has received assurances from each of the potential candidates that if he runs again, they will not challenge him for the $66,000-a-year supervisorial post.


But his age and health problems have triggered widespread speculation that Riley will call it quits later this year, creating a wide-open race similar to the scramble among 18 candidates a year ago for former Newport Beach Republican Robert E. Badham’s seat in the 40th Congressional District. C. Christopher Cox finally won the seat.

Because Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats among registered voters countywide, GOP officials are rarely threatened, even for such nonpartisan offices as supervisor, and more often than not remain in office until they tire of the job.

The district--which stretches from Newport Beach to San Clemente and includes Irvine, Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano--is typical. Among the district’s 292,605 registered voters, Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 2 to 1.

“A seat on the board of supervisors is a prized commodity in this county, and Riley’s departure would be a rare opportunity for someone,” said Harvey Englander, a Newport Beach political consultant. “The race could attract as many as a dozen candidates.”


Such a race, observers said, could become one of the most expensive in county history, topping the record $1.6 million spent in 1986 by eventual winner Supervisor Don R. Roth and two challengers in the 4th Supervisorial District.

And money is the reason cited by Reed, Swan and Buffa for starting campaigns so far in advance.

Under Proposition 73, adopted by voters statewide last year, state and local candidates cannot accept more than $1,000 a year from a single person or more than $5,000 a year from a committee. The contribution law is based on the fiscal year, so candidates who form fund-raising committees by July 1 of this year can collect twice from each contributor before the primary on June 5, 1990.

At this stage, Reed, a lawyer specializing in campaign-finance law, appears to have an advantage. Two members of his campaign committee, former Democratic congressman James Roosevelt and campaign consultant Robert Nelson, are longtime political advisers of Riley’s. Roosevelt was co-chairman of Riley’s last two campaigns, while Nelson managed those races.


Reed, a member of the Orange County Transportation Commission, denied that the presence of Roosevelt and Nelson on his team is an indication that Riley has decided not to run again.

Riley also discounted the significance of the advisers working for Reed, adding: “If I decide to go after this seat, I trust both those individuals will be with me. . . . I’ve known Dana for a long time, but I haven’t endorsed anyone and don’t plan to at this point.”

Reed, 45, a former undersecretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and a former deputy state controller, moved to the county in 1985. He can claim ties to top GOP officials and officeholders locally and around the state because of his work as a legal adviser and campaign treasurer for various candidates.

Buffa and Swan said they also plan to organize campaign committees in the near future. Both men were candidates in the GOP primary for the 40th Congressional District before withdrawing.


Buffa, 40, an independent TV producer, was elected to the Costa Mesa City Council in 1986 after being on the city’s Planning Commission. He has also been on several countywide commissions, including ones concerned with the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor and managing hazardous materials.

Swan, 44, a corporate financial executive who has been active in varied civic and GOP organizations, said he is perhaps the most moderate of the three potential candidates, particularly on social issues.

Those positions, he said, may help him appeal to a broader number of voters, especially Democrats.

Although the race is nonpartisan, county Democrats have a goal of winning a seat on the board of supervisors. In the middle 1970s, Democrats controlled three seats on the five-member board. But since the early 1980s, Republicans have held a solid majority.


Irvine Mayor Larry Agran is most often mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for Riley’s seat. But Agran said Monday it is doubtful that he would run because it would be “a long, long time until we (Democrats) could gain a progressive majority” on the board.

“I have given it some small measure of consideration,” Agran said. “But it is difficult being a lone progressive voice.”