A special election to fill a recently vacated seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors has led to six-figure spending by campaigns and political action committees, election records show.
Seven candidates have qualified for the March 12 ballot to replace former Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who was elected district attorney in November, but three candidates have generated the most interest from donors: Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez and Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray.
Although county seats are non-partisan, the individuals or organizations spending money to support a candidate signal their legislative agendas.
Wagner, for example, is supported by Engage OC, a political action committee. On Feb.14, Engage OC received a $49,000 contribution from Friends of the Great Park PAC. Public records show that Five Point Holdings LLC, the parent company for the Orange County Great Park’s developer, contributed $150,000 late last year to the Friends of the Great Park PAC.
Engage OC has spent more than $55,000 on cable advertising, mailers and digital content to help elect Wagner.
“I am very happy to have a lot of support from a lot of people around the county for my vision of limited, effective government and local control that I’ve articulated throughout the campaign,” Wagner, a Republican, wrote in a statement.
Engage OC Treasurer Kelly Lawler said Wednesday she would forward a request for comment to committee chairman Bill Christiansen, vice president of government relations for the Apartment Asn. of Orange County, but the call was not returned. Christiansen didn’t respond to call to his office Thursday.
Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, said Five Point Holding’s indirect investment in Wagner’s candidacy via the Friends of the Great Park PAC speaks volumes about the company’s desire to have a friend on the five-person panel that controls development on unincorporated land.
“They very much want him on the Board of Supervisors,” Smoller said.
In a statement, Sanchez, a Democrat, shared her frustration that thousands of dollars are being independently spent through a labyrinth of political action committees to defeat her.
“It’s a shame to see wealthy special interests bankroll candidates like Don Wagner,” she wrote. “My hope is to see every candidate more accountable to the working people of Orange County.”
After an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2016, Sanchez is seeking a return to public office and is seeing more money spent in support of her than any other candidate. The Orange County Employees Assn. Independent Expenditure Committee, controlled by the largest public employee union in Orange County, has spent more than $120,000 to help elect Sanchez.
“After serving Orange County as our congresswoman, Loretta is the only candidate with more than 20 years of experience fighting to increase access to health care and mental health services, job retraining programs and affordable college education,” OCEA General Manager Charles Barfield said.
The Orange County Attorneys Assn. PAC, which represents district attorneys and public defenders, has also spent $52,000 on mailers to support Sanchez. The association did not respond to a request for comment.
“I am proud to have the support of organizations like the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents working, everyday people in Orange County,” Sanchez wrote in a statement.
North Orange County voters narrowly elected Doug Chaffee to the Board of Supervisors in November, making him the first Democrat on the panel in 12 years. The prospect of a second Democratic supervisor is further evidence that the once-red county is turning purple, Smoller said.
In 1990, Orange County Republicans had a 22 point registration advantage over the Democrats, but that advantage is now 0.5%, Smoller said.
But Wagner’s base appears to be digging in to fight for every vote. According to his election committee’s filings, donors have given at least $36,750 to his war chest in the last week.
Murray has also picked up contributions from the influential Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Business Council’s Biz Pac, the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, and the California Real Estate PAC. She’s also taken donations from several local construction trade unions. According to public records, Murray raised about $20,000 in February.
Murray wrote in a statement that she’s focused on the needs and issues most important to residents of the 3rd Supervisorial District.
“I am not financed or tethered to either political party or special interests,” she said. “My campaign is financed by hundreds of individual donations by residents, small businesses and county stakeholders. I am proud to have a coalition that includes business, labor, housing and the oldest neighborhood associations — it shows the breadth and diversity of my support in this race.”
Newport Beach philanthropist Howard Ahmanson Jr., who is known for supporting Christian conservative causes, has also independently spent more than $50,000 on web and print advertising to defeat Murray.
Unlike her opponents, Murray has not benefited from any independent expenditures during her campaign.
The other candidates for supervisor include attorney Katie Hoang Bayliss, former county employee Larry Bales, former Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly and small businesswoman Katherine Daigle. As of Thursday, none of them have been as financially competitive as the three frontrunners.
Special elections favor older, more conservative voters who tend to vote for Republicans, Smoller said. But with a population and budget larger than some states, Orange County’s supervisor races are hugely consequential.
“It’s a very small group so it matters,” Smoller said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see something like five people governing 3.1 million people. That makes any race of the Board of Supervisors very, very important.”