If any of the candidates at last night's Feet To The Fire Forum expected to come away with only moderately warm toes they were in for a rude awakening. The fire was turned up to "broil" most of the night.
Those of you who chose to stay home last night and watch television, or go to the Claim Jumper so you could Tip A Cop, missed the best game in town last night as the irrepressible Barbara Venezia and her merry band of cohorts from local media outlets mercilessly grilled the three remaining candidates for the 74th Assembly District before approximately 150 of your friends and neighbors, including some local political royalty - the very honorable Marian Bergeson.
Venezia, a columnist for the Orange County Register, was joined by former Daily Pilot publisher Tom Johnson, who recently took over operations of the Register's The Current weekly supplement; John Canalis, editor, and Jack Wu, new "conservative" columnist represented the Daily Pilot; Roger Bloom, editor of the Newport Beach Independent and Norberto Santana, Jr,. Editor-in-Chief of The Voice of OC.
They teamed up to interrogate candidates Leslie Daigle, Newport Beach Councilwoman; Allan Mansoor, presently Assemblyman from a district in which he no longer lives due to redistricting and Bob Rush, a Newport Beach resident and freshly-minted Democrat.
Former Newport Beach mayor Evelyn Hart got things rolling as she led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, then we all kind of sat back, expecting a nice, cordial little chat about issues. Wrong! It only took about 15 seconds before the candidates lit into each other. What followed was terrific drama and a very enlightening evening.
Canalis led things off with one of the real hot-button issues when he asked the candidates whether they supported a bridge over the Santa Ana River at 19th Street in Costa Mesa. Rush and Mansoor promptly said "NO", but Daigle waffled and tried to give the "long" answer. What immediately followed might be best described as a dog fight, as the candidates nipped at each other and the panelists kept tossing red meat into the fight.Because Daigle paused with her answer Mansoor suggested she just stay on the city council until she can make up her mind about the bridge. Daigle asked Mansoor why, as a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority, didn't he get the bridge removed from the Master Plan of Arterial Highways during his tenure. Rush suggested that the bridge was dead so they should move on. It sounds pretty civilized, doesn't it? Well, it wasn't, but it was a lot of fun to watch, though.
Let me pause here for a second. From the get-go it was clear that, for the most part, it was going to be the boys against the girl. Mansoor and Daigle have been taking shots at each other for a couple months and Rush has long-standing bad feelings about Daigle. And, interrogator Wu and Daigle have recently gone round and round about a recent commentary Wu wrote. As I said, it was fun to watch.
I'm not going to try to quote chapter and verse of the meeting. The 90 minutes just flew by - it was kind of like watching a boxing match without any breaks in the rounds. I'll try to give you a few more highlights and remind you that the event was recorded for later viewing by a combined team from Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Irvine. Dane Bora and Brad Long of CMTV will handle the post-production, blending the video from the multiple cameras in the room last night and distribute the finished product for viewing on each city's television channels. That will probably be available for viewing late next week and will also be available on streaming video. I'll let you know when I know the play schedules.
Santana braced Mansoor with a question about Costa Mesa finances, and wondered how he felt about the constant criticism being leveled by members of the current council against those that Mansoor was on, accusing them of being the cause of Costa Mesa's current financial dilemma. Mansoor denied responsibility, saying he voted against the issues that caused it, and Daigle questioned his leadership.
When questioned about his recent conversion from "decline-to-state" to becoming a registered Democrat just before he filed to run for office, Rush explained that his views were moderate - not in line with the current leadership of the OC GOP, and that, because he is pro-choice, he felt there was no place for him in the Republican Party. He felt he could be much more effective in Sacramento as a Democrat.
Both Daigle and Mansoor were questioned about how they would make a difference in Sacramento as a member of the Republican contingent - a toothless tiger in recent years as the balance of power swung left. Neither had good answers to the question. Mansoor has a track record of basically no accomplishment during his nearly two years as an Assemblyman.
One interesting moment came when the discussion turned to Daigle's very unfortunate encounter with a security guard at the Corona del Mar High School track a few years ago. She was accused of threatening to have him deported and, because he was a Latino, is reported to have said, "I bet you live in Costa Mesa". It was a nasty - and clearly unforgettable - event that will dog her throughout her political career. She didn't deny the incident and explained that sometimes things happen you would have preferred not happen. Then, though, she shifted the "anti-immigrant" focus to Mansoor, pointing out his incident with Benito Acosta when Mansoor had him removed from council chambers - a move that resulted in a lawsuit against the city.
Mansoor has heard this all before and, in years past, would attempt to explain that he was the son of immigrants. This time, however, he choked-up and appeared to be near tears as he told the story. He denied he was anti-immigrant, pointing out that his girlfriend is an immigrant and a person on his campaign staff is, as well. Both young women have Vietnamese ancestry. I don't doubt he felt that emotion, but that never has, and didn't last night, explain his animosity against the Latino population in Costa Mesa. It was "illegal aliens" that got him elected twice.
At one point Johnson, attempting to get the candidates to explain how they expected to accomplish anything in Sacramento, used Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger as examples of guys who "get things done" - he referred to them as "bulls in a china shop" - a truly accurate description. Rush's answer was "Send a Democrat to Sacramento". Mansoor said something about "taking special interests out of Sacramento" - like that has a snowball's chance in Hades of ever happening. Daigle said it will take someone willing to work on both sides of the aisle. That's a nice theory, but the Republicans just don't have the numbers to make that work.
The discussion of Newport Beach's proliferation of rehab facilities generated some heated discussion. Rush became politically active because his neighborhood in West Newport became overrun by rehab facilities. He blamed Daigle's vote on the issue for opening the floodgates and mentioned his role in getting Newport's stricter regulations that have now squeezed many rehab venues out of town - and straight into Costa Mesa. He mentioned that a rehab facility can generate $250,000 per month - it's like printing money. Mansoor said he has legislation in the works, but didn't go into specifics. None of the three bills he authored during his term have passed.
Rush was asked at one point just why he got into the race, because some figured he was there to siphon off votes that might be cast for Daigle, who is a much more moderate Republican candidate than Mansoor. He claimed that he's in the race to win, not to be a distraction. We'll see. We do know he's committed $100,000 of his own money to the campaign and, he tells us, he's raised another $30,000 in the past couple weeks.
And on and on and on we went. Finally, Venezia wrapped things up with some very specific one-word-answer questions. She polled each candidate on them and demanded that they just give one-word answers. On Medical Marijuana, both Mansoor and Rush supported it and Daigle did not. Daigle and Rush are pro-choice and Mansoor is pro-life. Mansoor and Daigle oppose gay marriage and Rush supports it.
Last night's forum was much better than previous versions. The questioning was relentless, the exchanges between the candidates back and forth and with the interrogators gave you a pretty good picture of the styles of the individuals and the strengths - and lack thereof - each brings to the race. Venezia and her team are to be commended for putting on a great show. Personally, it was great to see Tom Johnson back in the mix again. His fingerprints are already all over the "new" Current and he was clearly ready for this experience. You can read Joe Serna's summary of the evening in the Daily Pilot, HERE.
I didn't do any official polling of the audience members. There were many partisans in the room, there to support their favorite candidate. Shown here are GOP Central Committee members Jeff Mathews and Allan Bartlett. It was my gut feeling that Daigle had the fewest supporters in attendance last night. I must say, though, that the audience seemed to be quite attentive and energized. Grumblings could be heard throughout the evening as candidates attempted to present their views.
Several acquaintances and I discussed our impressions immediately after the forum. Most of us agreed that Bob Rush looked and sounded the best. He was prompt and unambiguous with most of his answers, tended to stay out of the spats and generally looked much more polished. Mansoor continues to be, well, Mansoor. He's not a polished speaker, just as he is not a consensus builder. He's not quick on his feet and some of his answers were clearly scripted. Even so, most thought he was second last night. Daigle looked the least comfortable and had the hardest time presenting crisp answers to the questions - most thought she finished last. Those were my impressions, too.
As I looked around the half-filled room last night I saw many Republican operatives. Righeimer and Mensinger were in the room, for example. The only prominent Democrat I recognized - keeping in mind that I don't hang with those guys - was Orange County Employee's Association General Manager Nick Berardino, shown here on the left with fellow Fair Board member (and Barbara Venezia's husband), Stan Tkaczyk.
According to Venezia at the end, the only other candidate forum before the June 5th primary election will be held in Newport Beach on May 9th.