The political machinery was in motion even before the vote was in.
Now that the Orange County Board of Supervisors has dumped its sales tax dilemma on voters, the county will see a multimillion-dollar campaign blitz, pitting conservative against conservative, neighbor against neighbor.
In a county that one longtime political insider dubbed "one big anti-tax group," the issue has yanked apart normally tight-knit constituencies. By late last week, it also had paired up the unlikeliest of bedfellows: prickly labor and big business.
The anti-tax side is marshaling an equally disparate group of interests, from hard-line, anti-government conservatives in the business community to retirees--all united in their anger against a tax increase.
"The burden (on proponents) is going to be to try to sell this to the anti-tax-oriented voter . . . and the conservatives generally turn out (to vote)," said Newport Beach developer Buck Johns, a board member of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County and an ardent tax opponent.
By the time supervisors voted early Wednesday to put the tax on the June 27 ballot, the county's big-money developers, its sheriff and its district attorney already had talked strategy with Butcher Forde & Mollrich, one of the state's most aggressive political consultants.
Their unrelenting tax-fighting opponents, under the revolutionary banner of the Committees of Correspondence, held a three-hour "war council" Sunday, developing a stealthy 16-point plan of action to crush Measure R.
The upcoming campaign barrage--which some consultants estimate will cost $2 million--will not be pretty. Groups on both sides say they intend to use the fate of the county's children as a means to get out the vote. The tax, they say, will either take money out of parents' pockets or put it in the coffers of strapped schools.
Pro-tax groups "will send expensive mailers to every household in Orange County," predicted Bill Mello, one of the founders of the Committees of Correspondence. "They'll show starving children and hordes of criminals descending on us from Los Angeles and everywhere else."
Mello said his group intends to resort to good old-fashioned pavement pounding by representatives in every city in Orange County and a weekly blitz of faxes of sarcastic comics lampooning the tax supporters.
"We really don't need much money, because we've got grass-roots support," said Mello, whose 8-month-old organization has become the leader of half a dozen other anti-tax groups. "The developers don't know what they've done. They've awoken the sleeping giant."
Mello said his group formed a recipient committee--the first step toward mounting a campaign against Measure R--last week and registered with the state. Bill Mitchell, head of the group Common Cause, said that for the pro-tax forces to win, they must reach out at the grass-roots level and not rely on glossy ads to promote their message.
"If it's going to be developers giving money to Butcher Forde & Mollrich for slick mailers, it's going to lose," he said. "If it's going to be the traditional campaign, it's going to fail."
Bill Fogarty, executive secretary-treasurer of the Orange County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, agreed. Some of the 96,000 active or retired county residents represented by the organization will be out knocking on doors in coming weeks. Measure R was unanimously supported by its general membership last week, he said.
"Normally, we would be against doing something like this tax increase," Fogarty said. "But we've realistically taken a look at this and determined that is part and parcel of a number of things that have to be done. . . . We're going to look at religious and community leaders to join up in educating the public."
"There's not a lot of things that labor and business agree upon," he said. "But this is one of them."
The pro-tax cause is likely to get some additional cash from the nervous investment banking firms that are holding notes on the county's nearly $1.3 billion in debt coming due this summer. Two bond issues totaling $775 million are payable three days after the June 27 tax vote.
"I think everyone's been sort of studying it to see what sort of involvement would be appropriate," said Stephen Ward, a chief investment officer at Charles Schwab, which owns about $170 million worth of two bonds debts due this summer. "We certainly have a right to."
The seeming bench-warmers in campaign game plans are the five county supervisors, whose handling of the issue so far appears to have bumped them from the key lineup. It is unclear how far the supervisors will go in campaigning for the tax.
"I think (the supervisors) are fairly well left out now," said Lincoln Club President Doy Henley, who also is against the tax hike. "I don't see the supervisors being a force for this."
Supervisor William G. Steiner said that in the current climate, the supervisors cannot take much of a lead.
"Like it or not, the county government's credibility is at an all-time low," he said. "With that lack of trust, it's hard to lead the way."
Steiner predicted that every elected official in the county will be forced on the hot seat over the tax hike.
"Every elected official will need to come to grips with this," he said, "including our Republican Assembly persons and senators. . . . No single body can carry the day."
Stu Mollrich, the Newport Beach political consultant contacted by the pro-tax leaders--including the Irvine Co.'s Gary Hunt, developer George Argyros, Sheriff Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi--said the supervisors will not matter much in the campaign.
"I think there's enough support here in the county to get this done," Mollrich said. "Here we have a crisis situation--not something that's artificial."
Mollrich, whose firm ran the successful Proposition 172 statewide tax hike campaign for law enforcement last year, said he believes it will cost "at least a couple of million dollars to get the message out," with the focus on a direct-mail campaign to educate voters that they have no choice.
"People are being asked to pay for somebody else's mistake," Mollrich said. "I think what people will understand is if Measure R fails, they won't be punishing government; they'll be punishing themselves."
Mollrich said he expects pro-tax leaders to form a campaign committee and file papers with the secretary of state next week. According to state law, committees raising money for political purposes must file a statement-of-organization form with the state within 10 days of when they collect their first $1,000.
A slice of the coming battle over the tax among conservative business leaders, politicians and other Republican stalwarts can be expected to be played out behind the closed doors of the Lincoln Club.
The organization is a major power broker and political fund-raiser that could bring clout to whichever side it decides to support. But its members are likely to disagree over whether the group should take a position at all on Measure R.
"There's going to be some really heated discussions for us," Johns said. "We have never been a big tax supporter. We are not a glib government group; we are for free enterprise, pro jobs and an anti-tax bunch."
Times staff writer Gebe Martinez contributed to this report.