South Orange County, once a political afterthought, is poised to grab power and influence after two decades of mushrooming growth.
With the county’s population center shifting steadily southward, a classic political confrontation is emerging between the south’s green-belted suburbs and the north’s aging, densely populated cities--not unlike the relationship between Orange County and Los Angeles in years past.
The evolving North County-South County relationship means that:
- South County is likely to gain additional seats in Congress and the state Legislature through reapportionment after the 1990 U.S. Census.
- South County officials--who recently formed their own regional leadership group--are seeking their own solutions to problems such as traffic congestion.
- South County voters could determine the fate of the proposed countywide, half-cent sales tax for new highway and transit projects. Several public opinion surveys--including The Times Orange County Poll--show greater dissatisfaction with traffic and more support there for the Nov. 7 ballot measure.
Indeed, South County residents--already more likely to vote and participate in campaigns than those in the north--are beginning to take themselves seriously as a political force, and they expect others to do so as well.
“South Orange County has come of age,” said San Juan Capistrano Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer. “Clearly, the south is a political entity unto itself.”
Even city budgets, which Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young believes are a community’s “most powerful” reflection of political opinion, reveal some basic political differences.
Crime Rate Differences
Santa Ana, for instance, spends about 60% of its annual budget on public safety--police and fire services--and employs 15 code enforcement officers to monitor substandard and overcrowded housing. The year-and-a-half-old city of Mission Viejo--which has about one-third the population of Santa Ana--spends just 22% of its budget on public safety and gets by with two code enforcement officers to patrol its tightly regulated neighborhoods.
Politicians in the north must pay more attention to battling crime, providing services for the poor and homeless, maintaining aging public facilities and easing tensions in their multi-ethnic cities. In contrast, good growth-management credentials are important in many South County council elections, said Frank Caternicchio, an Irvine-based political consultant.
“In Santa Ana, the most important thing you can talk about is crime,” Caternicchio said. “In Newport Beach, the main theme becomes road improvements and how you fund them without taxpayer dollars.”
About 70% of the county’s 2.2 million residents still live north of the Costa Mesa Freeway, and, on those occasions when political opinions differ geographically, the north has a decided advantage.
But the south is growing more than twice as rapidly as the north. Its increasing numbers, affluence and greater homogeneity make it a political force whose voice on countywide issues should only grow stronger in the next decade.
Residents already view the North and South County as separate unto themselves. Nearly two in three countywide say the areas are distinct entities, according to The Times Orange County Poll of 800 residents.
What’s happening is typical of new suburban areas nationally, said Mark Baldassare, whose firm conducted the poll.
Issues such as growth and traffic emerge, “which mobilize people and form a new political agenda,” said Baldassare, a UCI professor of social ecology and author of “Trouble in Paradise,” a book about the transformation of suburban America.
‘Shift in Power’
“We’re also seeing a shift in political power from an existing older suburb to the newer growing suburb as it gains in numbers and the bonds of the community solidify over time.”
South County residents appear to be well-suited to take advantage of their swelling numbers.
“They are a dynamic people,” Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) said of his South County constituents. “My district is one of the most highly registered districts in America and one of the highest voting. If you had normal people down there, who didn’t care, they wouldn’t have the power that they do. . . . They are beginning to rattle the cages.”
Ferguson’s district includes part of Costa Mesa, Dana Point, El Toro, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Leisure World, Mission Viejo and Newport Beach.
The three-term Republican said his constituents “have special problems,” among them transportation, which he said “colors almost everything.”
“The dissatisfaction with the number of people there, with the way things are done, all stems from transportation,” he said.
Or as Hausdorfer put it: “It’s simple. The north has roads. The south doesn’t.”
Greater political power, South County leaders say, could give the area more control over major development and transportation planning decisions.
Affluence and a bigger voice also mean greater access to government officials.
Not too long ago, remembers Dana Point Councilman Mike Eggers, the running joke in South County was that “when you sent an invitation to an elected official to some kind of function down here . . . you’d better make sure and send them a Thomas Bros. map too.”
The situation has improved somewhat but still has a way to go, Eggers said.
“I’m always trying to convince people at the county and state level that there is life below Irvine,” he said.
And although formation of new cities may splinter the south, Hausdorfer, San Juan Capistrano’s mayor, helped promote unity earlier this year when he established bimonthly meetings of local politicians and officials from 21 public agencies, including cities, school boards, water and sanitation districts.
Known as the South Orange County Leadership Conference, the group discusses issues of regional concern. The cities of Irvine and Newport Beach, however, were not invited to send representatives.
“I do not believe that Irvine and Newport Beach are South Orange County at all--they’re central,” Hausdorfer said. “They have none of the (problems) that we have. They already have an infrastructure. . . . South County is still largely suburban, whereas if you look at the area from Costa Mesa down to Jamboree, that’s the fourth largest downtown in California.”
The exclusion of Newport Beach--the county’s center of political money and power--underscores a sore point for those who live in the region: Many of South County’s elected representatives reside in that affluent, influential seaside community, including Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, Rep. C. Christopher Cox, state Sen. Marian Bergeson and Assemblyman Ferguson.
The area’s other county and state representatives live either north of the San Diego-Santa Ana freeway interchange or in adjacent counties.
“I think it would be very helpful when an elected representative at the congressional or state level . . . lives in South Orange County, has raised a family there and experiences daily life there,” said Hausdorfer, a potential candidate for higher office himself.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), whose district includes parts of North San Diego and South Orange counties, agrees local representation is a valid concern but one that should be addressed by reapportionment.
Representation “will catch up, and I think they will find they have their own local leaders,” Packard said.
Meanwhile, South County residents in unincorporated areas look to the Board of Supervisors for help on more parochial issues. Said Board Chairman Thomas F. Riley, who represents most of that area: “In the south there’s so much unincorporated area, so that there’s greater citizen interest and input to decisions made by county government. Particularly on land-use decisions and other types that impact neighborhoods--such as a new development that might be challenged--there’s a closer relationship between neighborhood activists and the elected members of the Board of Supervisors.”
He credited South County activists with speeding the county’s adoption of a growth-management policy last year, even though their slow-growth ballot measure failed at the polls.
The clearest north-south split on a political issue came in the June, 1988, vote on Measure A, the slow-growth initiative championed by South County activists. While South County communities such as Mission Viejo, Irvine, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano supported the measure, Orange County’s larger, older cities shot it down by margins as high as 2 to 1.
Lynn Wessell, a Burbank-based political consultant who managed the campaign to defeat the measure, said he played on the differences in demographics and on a perception in the north that South County is populated by elitists who want to keep the gates closed to their communities.
“The south was still being developed, and roads had to be built,” Wessell said. “In the north, you have more blue-collar cities. . . . We made the argument that the money would come out of someone’s pocket and go to the south, and you in the north are going to pay for it.”
In November, residents will vote on a countywide half-cent sales tax to provide $3.1 billion for transportation projects over the next 20 years. Support for the tax hike--Measure M--also varies between the two regions, according to The Times Orange County Poll.
In a subsample of 672 registered voters the poll found that South County voters favored the sales-tax increase by 54% to 38%. But north of the Costa Mesa Freeway, voters rejected the measure, 49% to 45%.
Although the traffic improvements to be funded by the proposed sales tax increase do not include three toll roads planned for South County, there’s a North County perception that the south will get the bulk of the benefits.
“Outlying areas like La Habra always have trouble getting their fair share,” said La Habra City Manager Lee Risner. “South County is virgin land . . . and they’re interested in new construction. But we have a different need. It’s very sexy to talk about completing the master plan of arterial highways, or building this freeway or that freeway. But we in the north and west have another problem that I don’t think was recognized.”
La Habra and other cities that were part of the 1950s suburban explosion from Los Angeles need millions to maintain and repair aging streets, synchronize traffic lights and update road designs and equipment, Risner said.
An Orange County League of Cities “super committee,” which recommended how proposed sales tax revenue should be distributed countywide, had a tough job balancing South County’s need for a strong growth management plan with North County’s desire for relatively few restrictions on how the proposed sales tax proceeds could be spent, said Huntington Beach Councilman John Erskine, who was vice chairman of the panel.
As a result, a controversial provision now in the ballot measure would create growth management zones designated as either “developed” or “developing” to correspond roughly with north and south. Under this provision, only “developing” areas must show that they are maintaining fire, police, library and other basic services at levels adequate to sustain growth to receive sales tax proceeds.
The distinction was based upon super committee members’ views on “what would work in their communities,” said Bob Dunek, executive director of the Orange County League of Cities. “What you need down in San Juan won’t play up in Fullerton.”
Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, however, blames “political hucksters,” referring specifically to the managers of the campaign against the slow-growth measure last year, for overplaying the differences between North County and South County.
“It’s obvious that there are some demographic differences,” said Agran, who has parlayed environmental, social and even international issues into a successful local political career. “But the concerns people have in Irvine--about the environment, supportive social services, child care . . . homelessness--are concerns shared by people in every decent community in Orange County.”
No one--either in the south or the north--talks of trying to split the county in two.
“It would have no value,” said Eggers, the Dana Point councilman. “We already have an identity problem . . . We need to work together and make the county stronger.”
PEOPLE TO WATCH IN SOUTH ORANGE COUNTY: Larry Agran--A Democrat in a heavily Republican city, Agran, 44, has parlayed environmental, social and even international issues to become Irvine’s first popularly elected mayor. Political experts are skeptical, but some say Agran--who attracts national media attention--could mount successful bids for higher office oriented to slow growth. He is a “perfect example of a new fiscal populist leader,” said Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine professor of social ecology. Patricia Bates--Laguna Niguel voters will decide Nov. 7 whether they want to become a city. If they do, Bates is likely to be on the first city council. A member of both the local Community Services District and the Community Council, Bates, 49, a businesswoman, has been a leader throughout the incorporation effort. “She’s very well-respected by community leaders and business leaders, and you don’t often have that combination,” said Howard Adler, a developer and former county Democratic Party chairman. Although Bates is a Republican, Adler says “she has a great future in politics.” William S. Craycraft--The surprising top vote-getter in the first Mission Viejo City Council election, Mayor Craycraft, a 45-year-old businessman, is an experienced political hand, with years of advance work for Ronald Reagan, President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle behind him. “He’s been around politics a long time,” said Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach). Some political observers say Craycraft could be hurt by internal squabbles that have plagued the Mission Viejo City Council, including a recall effort against Craycraft’s ally, Councilman Robert Curtis. But Ferguson disagrees. “They’re becoming famous.” Mike Eggers--A longtime aide to Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), Eggers, 41, has solid Republican Party credentials and played a key role in the Dana Point incorporation. Packard said Eggers has “good political instincts, knows the territory and knows the game.” Ferguson agreed that Eggers’ future is bright, saying that he is “well-known and already has established support groups.” Gary L. Hausdorfer--A San Juan Capistrano councilman since 1978, Hausdorfer, 43, is now mayor. He has emerged as a regional leader, evidenced by his formation of the South County Leadership task force. He makes no secret of his aspirations to higher office. “He really seems to be emerging as someone concerned about the future of South Orange County,” said Julie Froeberg, legislative aide to state Sen. Marian Bergeson. Eileen Krause--Mayor of Dana Point, Krause, 45, a businesswoman, has impressed experienced politicians with her ability. A South County resident for more than 20 years, she “is really standing out in a lot of people’s minds,” Froeberg said. “I don’t know what her aspirations are, but people are really noticing her. . . . She’s solid.” Larry Agran
William S. Craycraft
Gary L. Hausdorfer