Commentary: Forum shows voters have a tough choice to make

Last week a group of local journalists hosted the latest edition of the Feet to the Fire forum at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center for the three candidates remaining in the state Assembly race for the 74th District seat.

More than 150 people showed up — apparently fewer than was anticipated, because about half the seats were empty. Still, the crowd was focused and enthusiastic.

Moderator Barbara Venezia, a former columnist for the Daily Pilot and current columnist for the Orange County Register, was joined by Pilot Editor John Canalis and opinion columnist Jack Wu, Newport Beach Independent Editor Roger Bloom, the Current General Manager Tom Johnson and Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr.

They interrogated the candidates: Republican Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, Republican Costa Mesa Assemblyman Allan Mansoor and Newport Beach businessman, activist and freshly minted Democrat Robert Rush.

To say the discussions were spirited doesn't really do justice to the evening. Canalis kicked things off with a simple yes or no question about one of the most controversial issues — the recent deletion of the 19th Street Bridge from the Master Plan of Arterial Highways by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Mansoor and Rush supported the deletion, but Daigle waffled, and that's when the fun began. Mansoor, for example, suggested that Daigle should remain on the Newport Beach council until she figured out which side of the bridge she was on — and that was a high point of civility.

Local media has covered the nuts and bolts of this event, as did I on my blog, A Bubbling Cauldron, so I'm not going to give you chapter and verse here. The biggest surprise for me that evening was Daigle's poor performance. This was an excellent opportunity for her to make great inroads in her campaign to replace Mansoor in Sacramento and, in my view, she failed.

She hesitated on questions that required a simple yes or no and allowed herself to be backed into a corner on many more. I was very disappointed because I wanted her to make a good showing and to give Mansoor and his Orange County GOP handlers a run for their money.

The most pleasant surprise was the performance of Rush, a relative newcomer to politics but not to community affairs. He chose to convert from a "decline to state" voter status to becoming a registered Democrat just before he filed to run for the Assembly.

When questioned about that — some folks think he was lured into the race to siphon off votes from Daigle and thereby insure that Mansoor wins the seat — he told the crowd that, while he's a fiscal conservative, he's a social moderate and he felt that, because of his pro-choice position on abortion, there was no place for him in the Republican Party.

In my view — one shared by several others in attendance that evening — Rush came out on top. His answers were crisp and to the point — he didn't hedge any bets — and he managed to stay out of the rancor for the most part. Mansoor finished second and Daigle was a distant third. The event was recorded for later viewing on municipal cable channels and, in some cases, streaming video.

The rapid-fire format gave us a pretty good idea of how well the candidates understood the issues and how effectively they could deliver their message under pressure. With only a couple months until the June 5 primary election, it's going to be very interesting to see how the candidates use this experience.

For Daigle it will be a steep uphill climb against Mansoor, who has the endorsement of the O.C. GOP and has been Chairman Scott Baugh's fair-haired boy for several years. In the days following the forum, she blamed everyone and everything else but herself for her poor showing.

For Mansoor, I don't know if his performance last week can offset a lackluster tenure in the Assembly, where he has basically accomplished nothing except warming a chair. And it will be interesting to see if Rush will use this momentum to demonstrate that he's a serious candidate and not just in the race to be a spoiler.

I'm a lifelong Republican. I cannot ever recall voting for a Democrat in any partisan political race in the half-century that I've been casting ballots. Following the forum last week, I asked myself whether our district might be better served in the Democrat-dominated Assembly by a self-described moderate Democrat, Rush, than by an ineffective, hard-line, lock-step lemming Republican with no track record of even marginal accomplishment in the Assembly, Mansoor.

It's a question I'm going to give much more consideration as we head for June. And, unless Daigle finds a way to elevate her game, I expect she won't find the support she needs to end up on the November ballot.

GEOFF WEST is a Costa Mesa resident and publisher of a local news and opinion blog, A Bubbling Cauldron.

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