Top 25 Elections 2016: #16 - Irvine City Races

16) Irvine City Races

Sixteen candidates will be vying for Irvine mayor and two open City Council seats in the November election. Two-term Mayor Steve Choi chose to run for the State Assembly for the 68th district to replace termed out Assemblyman Don Wagner and beat rival Harry Sidhu by a scant 154-vote margin to qualify for the runoff. The race to replace Choi is headed by Irvine Planning Commissioner Mary Ann Gaido and none other than Wagner himself. The two have widely diverging views on how to guide the city forward.

In the city council race, long-time Councilwoman Beth Krom has decided not to seek re-election. The eleven candidates running for the two council seats include current Councilwoman Christine Shea and Irvine Commissioners Anthony Kuo and Melissa Fox.

Who are we watching?

Mayoral Candidates:

Donald Wagner, California Legislator

Mary Ann Gaido, Irvine Planning Commissioner

Katherine Daigle, Small Business Owner

Gang Chen, Architect/Author/Businessman

David Chey, Self-Employed/Entrepreneur

City Council Candidates:

Farrah Khan, Nonprofit Director/Businesswoman

Hyunjoung “Genii” Ahn, Businesswoman/College Counselor

Anila Ali, Teacher/Businesswoman/Journalist

Dale Cheema, Small Business Owner

Ian Daelucian, Project Manager/Entrepreneur

Matthew Ehorn, Entrepreneur/College Student

Shiva Farivar, Non-profit founder/Businesswoman

Melissa Fox, Irvine Commissioner/Businesswoman

Anthony Kuo, Irvine Commissioner/Businessman

Courtney Santos, Scholarship Program Advisor

Christina Shea, Irvine City Councilwoman

The Numbers

Total Voters: 106,987 (35% Dem, 31% Rep, 33% Indep)

Racial Make Up: 45% Asian, 8% Latino

Why are we watching?

City Council Race

Though Irvine council elections are technically nonpartisan, party affiliation is abundantly apparent. Democrats had a majority on the council for 12 years until Republicans ceased control in 2012. The recent Republican resurgence in Irvine was largely due to the seemingly endless controversy involving the development of the Orange County Great Park on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Base. Promises of a park to rival New York’s Central Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park have never materialized. A 2014 Republican-led audit of the more than $250 million spent by the city to develop 88 acres of the 1,300 acre park found significant waste and abuse, including no-bid contracts and dozens of change orders that were approved with little to no accountability. A subsequent state review of the audit concluded that it was “plagued by poor governance, a lack of auditing standards, and a compromised bidding process” (Voice of OC) but the political fallout of the audit had already occurred. Larry Agran, a 35-year member of the city council and Irvine’s veritable Democratic Party boss, was ousted from his council seat. Demographic trends in the area show Democrats with a 4-point lead in party affiliation and Dem turnout during the June primary was significantly higher than with Republican voters. One would assume that margin holds during the November general, which bodes well for Democratic candidates in the city races.

Currently, Beth Krom is the lone Democrat on the five-member City Council, and she has announced she will not seek re-election in November. Mrs. Krom has served on the council since 2000, including two stints as Mayor. Her time is notable for her attempts to limit over-development and particularly for her successful effort to defeat the building of an airport at El Toro. Mrs. Krom has stated that her decision was based on the increased divisiveness of the council and in her desire to focus more on personal matters. As we mentioned in our earlier report on Isla Vista, Mrs. Krom lost her son in 2009 after a tragic fall from a seaside cliff. “Losing my son set me on a journey and forced me to see the world I haven’t seen before,” Krom told the OC Register. “When you lose a child, you become much more aware of decisions that are worth your time and things that are a drain on your spirit.” We wish her well.

In the void created by Krom’s decision, eleven candidates have declared for the two council seats up for election. Among the group is current councilwoman Christina Shea, a Republican. Shea, who was one of the main advocates of the Great Park audit, has recently been at the center of controversy surrounding questionable consulting work for KIA Motors America and her communication with city staff on behalf of the company. Councilmember Jeffrey Lolloway accused Shea of unethical-even corrupt-conduct by pointing to a series of texts and emails sent by Shea to the city planning department that asked for permits and construction plans for KIA to be fast-tracked. (Voice of OC). Despite an open investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission, it appears at the moment that no laws have been violated and Shea has pointed to the fact the city attorney has also cleared her of any wrongdoing. Shea has had several stints on the council dating back to 1992 and served as Mayor for two terms from 1996-2000.

Joining Shea on the ballot (among many others) are current City Commissioners Melissa Fox and Anthony Kuo. Fox is a business owner, attorney and a member of the Community Services Commission. Ms. Fox narrowly lost her 2014 bid for a council seat by 275 votes and looks poised for a successful run this cycle. She has garnered the endorsements of the Democratic Party of Orange County, the Orange County Professional Firefighters, the LA/OC Building and Construction Trades Council, numerous Irvine businesses and Councilmember Beth Krom. Mr. Kuo, a Republican, has served as Chairman of the Irvine City Planning Commission since 2013 and is endorsed by Irvine’s two representatives in the State Assembly, Matthew Harper and Donald Wagner (also running for Irvine Mayor).

Mayor’s Race

If one had to sum up the differences between Democrats and Republicans in Irvine it comes down to their approach toward development and growth in the city. William Pereira’s original master plan called for industrial, residential and recreational areas, commercial centers, greenbelts, and wide streets and boulevards that would all harmoniously blend together. The plan was designed for a city of 50,000. From 1970 to 2010, Irvine’s population grew to more than 200,000 (last estimate is around 250,000). Naturally, a debate has developed about the appropriate pace of growth and how to deal with issues like traffic congestion. Developers have gazed at the 7.3 square miles of land at the Great Park and salivated at the potential to build additional apartments and retail, while many locals still hope that the vision promised to them of a park that lives up to its moniker will materialize. Some Irvinites believe that the current city council has abandoned the practical “slow-growth” philosophy of the master plan and sold out to developers (particularly developer FivePoints Communities) with little regard to increased traffic and overall quality of life.

The different visions of how to move Irvine forward will come to a head in the race for Irvine Mayor. Five candidates have declared with the most notable being Assemblyman Donald Wagner and Irvine Planning Commissioner Mary Ann Gaido. Ms. Gaido, who opponents label “part of the Larry Agran machine (Irvine City News), came within 954 votes of defeating incumbent Steven Choi in the 2014 Mayoral election and she has taken a firm position on development by advocating for strong growth control and traffic control measures. When announcing her candidacy, she declared, “If I am elected Mayor, I pledge that at the first City Council meeting, I will introduce a Comprehensive Growth and Traffic Control Ordinance. We need to take a ‘time-out’ from overdevelopment by strictly limiting the number of residential building permits issued by the City, and by requiring a vote of the people before any major new residential project with traffic-inducing effects can move forward.” (ICNAV) Opponents of Ms. Gaido point to the fact that, as part of the City Planning Commission, she approved many of the development projects that she now criticizes.

Ms. Gaido’s most formidable opponent will be current State Assemblyman Donald Wagner. Wagner is termed out of the Assembly and apparently did not like his chances in a race for State Senate against John Moorlach. Wagner, who has been endorsed by Assemblyman Matthew Harper and Congresswoman Mimi Walters, is considered to have a significant financial advantage over Gaido due to his Assembly war chest. As for his stance on pertinent issues such as the city’s development, his platform has thus far been devoid of specifics. Mr. Wagner has focused mostly on the traffic issue and promised to put in place a traffic czar and a citizen-run traffic commission.

One major source of strife between Gaido and Wagner (and Dems and Reps in general) is a proposed “land-swap” of 125 acres of land within the Great Park currently set aside for a Veterans Memorial and Cemetery. Real estate developer FivePoints Communities (a major Wagner benefactor) wants to give the city land outside the park in exchange in order to develop the more prime space within the park for housing. The proposed swap was brought to the city council by Councilwoman Christina Shea and supported publicly by Mr. Wagner. Opponents of the swap, including Ms. Gaido, believe the land is best used as a memorial and claim that due to the long state and federal approval process the swap would effectively kill any similar arrangement.

Perhaps Wagner’s most challenging task in the race is unifying his own party around his candidacy. The first place to start would be with current Mayor Steven Choi. During the primary, Mr. Wagner recorded a robocall for one of Mr. Choi’s opponents in the Assembly race, former Anaheim Councilman Harry Sindhu. In the call, Wagner warns voters not to believe the Choi campaign’s “smears and innuendos” against Sidhu. (OC Daily)


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