Ten candidates have qualified this week to run for the recently vacated seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, including a former state legislator and council members from Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster.
With a crowded field of candidates, an expected low voter turnout and no runoff, the Feb. 6 election could be won with just a fraction of the vote.
"I think it's going to make for interesting theater," said Frank Barbaro, chairman of the county's Democratic Party. With such a short campaign season, "I would hope we stay with the positive. That's probably a little optimistic."
The list of candidates is remarkable for its diversity: three Latinos, three Vietnamese Americans and four whites, of whom six are Republicans and four are Democrats. Republicans hold a registration advantage of just 529 votes out of about 200,000 registered voters in the 1st District, which also includes more than 36,000 independents.
Democratic Party officials voted Wednesday to endorse Tom Umberg as their official candidate in the race. Umberg was also endorsed by the Orange County deputy sheriff's union.
Umberg, a Democrat, is the most recognizable name in the race. A former assemblyman and onetime deputy federal drug czar, he left the Legislature because of term limits. He lost a June state Senate primary race to county Supervisor Lou Correa by a wide margin. Correa narrowly won the Senate seat in the November general election, creating the vacancy.
Although the board is nominally nonpartisan, Correa was the lone Democrat. The party is eager to keep the seat, and with it the central county toehold it has established in the otherwise Republican area. The district covers Santa Ana, Westminster and part of Garden Grove, the county's most densely populated area.
Umberg's high name recognition and the unusual dynamics of the race make him the leading contender, despite his admission of an extramarital affair, accusations in previous campaigns that he exaggerated his military duties and questions about whether he lives outside the district. He still faces roughly $1 million in campaign debt from a failed run for state insurance commissioner in 2002.
"It's going to be Umberg versus a group of unknowns," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "He has to go in as the favorite."
In campaign finance reports to be filed today, three Republican contenders are expected to demonstrate the resources needed to run competitive campaigns: Santa Ana Councilman Carlos Bustamante, Garden Grove Councilwoman Janet Nguyen and Garden Grove school board member Trung Nguyen. Each is expected to show more than $100,000 available for the race.
The large number of Republican candidates has raised the possibility that they will split the GOP vote, making it easier for a Democrat to win. Still, said Scott Baugh, chairman of the county's GOP, the party has no immediate plans to anoint a candidate.
"I would seek the party's endorsement on behalf of a candidate if it was fairly clear that there was a front-runner Republican that was squaring off against a front-runner Democrat," Baugh said. "Short of that, it's not likely the party would get involved and do an endorsement."
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Orange County supervisor candidates
*--* Name Age Current position Party Carlos Bustamante 41 Santa Ana city councilman R Benny Diaz 49 Garden Grove city commissioner D Brett Elliot Franklin 45 Businessman R Kermit Marsh 42 Westminster city councilman R Lupe Moreno 49 Santa Ana library commissioner R Janet Nguyen 30 Garden Grove city councilwoman R Trung Nguyen 49 Garden Grove school board R member Larry Phan 70 Television producer D Mark Rosen 55 Garden Grove city councilman D Tom Umberg 51 Former state assemblyman D
Source: Orange County registrar of voters