It was a hot day and the folks wheeling overloaded carts to their cars from the Bargain Food Basket didn’t want to get any hotter talking politics.
Yes, it was election year all right, with two council seats up for grabs. No, they had no idea for whom they would vote--didn’t even know who was running.
But hey, it ought to be a good election this time around, many agreed.
“There’s gonna be more to think about than just slow growth versus development,” said one man holding a brown grocery bag that was slowly being rent by protruding boxes of baby diapers. “I don’t usually pay that much attention, but it seems like (the council) has been pretty active.”
It was an understatement. In the space of little more than a year, the Costa Mesa City Council has managed to inject the city into the national political consciousness by addressing some of the most sensitive subjects facing Southern California and, to a lesser extent, the nation.
This November, three challengers, including a former mayor and a founding board member of one of the county’s largest charities, will try to unseat two of the council’s most controversial incumbents, Mayor Peter F. Buffa and Orville Amburgey. The debate is expected to be lively.
Led by Amburgey, with wavering support from Buffa, the council in the last two years has engineered a series of much disputed social policies that have earned the city national renown for its innovativeness and notoriety for its perceived lack of compassion.
The city’s actions against illegal aliens ignited immigrant-rights groups, but also drew condemnation from a conservative Bush Administration Cabinet member.
Its glittery reputation for support of the arts also has been dimmed by a recent decision to require an anti-obscenity pledge from arts groups receiving city funds, a thorny topic that has rocked the nation’s most pre-eminent arts organizations.
Most recently, in what may emerge as one of the campaign’s most heated issues, Amburgey has come under fire for his adamant refusal to abstain from voting on projects brought before the council by relatives and campaign contributors.
Some observers have compared events in Costa Mesa to those in the Los Angeles County city of Monterey Park, a formerly white, middle-class community that, over the years, experienced a dramatic increase in the numbers of Asian immigrants.
Resulting tensions there also spawned a number of controversial council actions, such as an attempt to require that all businesses advertise in English.
“What happened in Monterey Park was very divisive and polarizing " said Linda Wong, executive director of California Tomorrow, a nonprofit public interest group that attempts to promote greater cultural and ethnic understanding.
“Eventually, residents got tired because attention was diverted away from real community issues like commercial development and traffic flow. What both cities are dealing with are social changes that can’t be regulated with ordinances.”
With Amburgey and Buffa up for reelection this November, the public’s perception of how adequately the city is addressing changing demographics may prove a litmus test for both candidates.
The three challengers who have entered the race will present voters with a definite choice.
Two of them--Karen McGlinn and Jay Humphrey--are aligned against the Amburgey faction. The third, former mayor Arlene Schafer, has gotten backing from Amburgey, and many of his opponents believe she could be expected to provide a consistent vote for the outspoken councilman’s most contentious policies.
Schafer disputes that assessment and says she will not be “a rubber stamp.”
“Many people may have thought that I was on a slate with (Amburgey) but I am my own person and can speak for myself,” she said.
Schafer said that while she agrees with Amburgey that illegal immigration is a problem, she would take a more cautious approach.
“I believe that illegals are just that--illegal,” she said. “But I stop there and think about whether the city should jeopardize federal funding. . . . I think we need to work with Washington and the League of Cities. We have to stake out some middle ground on these issues.”
All of the candidates say they do not plan to make illegal immigration a major part of their campaigns, but all also acknowledge that the council’s recent actions pertaining toing the issue will probably be a hot topic.
“I think these controversies have been very hurtful for the city, very negative,” said McGlinn. “I don’t want to get into a personal confrontation by slinging arrows at Orv or Peter, but I don’t think calling any one group of people the cause of all the problems is very productive.”
Both McGlinn and Humphrey argue that the council’s response to the problems associated with illegal immigration has harmed the city’s image and divided the community.
“We need solutions that balance the needs of the city and all of its ethnic communities with the needs of the region we live in,” said Humphrey, who ran a losing campaign for a council seat two years ago on a slow-growth slate. “What I have seen (from the council) so far are short-term solutions that satisfy the demands of a particular politically active group within our community.”
What neither Humphrey nor anyone else really knows is the extent of community support for the city’s stands.
Amburgey and his most frequent ally, Councilman Ed Glasgow, insist that an overwhelming majority of the city’s residents support their attempts to crack down on illegal immigrants.
“These issues are very close to them, they see it when they drive down the street and see the deterioration, crowding and so forth,” said Amburgey.
Even Amburgey’s opponents concede that many residents in the city’s west side, focal point of the council’s hottest initiatives, have become fed up and believe their neighborhood has become the dumping ground for a variety of social service agencies that cater to a transient population as well as illegal aliens.
The area, a mix of older tract homes and low-cost apartment complexes, is experiencing an uneasy emergence as the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood.
Chris Theisen, 29, director of development for the March of Dimes office located at the Rea Community Center, voiced typically ambivalent feelings. She said she feels much safer at the office since the charity Share Our Selves was forced by neighborhood pressure to move away.
In the mornings, she said, she would encounter transients when she tried to get into her office, and at night there would invariably be a group of people gathered to drink.
But “it’s real unfortunate that the homeowners in the area are upset about the people here. . . . No matter where you have homeless people, you’re going to run into that,” she said.
“I do think the west side feels impacted right now, there is a changing complexion in the neighborhood,” McGlinn said. “But it is the changing complexion of the entire state. I think we have to recognize that we are no longer an insulated little community.”
McGlinn has experienced community enmity over the issue on a personal level. She is a founding board member of SOS, which had a protracted and losing battle with the city to remain in its longtime home at the Rea Community Center, located on the west side. SOS was evicted after residents complained about the alleged disruptions caused by its clientele.
McGlinn said she does not want to be tagged the “SOS candidate” but argued that her affiliation with the group will more likely help than hinder her campaign.
“I think to have been committed to something for 20 years that I believe in speaks well of me,” she said.
McGlinn, Humphrey and Schafer said they believe that the council’s high-profile preoccupation with problems of illegal immigration has pushed other important issues out of the spotlight.
And Buffa, who has been criticized by some for providing swing votes both ways on the issue, agreed:
“I would much rather see us spending more time on such issues as (the) seniors center, transportation and traffic,” he said. “I have no doubt that too much attention was given” to issues of illegal immigration.
But Buffa said he does not feel his own positions will harm his chances for reelection.
“I think I can say with confidence that I’m not vulnerable with capital ‘V,’ ” he said.
Humphrey, who insists he is not running against either incumbent, is endorsing a referendum that would restrict a council member from voting on projects involving any contributor of more than $500 to the council member’s campaign funds. The measure was spurred in large part by Amburgey’s refusal to abstain from voting on developments brought before the council by contributors.
Humphrey contends that Amburgey may be more vulnerable on this issue than on some of his other, more visible initiatives.
“There has been voting that has been, at best, ill-advised in the conflict-of-interest area,” said Humphrey. “We have experienced a tremendous downturn in public trust in our political systems. People want a council that is completely ethical.”
Amburgey defends his votes, noting that, according to the city attorney, he has violated no state conflict-of-interest laws.
“My votes have been perfectly legal in all respects,” Amburgey said. “I feel perfectly comfortable in receiving a $500 campaign contribution and voting against a project if it is not in the best interests of the city. If the voters approve that measure, and I doubt they will, I can live within those limitations. But it’s not the law today.”
Times correspondent Mary Ann Perez contributed to this report.