Grass-roots GOP activist Carolyn V. Cavecche, a fiscal conservative and fierce opponent of an airport at El Toro, soundly defeated the county Republican establishment's favored candidate Tuesday in the Orange City Council election.
Cavecche, outspent nearly 2-to-1 by opponent Scott Steiner, will fill a seat left vacant after Councilman Mark Murphy was elected mayor in November. Cavecche won 61% of the vote, with Steiner getting 35% and Michael Vogelvang capturing just over 3%.
Steiner and Cavecche also ran in the November election, but neither garnered enough votes to win a council seat outright. The two ran on nearly identical conservative platforms both times, and each battle was marked by stinging campaign mailers and personal attacks.
"The people of Orange just decided it was time," Cavecche said Tuesday night. "They wanted one of them."
Steiner, who moved back to the area less than a year ago, declined to speculate how his campaign fell short. "I respect the decisions of the residents of Orange," he said.
Steiner had accused Cavecche, a stay-at-home mother and library trustee, of being controlled by liberal activists. Cavecche shot back with charges that Steiner, a 27-year-old deputy district attorney, was a pawn of forces trying to build a commercial airport at El Toro.
The Orange City Council was split 2-2 on El Toro, and it is widely believed the victor in Tuesday's race will tip the scales.
Although Steiner started the campaign expressing support for an El Toro airport, he backed away from that stance as the election drew near, saying he opposed any plan that results in more flights over the city.
Cavecche campaigned against the county's plan for an airport at the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
That position made her a target in November of a $54,000 mailer from the Airport Working Group, a Newport Beach-based organization that supports an airport at El Toro. One flier manipulated a campaign-finance report to look as if a personal loan Cavecche made to her own campaign was a $10,000 contribution from a large contractor.
Steiner denied involvement with that mailer, even though his father, a former county supervisor, contributed $15,000 to it.
"People were frustrated with Scott's answer when they asked him about the airport," Cavecche said. "They thought it was a political response."
The latest campaign-disclosure reports suggest that the Airport Working Group sat out Tuesday's election. The same goes for the Irvine Co., which will be bringing development plans before the city for 7,000 acres in East Orange, one of the largest tracts of vacant land in the county.
There was little debate over East Orange during the campaign, with both candidates advocating that proposals be reviewed with caution and that as much open space as possible be saved.
Debate, instead, focused on such issues as Cavecche's fall alliance with campaign-finance watchdog Shirley Grindle, whom the Steiner campaign dubbed a "liberal activist."
Also at issue was Steiner's alleged misuse of government computer equipment at his office to draft campaign materials. Those allegations were forwarded to the state attorney general's office by Steiner's boss, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who had endorsed Steiner.
Some observers viewed Tuesday's election as a struggle between the county Republican old guard--represented by Steiner--and a new breed of grass-roots Republicans, represented by Cavecche. One mailer sent by the Steiner campaign accused Cavecche of "waging campaigns of personal destruction" against county GOP leaders.
"This was a small-town Republican versus the establishment," said Fred Smoller, chairman of the political science department at Chapman University in Orange. "Steiner's support was from outside the community, with his father calling [in] every chit he had. Cavecche was a local girl with no political experience."