Lobdell: Standing up to GOP, union bullies

For a mercifully short time, a bully harassed me in elementary school. He was a grade ahead of me, a head taller, and had the beginnings of a moustache. I dreaded recess.

One evening, I told my dad about the kid who kept pushing me around, and the old man gave me this piece of fatherly wisdom I'll always remember: "Just pop him once in the chest. Bullies are cowards at heart, and when you fight back, they will leave you alone."

Right off the bat, this didn't make a lot of sense to me. Wouldn't one little punch from my spindly arm, which at the time was roughly the diameter of a pipe cleaner, do nothing but unnecessarily anger my tormenter?

But Dad seemed so sure that the next time the bully hassled me, I reared back to throw a punch. But before it could land, my nemesis threw a devastatingly powerful counter jab to my chest, dropping me to the ground like a British heavyweight. On the gritty asphalt, I tried — with tears in my stunned eyes — to desperately suck in the air that had been knocked out of me.

The weird thing was, he never bothered me again. He may have just gotten bored with me, but I'd like to think the intimidation stopped because I had at least tried to stand up to him.

I learned two lessons that day: 1. Dad isn't always right; and 2. Bullies needed to be confronted, even if you end up on the ground with the wind knocked out of you.

In this week's elections in Newport-Mesa, three candidates courageously stood up to bullies, got popped hard in the chest during the campaign, and still went on to win.

Costa Mesa Councilman-elect Jim Righeimer took on the Mike Tyson of bullies this campaign season — the Costa Mesa public safety unions and some of their brotherhood around the county — and finished first among five candidates that included incumbent Wendy Leece.

The unions — rightly worried that Righeimer would work to put their members' compensation in line with what the city can afford — waged an all-out blitz against the businessman with a website of dug-up dirt, a blizzard of anti-Righeimer campaign signs, hard-hitting mailers and a semi-hysterical request for an investigation. Oh, and Righeimer says 800 of his 1,000 campaign signs were swiped, and I'm guessing it wasn't his fellow candidates who did it.

The irony is that most Costa Mesa voters — this columnist included — love their police officers and firefighters way more than they love Righeimer, but they also sensed the unions' disproportional response was unfair and smacked of desperation.

I don't know any local residents who relish the thought of making cuts in the compensation packages of police officers and firefighters (many of us have already experienced the pain first-hand). It's a lousy situation we are all in, unfair in many ways, but the reality is, unless meaningful adjustments are made (or the economy suddenly starts booming), Costa Mesa soon will go bankrupt.

Righeimer hung tough when many of us would have retreated. (Let me say here that Righeimer is a major player in the local GOP machine long-known for its intimidating tactics. But here's hoping that Righeimer has gained some sensitivity after being on the receiving end an all-out attack.)

The other two local bully-slayers — despite being Ronald Reagan Republicans — had to fight the heavy-handed local Republican Party to win.

In Newport Beach, longtime city activist Rush Hill handily beat GOP-backed Ed Reno for the District 3 City Council seat. Hill is a Republican and about as liberal as a pair of Brooks Brothers wing-tips, but Reno — a lobbyist with stronger ties to the local, state and national GOP — wrangled the local Republican endorsement.

For Newport residents who know Hill (and who doesn't?), the endorsement statement from Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh rang hollow and bordered on insulting: "Ed Reno's courage in refusing political money from public employee unions and his tough questioning of the city's bureaucracy about costs of the new city hall impressed the party's delegates."

Hill will be as big of a budget hawk as Reno promised to be, and to suggest otherwise is a misread of Hill's character.

In Newport Beach, the local GOP had two quality Republican candidates running in District 3, a seat that in theory is nonpartisan. I favored Hill because of his long and impressive track record of community involvement, his thoughtful manner and his even demeanor, though Reno would have made a fine councilman.

But the local Republican Party broke the GOP's 11th Commandment of Politics popularized by Reagan — "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican." This was an especially shortsighted move in a local City Council race with two viable choices (Hill is not some wing nut, such as Christine O'Donnell, though I'll admit no one asked his positions on masturbation or witchcraft during local debates).

This is just an educated guess, but I think Reno suffered voter backlash from the endorsement and would have been better off without it.

And finally, there's Leece, the Costa Mesa councilwoman who incurred the wrath of the local GOP by voting last week to approve union contracts for police officers and city employees that contained only meager concessions.

Leece — a devout Christian whose honesty has generated controversy over her political career — said the Republican Party vowed to defeat her if she voted for the contracts.

During the debate, and vote on the contracts, a well-known GOP operative sat in the front of the Costa Mesa Council Chambers and taped Leece's actions, a move designed to intimidate her. After her yes vote, the GOP's Ethics Committee immediately looked into her behavior (I couldn't confirm the rumor that these committee members cut their teeth on the Politburo.)

But on Tuesday, Leece still finished second, capturing the last seat on the council, though she will still face whatever official or unofficial sanctions the Republican Party can dream up.

I think Leece made a major mistake in voting for the union contracts, but I also believe that local GOP leaders lashed out at Leece's vote with the subtlety of Charlie Sheen in a hotel room with a hooker and a bag of cocaine.

Most voters are bone weary of this hackneyed way of doing politics. They don't want unions to self-servingly demonize candidates offering to serve their local communities. They don't need GOP insiders to condescendingly tell them which council candidate is the best Republican. And they feel instinctively protective of a beloved member of their community when the GOP elite hammers her because she voted from her nonpartisan seat against the wishes of her party.

This election, it may have been politics as usual. But the old playbook drawn up by political hacks of yesteryear didn't work this time because of an increasingly skeptical — and fed up — voter base.

We can thank Righeimer, Hill and Leece for making the playbook obsolete by putting the bullies in their place. My dad would have been proud.

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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