Crisis Tempers the Urge to Fill Vasquez's Seat : Politics: The bankruptcy and possible curbs to pay and powers of county supervisors might keep some would-be candidates on the election sidelines in 1996.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Desperately Seeking: Someone willing to endure a brutal election campaign for the honor of grappling with the worst crisis in Orange County's history. Pay and power substantial, but might be reduced.

There was a time when the notion of an open seat on the Board of Supervisors would have Orange County politicians licking their chops. But now, as the bankruptcy's crisis looms along with talk of drastically reforming county government, the response is tempered with caution.

However, some jockeying is underway for the spot that will be left vacant by Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who announced Wednesday that he will not seek reelection because he wants to spend more time with his family and friends.

"First thing this morning, I'm on the phone with someone looking for some advice on [entering the race], but instead of talking about all the benefits, I was giving him all the reasons why it's not as good a job as it used to be," said Orange County political consultant Dan Wooldridge.

The key drawback to potential candidates is a long road to recovery from a $1.7-billion investment loss that sent the county into bankruptcy.

Other drawbacks:

* Several movements underway may drastically change the way government operates in Orange County, which means that the office today may look dramatically different when the next supervisor takes the oath of office in January, 1997. The candidates' names may share a spot on the ballot with a proposal to make Orange County a "charter" government, a move that would strip supervisors of power while giving voters greater say in how the county operates.

* Salaries of supervisors could be reduced from the current annual $82,000, and there are calls to make the jobs part-time positions and hand over greater control to a chief executive officer.

* The prospect of a difficult--and costly--campaign against Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), who had already declared his candidacy for Vasquez's job.

In spite of the hazards, a flurry of names were already being bandied about as potential candidates, including Thomas A. Fuentes, head of the Orange County Republican Party, and Yorba Linda City Councilwoman Barbara Kiley.

Fuentes just laughed off the idea and evaded the question. And no one apparently had bothered to tell Kiley.

"What? Me? Gaddi's seat? No!" said Kiley, who is already embroiled in a campaign for the 72nd Assembly District seat, and stated flatly that she is not interested in the board opening. "Where do people come up with this stuff?" she said.

One willing to face those challenges is Yorba Linda Councilman John M. Gullixson, who acknowledged that the job would not be easy.

"I'm considering it, but it's a tough, tough job at this point," he said. "I think the county needs to be rebuilt from the ground up."

Campaign consultant Harvey Englander said he expects people to begin declaring soon so they can start raising campaign contributions.

"It's already getting late in the game," Englander said, adding that he also has been in touch with some Orange County officials who may be considering entering the race.

Vasquez, who has not named a preferred successor, had raised nearly $305,000 for the reelection campaign, a sure sign that whoever wants the seat will have to raise significant amounts of money to win.

Aides to Vasquez said the supervisor has not yet decided what he will do with the campaign money, which under state law is restricted in how Vasquez can use it.

Englander said that, given the mood of the electorate, the most viable candidate might well be a wealthy resident such as Mike Huffington, the Santa Barbara Republican congressman and businessman who spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money unsuccessfully trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"He lost, but my bet would be that if some candidate comes up and says 'I'll take $1 a year to clean up county government,' that person already moves to the top of the polls," Englander said.

Some also speculate that Vasquez could step down before the end of his term, paving the way for Gov. Pete Wilson to appoint a replacement, the same way Vasquez was appointed to his seat in 1987.

The likely candidate in that scenario might be Fuentes because of his Latino heritage and because it would help Wilson shore up ethnic support, political observers said.

While political insiders engage in their favorite pastime, many Latino activists said Thursday they can only hope that Vasquez's replacement will be sensitive to their needs.

Some members of the Latino community have long complained that Vasquez turned his back on them, even though the departing supervisor has never held himself out to be a Latino leader.

Several on Thursday said they have little hope of Vasquez being replaced by a member of any minority group.

"Given the district we're talking about, it's unlikely there will be a Latino candidate, and that's OK, but we want to see a candidate that is responsive to our community," said John Palacio, a spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

He said Vasquez's decision not to seek reelection is a "great loss" for Orange County Latinos.

Buck Johns, a board member of the conservative Lincoln Club, laughed Thursday while reflecting on the political scuttlebutt making the rounds less than 24 hours after Vasquez made his announcement public.

"Welcome to politics," he said. "It's a feeding frenzy."

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