Pass baton to Zimmerman

Given these anti-incumbent times, the perfect political campaign sign has popped up on nearly every busy intersection in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa: "30 Years Is Enough — Vote Zimmerman."

Loretta Zimmerman, 58, a Balboa Island resident, is hoping the catchy slogan will help her grab the seat on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Education that Judy Franco has occupied for three decades.

It won't be easy for the challenger. Franco's name I.D. among voters geeky enough to follow the school board race is high, and she's well connected within the local Republican Party. The incumbent's endorsement list is stellar, and Zimmerman's campaign spending will be in the modest neighborhood of $20,000 — meaning she'll have to rely on a single mailer, tons of signs and old-fashioned shoe leather to reach voters.

And there's one more thing: Franco — who will be 74 next month — isn't a villainous politician who is easy to attack. She's a likable board member who believes that the school district — during this point in the Great Recession — needs the expertise she's gained over the last 30 years to guide it through these economic times.

No one questions her commitment. She strikes me as the kind of board member who, for relaxation, reads district staff reports before she goes to bed. I recently had lunch with Franco, and she was sharp, enthusiastic and knowledgeable as ever.

But for voters, there's queasiness about having a school board member serve for a record 30 years — and then asking for four more. Franco is smart enough to sense this. I could find no mention of her tenure's length in her campaign materials or on her bio page on the school district website.

And for the past few elections, she's promised the electorate that she wouldn't run again. But each time, as her term was running out, she changed her mind.

Her rationale? The school district needed her experience.

A boss of mine once told me after losing a key editor, "Lobdell, the graveyards are filled with irreplaceable men. No one is that special. We'll be fine."

And so will Newport-Mesa with Zimmerman as a new board member. Her five children have graduated from Newport-Mesa schools, and she's been a leader on a slew of school councils, boards, clubs and committees on the elementary and high school level.

Before turning to volunteer work in the school district, Zimmerman worked as an assist ant city manager for San Juan Capistrano so she understands bureaucracy, a quality that will serve her well in Newport-Mesa.

So Zimmerman is neither a wingnut nor a neophyte (two types of people often drawn to school board races). Her main weakness is also her key strength: She doesn't have Franco's mountain of experience. Sometimes in solving complex problems, a fresh eye is just the thing. And the school board has plenty of veteran members to keep alive the historical perspective.

Zimmerman — who ran against Franco in 2006 and received 32% of the vote in a four-person race (Franco won with 41%) — has built a common sense campaign platform in 2010 that, in truth, doesn't differ much from her opponent's.

It boils down to: Our children deserve a first-class education, budget cuts should be made as far from the classroom as possible, and the community should be more involved in school board decisions.

Here's one more thing to like about Zimmerman. When complimented on the effectiveness of the "30 Years Is Enough" signs, she's quick to point out that it wasn't her idea.

Originally, she had put up more traditional campaign signs, but a friend called and pointed out that the challenger needed something punchier if she stood a chance at unseating a longtime incumbent.

Something like "30 Years Is Enough."

Or as Zimmerman put it: "Judy's run a great race for 30 years. It's time to hand off the baton, and I hope the community feels the same way."

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times religion beat writer and a Costa Mesa resident. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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