Orange County Republican leaders have voted not to endorse beleaguered Sheriff Michael S. Carona for a third term, dealing a blow to his once high-flying political career.
Carona, who will face three challengers in the June election, fell one vote shy of gaining the endorsement of the county’s Republican central committee at its meeting Monday night.
Although the party did not endorse someone else, the move was a setback for Carona, whose political viability has slumped amid allegations of mismanagement, sexual misconduct and conflicts of interest -- all of which he has denied.
“Carona’s problems have shifted from a cloud on the horizon to a big thunderstorm overhead,” said government professor John J. Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, a former analyst for the national GOP who has been following the Orange County race.
“For the average voter, this may not matter too much,” Pitney said of the endorsement loss. “But for the Republican base, it’s very significant.”
Monday’s rebuff followed lengthy debate about several scandals and investigations that political analysts say kept Carona from running for higher office this year. The state attorney general is investigating allegations that Carona sexually harassed two women and whether he improperly billed his election committee for $130,000 in expenses.
Losing the GOP endorsement was also noteworthy because the vote was coordinated by Carona supporters who are Republican party insiders, including former state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder, Carona’s campaign spokesman, and former state GOP Executive Director Jon Fleischman, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.
Schroeder, who is a member of the county party’s endorsement committee, couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.
Carona needed 32 votes, or two-thirds of the 48 members attending the GOP central committee meeting; he got 31. County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh said the outcome would have been different if all 70 committee members had attended the meeting.
“Had the full central committee voted, Mike would have had his two-thirds vote,” Baugh said.
Urging an endorsement for Carona was Erin Runnion, whose 5-year-old daughter Samantha was murdered in July 2002. She spoke of Carona’s determination to make sure her daughter’s killer was caught.
Carona discussed his department’s successes since he was elected sheriff in 1998, including its leading role in establishing an Amber Alert system for child abductions, and training local deputies to enforce federal immigration laws. Carona won the party’s endorsement in 2002, when he ran unopposed.
Also speaking on behalf of Carona were Fleischman, a member of the party’s executive committee; central committee member Mark Bucher; and Westminster Councilman Kermit Marsh.
Those supporting Carona’s challengers, who include sheriff’s Lt. Bill Hunt, urged new management for the department.
Hunt said Tuesday that he preferred that the party refrain from endorsing any of the four sheriff candidates in the nonpartisan sheriff’s race, even though all candidates are Republicans.
“They’re a small but powerful group of unscrupulous players in the Republican Party,” Hunt said of those pushing the endorsement. “But the Republican Party, just like voters, is fed up with the failures and scandals of Mike Carona’s administration. This race has just started.”
Speaking against a Carona endorsement at Monday’s GOP meeting were Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, a sheriff’s deputy; Santa Ana school board member Rosemarie Avila; and anti-illegal-immigration activist Lupe Moreno.
Avila and Moreno criticized Carona for supporting Democrats in past elections, including being on the host committee for a fundraiser for then-Gov. Gray Davis and endorsing Latino activist Nativo Lopez for the Santa Ana school board, from which he eventually was recalled.