Upset Victor Now Faces a Foe of His Own

Times Staff Writer

As a challenger four years ago, Chris Norby defeated an incumbent supervisor, an upset that hadn’t been pulled off in decades.

Now he’s the incumbent, and his challenger, La Habra Councilwoman Rose Espinoza, is coming out of her garage to fight him.

“Of course, the issues were different when I first won,” Norby said. “But I take all opponents seriously.” The nonpartisan race pits the former history teacher and Libertarian against Espinoza, who has won national recognition for “Rosie’s Garage,” a successful after-school tutoring program she started at her home.

When Norby pulled off his upset victory over then-Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, the galvanizing issue was whether the closed El Toro Marine base should be converted into an international airport. Norby opposed the airport, and his election represented a power shift on the board. Voters finally killed the airport plan.


Norby’s 4th District seat is in north Orange County, and includes Anaheim, Buena Park, Placentia, La Habra and Fullerton, where he was a councilman.

Norby has name recognition, and has been involved in major county decisions, such as paying down the bankruptcy debt and opposing a ballot measure that would have given firefighters a share of public safety funds, taking money from the sheriff and the district attorney.

He also has $210,000 in campaign funds, 10 times more than Espinoza.

That gives Norby buying power for campaign mailers, like one this week that highlights upgraded streets, his fight against bilingual ballots, and redirecting millions from CenterLine, a controversial rail project envisioned for central Orange County that died after $60 million in planning.

“I took a lead role against CenterLine,” Norby said, “and had that money rerouted to Metrolink service, especially for northern Orange County.”

By contrast, Espinoza, who was reared in a La Habra migrant camp, plans a low-key grass-roots campaign.

Fred Smoller, a professor of political science at Chapman University, said Norby’s money and incumbency obviously give him the edge. But it’s a year in which the electorate “is a little riled up.”

“People ought to know, whether it’s Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger, [an outsider] can win, as did Norby.”

Espinoza says Norby’s anti-redevelopment stance, combined with his zeal to take on the bilingual ballot issue and others that she says don’t resonate with voters, have left him out of sync with district needs.

As an example, she points to the difficulty La Habra had improving Vista Grande Park and recruiting a Costco store to anchor one of the town’s major intersections.

Norby, she said, was “openly antagonistic” to her and the city’s efforts to court Costco. He says he only wanted to ensure that no “big box” development received redevelopment dollars or got the red carpet treatment.

The store eventually moved in without tax dollars as an incentive, Norby said. But it took “three years, three mayors and council meetings that ran beyond midnight to bring that store to town,” she counters.

Norby doesn’t shrink from his reputation as a redevelopment critic and complains of what he sees as an abuse of power by redevelopment agencies. He has become state director of Municipal Officials for Redevelopment Reform.

Vista Grande Park was built atop a county landfill. When the ground settled, the ball field started to sink, prompting the city to halt recreational activity.

Espinoza said the La Habra council sought help from supervisors but was rebuffed. The city then sued the county, asking it to fix the park, she said.

“This is why I decided to run for supervisor,” Espinoza said. “The board had this arrogant and uncooperative manner toward La Habra.

“Our City Council became disillusioned and, as for Norby, I felt we were treated like a red-headed stepchild. He didn’t like government stepping in.”

Some of the bitterness between the north Orange County city and supervisors ended last year when the county agreed to settle the suit for $5 million.

Norby noted that when the ground starting sinking in 1992, he wasn’t on the board. “But he was when we filed the suit in 2002,” Espinoza countered.

At least the settlement is, “one of the largest any city has received from the county,” Norby said.

Norby said he had helped with projects that include Anaheim’s bid for a major transportation center near Anaheim Stadium, and a Metrolink station for Buena Park. “I ignore my cities? I don’t think so,” he said.