Newport council election has unaccustomed feistiness

Even as councils in neighboring cities have come to accept sharply split votes along political lines as the norm, elected officials in Newport Beach have long said they’ve avoided letting ideological differences get in the way of prudent decision-making.

But now, a slate of four City Council candidates has vowed to shake up the seven-member panel, making for one of the most contentious Newport Beach council elections in recent memory and posing a challenge to the polite, corporate-boardroom-style conservatism that has typified Newport politics for years.

The four candidates have a clear aim: clamp down on what they say is the current council’s wasteful spending.

While the slate’s opponents have said its goals are ideologically driven rather than solution-oriented, its members say they’re reform-minded.

The slate, known as Team Newport, includes Diane Dixon (District 1), Marshall “Duffy” Duffield (District 3), Kevin Muldoon (District 4) and Scott Peotter (District 6).

Among their most vocal opponents is Mayor Rush Hill of District 3, the only incumbent up for reelection Nov. 4.

Tim Brown and Roy Englebrecht are facing off against Muldoon for the seat that will be vacated by termed-out Councilwoman Leslie Daigle.

Michael Toerge is squaring off against Peotter for the seat of termed-out Councilwoman Nancy Gardner.

Dixon is running unopposed for the seat of termed-out Councilman Mike Henn.

Team Newport first coalesced around local activist Bob McCaffrey, who declared his intention to help field a slate of council candidates in March after losing a lengthy fight to keep the city from increasing residential pier fees, which are considered rent for the use of public tidelands.

During that fight, McCaffrey, who headed a group known as Stop the Dock Tax, lambasted the city for spending about $140 million on its new Civic Center, derisively referring to it as the “Taj Mahal.” The nickname has become a rallying cry for members of McCaffrey’s Team Newport.

The Civic Center project is emblematic of the current council’s egregious waste of taxpayer money, Team Newport candidates contend. They have been less specific about how they plan to cut spending, though they have pledged to closely examine various city departments.

McCaffrey didn’t respond to calls seeking comment Tuesday.

To be sure, Newport council members and candidates are almost always Republicans. But some observers have said Team Newport’s existence falls in line with broader political trends.

“The nation is becoming more stratified,” said Fred Smoller, an associate political science professor at Chapman University who closely follows Orange County politics. Local races, he said, “are becoming much more ideological.”

And that, Hill says, is exactly what Newport doesn’t want.

“It’s easiest described as the difference between the way Newport Beach is operated over the last eight to 10 years versus the way Costa Mesa or Irvine have operated,” he said. “We’ve had a council come together that doesn’t vote in packs. One time, two will vote together. Then another time a different two will vote together, but they respect one another. Then it’s off to the next topic.”

Hill said an embrace of differing viewpoints and areas of expertise has been key in helping the council maintain the high level of city service that Newport residents have come to expect.

Members of Team Newport have resisted that characterization.

“It’s interesting how people refer to partisan politics when what they mean is politics they don’t believe in,” Peotter said.

Peotter — a former Irvine resident who led a successful 1989 campaign to remove protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation from an Irvine human-rights ordinance — said sticking to his beliefs doesn’t make him an extremist. He said it makes him principled.

“It’s silly to assume that you wouldn’t work with people to accomplish your ideology,” he said. “I would flip that back on [Hill] and say that his idea of extremism is showing his lack of ideology or a foundation.”

Dave Ellis, a longtime Orange County conservative political consultant and former Orange County Fair Board member who is representing members of Team Newport, chalked up Hill’s claims to sour grapes. The Republican Party of Orange County has endorsed the candidates on the slate but not their opponents.

“When your own party rejects you, it causes you to whine a little bit,” Ellis said.

Steve Rosansky, president of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce and a former councilman of nine years, said the tone of the election is unlike anything he has seen in his approximately 15 years of involvement in Newport Beach politics.

The chamber has not endorsed any candidates for council this year.

“In my experience, the slate thing is unusual,” Rosansky said. “It definitely feels different than it has in a long time.”