Costa Mesa has gone softer than a kitten wearing cashmere.
Last weekend, Councilman Eric Bever reported at a press conference that he felt intimated after a "chilling" encounter with Costa Mesa police officers.
From the Pilot's headline — "Bever alleges police intimidation" — I imagined the councilman being slammed into a wall of a dark alley by rogue cops who wedge a billy club under his neck and warn in menacing tones, "Listen, pal. Stop supporting that Righeimer for council or you'll find yourself swimming with the fishes. Capeche?"
My scenario was a little off.
Bever's spine-tingling run-in with the police happened as he and Chris Eric were putting up campaign signs near West 17th Street and Superior Avenue for council candidate Jim Righeimer, who has vowed to trim police pay and pensions if elected.
The intimidation began, according to Bever and Eric, when a squad car drove by three times, the officers apparently displeased with the posting of signs.
Bever said he did have permission. And then, the pair said, the police officers did the unthinkable. They drove past the sign hangers two more times, stared at them and took photos!
"They gave me a hard look," Eric said. "The stink eye."
The dreaded stink eye? (By the way, if the pair did get the stink eye, it might be the first time in modern history that police officers weren't wearing sunglasses during the day.) Did they mad dog him, too? A lesser politician would have crumpled under the brutal police tactics. How did Bever not wet his pants?
The visual beatdown was so savage that Bever, Eric and Righeimer staged a press conference two days later to decry the alleged police intimidation. Bever said he also believed the police had him under surveillance. What's next? Reports of black helicopters hovering over his backyard?
The allegations have triggered an independent investigation (I wish I were joking) into possible police misconduct. I can save the cash-strapped city some time and money right now. The police officers in question will say they were on routine patrol and weren't staring. Bever and Eric will say the cops were staring. There will be no findings of wrongdoing.
This election season, the pro-Righeimer forces aren't alone in crying … wolf. Some members of the Costa Mesa Police Department got their panties in a wad when Righeimer got out of his car last month to tell some officers it was absurd to set up a DUI checkpoint on Harbor Boulevard during evening rush hour.
The story on the encounter soon leaked out, and the local police union demanded a city investigation into Righeimer's behavior, saying he "used his appointed position and thug-like tactics to impose his will."
Thug-like tactics? In the conversation at the checkpoint, which was caught on audio tape, Righeimer didn't raise his voice and ended up saying to an officer, "Not your fault, you're doing your job. I understand."
Let's not insult gangsters by calling what Righeimer did "thug-like."
Yes, we are at the height of the Silly Season, but I expect more from those involved in Costa Mesa politics. The Costa Mesa Police Assn. has put up a hard-hitting website dedicated to defeating Righeimer (http://www.righeimer.com), but most of the election strategies — if you can call them that — between Team Righeimer and the police union seem dreamed up by my two younger sons.
Union officials: We're telling the City Council on you, Jimmy! You are so mean!
Team Righeimer: I know you are, but what am I?
Union officials: Stop it!
Team Righeimer: Hey, quit staring! Take a picture! It lasts longer! You guys are going to be in big trouble.
Union officials: Nuh-ah.
I loved the Pilot's recent letter to the editor from former Costa Mesa Police Chief Dave Snowden, who asked, "At what point did quality candidates decide that the city of Costa Mesa wasn't worth the effort and stopped running for local office?"
He goes on to list many former council members (along with Councilwomen Katrina Foley and Wendy Leece) who came from many different places on the political spectrum but made "decisions based on what is best for the community and not on outside interests funneling money into their businesses or campaign."
These are sobering words from the usually tactful Snowden, especially because his thoughts echo what many longtime residents have come to believe.
You know what else was admirable about those past citizen-politicians? They knew how to run a local campaign: hard-hitting, informative and, on occasion, a tad dirty. But never — as in the case of this year's council election — whiny.
Back in the day, political operatives would never manufacturer a press conference merely to complain about getting the stink eye from a police officer. No, back then, people went big.
In the early 1990s, one well-known Costa Mesa character — wanting people to vote against Mary Hornbuckle (perhaps the nicest councilwoman ever) — attempted to rile up the conservative base on Election Day by dressing in drag and holding a sign for eight hours on Newport Boulevard that read, "Lesbians for Hornbuckle."
When the police finally decided to have a chat with the drag queen, he took off running, jumped over — dress and all — the spiked fence of St. Mary's Armenian Church on 22nd Street and disappeared into Costa Mesa folklore.
It's unclear if the cops in pursuit had first given him the stink eye.
WILLIAM LOBDELL is a former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times religion beat writer and a Costa Mesa resident. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.