In a race that may have profound implications on plans to build an international airport at El Toro, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Silva appeared Tuesday to be headed for an unexpected runoff election against Huntington Beach Councilman Dave Sullivan, an avid airport opponent.
Though it is difficult to unseat an incumbent, a Sullivan victory in November would leave the board with three El Toro airport opponents and two backers--placing the airport plan in jeopardy one year before the supervisors are scheduled to take a final vote.
With more than half the precincts reporting, Silva was top vote-getter in the 2nd District supervisorial race but narrowly failed to garner the more than 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
"I'm very surprised. We were obviously hoping to be over 50%," Silva said, blaming the showing in part on negative campaigning by opponents. "But I remain very optimistic that we will make it in the general election."
Sullivan said the results show that the Huntington Beach-Costa Mesa area district is divided on the airport issues but acknowledged that he still faces an uphill battle against an established and well-financed incumbent.
"It's going to be a David-versus-Goliath thing," Sullivan said.
Another runoff election is scheduled for the 4th District seat, where Cynthia Coad, a trustee with the North Orange County Community College District, is likely to face Anaheim Councilman Lou Lopez. Both Coad and Lopez support the airport. Orange accountant Eric Woolery, who is neutral on the airport issue, was running a close third.
In the 5th District, South County voters elected Supervisor Tom Wilson to his first full term. Wilson, an El Toro foe who was appointed to his post by the governor in 1996, handily defeated Newport Beach Councilman John W. Hedges, an airport backer, and write-in candidate August Spivey.
"This makes a real statement," said Wilson, who is the first South County resident in more than two decades to be elected to the board.
Airport opponents were ecstatic to hear the news of Sullivan's apparent entry into the general election. He is, after all, their best shot at derailing the county's plans to build an airport at the 4,700-acre military base.
County officials reported strong voter turnout similar to a presidential election. "The turnout is higher than normal for this type of election," said Orange County Registrar Rosalyn Lever. "It's been more on the scale of a presidential primary."
In the 4th District, Coad and Lopez will battle for the seat of retiring Supervisor William G. Steiner, who has been the swing vote giving airport supporters the majority voice on the board. The district covers a large part of the central county, including Anaheim, Placentia, Buena Park, La Palma and parts of Orange. The area is considered pro-airport because of the heavy tourism-based economy centered on Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.
Two other candidates--La Palma Councilman and firefighter Paul F. Walker and Anaheim real estate agent Steve White--said they oppose an airport. Woolery of Orange is undecided.
All of the candidates in the race said that if elected, they would reduce the powers of the county's appointed chief executive officer, Jan Mittermeier. After the county's 1994 bankruptcy, the board relinquished most of the power to run day-to-day operations to the chief executive. The new position replaced the job of county administrative officer, which carried far less authority over county departments and agencies.
But it was Coad and Lopez who garnered the most votes Tuesday.
Coad credited her success to a strong radio- and television-based campaign that played up her credentials as a longtime Anaheim resident supported by some of Orange County's key business leaders, including George Argyros and Karl Karcher.
Coad perhaps also rode on the coattails of one of this year's strongest issues--education, even though supervisors have very little control over education matters.
She acknowledged that the runoff will be heated. "I can handle anything that comes my way," she said. "I am going to stay positive."
Lopez, meanwhile, said his success proves that canvassing neighborhoods gets results. The veteran police officer said his hard work pounding the pavement paid off. The majority of his contributions came from individuals donating less than $100, Lopez said.
"With the runoff, we are going to get down to the real issue. The real issue is me versus her," Lopez said of Coad. "She outspent me 4 to 1. Think of what I could have done with that much money."
In the 2nd District, Jim Silva faced three candidates who oppose an airport: land planner and former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandra Genis, Sullivan and retired criminal investigator Ralph S. Silva. The district covers the northwest coast including Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos.
Jim Silva supports not only the airport but also the Bolsa Chica project, a proposal to build 1,235 homes on the mesa behind the Bolsa Chica wetlands near Huntington Beach. Such proposals over the years have drawn relentless criticism because the area is the largest unprotected stretch of coastal marshland south of San Francisco.
The other candidates strongly oppose the project.
Sullivan said he was buoyed by the results Tuesday and pledged to continue hammering at Silva for his support of the Bolsa Chica development and the El Toro airport.
"These are issues that voters care about," he said. "This election shows that."
Wilson was considered the front-runner in the 5th District because of the area's strong anti-airport sentiment. The district includes Irvine, Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest and other communities closest to El Toro.
But it also includes Newport Beach, where residents see El Toro as a way of keeping John Wayne Airport from expanding. Wilson is a former Laguna Niguel mayor who was appointed to his board seat in 1996 by Gov. Pete Wilson.
Hedges, a Newport Beach councilman and airline pilot, attempted to drive a wedge into Wilson's anti-airport base by sending mailers that depicted the soft-spoken incumbent as waffling on the airport issue.
Both candidates oppose expansion of James A. Musick Branch Jail, saying that the county doesn't have enough money to pay for it and that having a maximum-security jail in the middle of a densely populated area would be a mistake.
On Tuesday, Wilson said his victory proves Hedges' negative campaigning was not embraced by voters. Hedges sent out nearly half a dozen glossy mailers depicting Wilson as a weak supervisor who is willing to spend millions on a "boondoggle" light-rail system.