A line of challengers to one of Orange County's embattled political leaders began to form Friday, with Assemblyman Mickey Conroy declaring he will run against Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez in 1996.
With more than a year before the election, Conroy (R-Orange) became the second prominent politician in as many days to announce that he will take on Vasquez, once hailed as being among the state's most promising Republican Latino politicians. On Thursday, Fullerton City Councilman Chris Norby said he plans to challenge Vasquez.
The developments signal the political peril facing leaders who held office when the collapse of Orange County's $7.4-billion investment fund led to the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy last December.
"I'm running to restore public trust by running the public business like it's my own," said Conroy, who held a news conference in front of the County Hall of Administration. "People perceive that the County Board of Supervisors did them wrong, and I would say to you that any one of them who had to run today is damaged goods."
The Board of Supervisors, being widely blamed for a lack of oversight that contributed to the financial debacle, is now under intense pressure to devise solutions.
A recall effort already has been launched against Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. Some prominent members of the business community have subtly pressured Vasquez, Stanton and Supervisor William G. Steiner with suggestions that they either resign or not seek reelection.
Vasquez, however, said Friday that he plans to seek reelection to his 3rd District seat.
Before his press conference, Conroy called Vasquez to tell him of his plans.
"Mickey's been a friend of mine for many years," said Vasquez, who has endorsed both Conroy and Norby in the past. "He gave me the courtesy of calling me and letting me know of his decision. Chris (Norby) is also a longtime friend of mine. I respect their right to pursue another public office."
When asked if he expects other challengers to come forward, Vasquez declined to speculate.
"Right now, I only can focus on doing my job and doing my job well," he said. "My first and foremost priority is to deal with the financial crisis--that's where my focus has been and will continue to be."
Vasquez, 40, a former Orange police officer, was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 1989 by then-Gov. George Deukmejian and was elected to a four-year term in 1992.
Although Conroy is hardly considered a political outsider, he said he is running for the Board of Supervisors to "clean house of the good ol' boy network," a claim that some political experts say is likely to be repeated by political challengers throughout upcoming campaigns.
"I'm not a politician," Conroy said. "I don't understand what a politician is."
Conroy, 67, who drew national attention last year when he introduced a bill that would require the paddling of convicted graffiti vandals, said he takes pride in being frugal with taxpayers' money.
"I'm running because I spend (public) money like it's my own money," Conroy said. "And I don't think (the Board of Supervisors) has done a good job of watching the money."
Conroy was elected to the Assembly in 1991 and can't seek reelection because of term limits. Portraying himself as a maverick leader, he vowed to help straighten out the county's financial mess and prevent illegal immigrants from receiving county services.
But some political analysts say Conroy is simply trying to distance himself from the county's power structure because it's the politically pragmatic thing to do.
"It's going to be a race between the king of equivocation versus the prince of paddling," said Mark Petracca, a professor of political science at UC Irvine. "It's a showdown between two consummate Orange County inside insiders."
Political consultant Harvey Englander said Conroy's dogmatic reputation might hurt his chances of winning over traditional "business" Republicans, who exert great influence over county elections. Conroy's refusal to examine raising fees or taxes to help the county's fiscal recovery may ultimately cost him votes, he said.
"I think serious business Republicans, who are looking to come up with a conservative and reasonable candidate, will view Conroy as a distraction," Englander said. "Orange County deserves better."
Meanwhile, Norby, 45, who has served on the Fullerton council since 1984, also blames the Board of Supervisors for the county's financial mess and indicated that he plans to attack the incumbents during his campaign.
Norby could not be reached for comment about Conroy's announcement, but he said Thursday in announcing his own candidacy: "I don't know that those who got us into this situation can get us out of it. I think the job of the supervisors is to supervise, and I don't know if they've been doing that. It's a lot of money to lose--$1.7 billion."
County Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who was elected to the board last year and is not up for reelection in 1996, said it worries her that candidates may be entering the political arena to take advantage of the county's financial crisis.
"I have great regard for Mickey," Bergeson said. "But my concern is that if there's a heavily contested campaign this early, it could provide distractions of the board's effort to recover from the financial situation. Everyone needs to focus on the recovery."
Bergeson said she was surprised by Conroy's and Norby's announcements--and that they should be made more than a year before the March, 1996, election. Stanton's term also will expire next year, but no one has yet announced plans to seek his seat. Steiner, elected last year, began a four-term in January.
"I think some might view it as an opportune time to run because of the financial situation," Bergeson said. "But I think in choosing candidates the public will look at the progress the board will make. And as a result, their confidence of the board will be raised. A lot depends on how quickly we can get out of this."
Shirley Grindle, a longtime county political watchdog and campaign reform activist, said that even with the election more than a year away, Vasquez and Stanton probably face tough reelection fights.
"It depends a lot on how they solve the financial problems," she said. "But I think it's going to be a rough road to reelection. There are no easy answers here. There is going to have to be some pain and layoffs. So they are going to have people hating them, blaming them. It's not going to be easy."
Orange County Board of Education member Felix Rocha Jr. is spearheading a recall drive against Stanton, and began collecting signatures for his ouster on Feb 5. About 15,000 signatures are needed to force a recall election.
Thus far, Vasquez has not been targeted for recall. But the Committees of Correspondence, an umbrella group of more than a dozen community organizations, is considering launching a recall drive against him, said group member Carole Walters.
Even so, some group members aren't pleased with Conroy's bid to fill Vasquez's seat.
"I'm not very happy," Walters said. "He voted to give himself a big raise last year. . . . If he doesn't care about saving money for California, what will he do when he gets down here?"
Also on Friday, Jim Beam, a former mayor of Orange, announced that he will seek Conroy's seat in the Assembly.
Beam, 60, a real estate developer and lifelong Republican, said he decided to run for the Assembly seat, after an eight-year break from politics, because of the Republican victory during November's elections.
"After last November, I felt energized and felt I have a chance to do things I want to do," said Beam, who served as Orange's mayor from 1980 to 1986 and as a councilman for four years before that. "I wasn't interested in serving in the minority under Willie Brown. But now, within two years or so, I expect we'll have the majority (in the Assembly)."
Beam said his main goal is to eliminate bureaucracy at the state and local levels and to work on legislation that will aid crime victims.
Times staff writer Martin Miller and correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Profile: Mickey Conroy
Party affiliation: Republican
Current district: 71st Assembly (Anaheim, Irvine, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Orange, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Tustin, Villa Park)
Hometown: Footedale, Pa.
Family: Wife, Ann, and two grown children
Military background: Retired Marine Corps major; veterans affairs activist
First elected: September, 1991, in special election to replace John R. Lewis
Assembly committees: Chairman, Utilities and Commerce; vice chairman, Task Force on Defense Conversion; Higher Education; Housing and Community Development; Health and Insurance
How Conroy ranked in 1994 with special-interest groups; scale 100-0%, unless otherwise noted.
California Chamber of Commerce: 100%
California Labor Federation: 8%
California League of Conservation Voters: 8%
California NOW (National Organization for Women): 53%
Planned Parenthood: 37%
California Pro Life Council: 100%
California Abortion Rights Action League: Anti-choice
Children Now: 59%
California Journal ranking for 1994 (out of 80 Assembly members): 66th
Sources: California Assembly; Times reports