Irvine’s Plans Awry: Why Would Agran & Company Want to Re-Elect Steven Choi?

Of all of the things leaving me flummoxed this morning — and there are more than a few — the most flummoxing is what the hell is happening in the Irvine Mayoral race.  So far as I can tell, Irvine Democrats — with a reasonable chance of knocking off Steven Choi — are now scrambling to, in effect, reelect him.

Daigle and Gaido with specter of Choi

In trying to remove the specter of Steven Choi from Irvine’s Mayoral seat, Democrats have a choice between half a loaf (supporting reformist Republican Katherine Daigle, left, in a one-on-one race) and none (supporting surprise late-coming Democratic stalwart Mary Ann Gaido in a hopeless three-person race.) Do they prefer practicality — or another heaping helping of Choi?

If you look down at the bottom of Irvine’s candidate filing page, you’ll see that incumbent Republican Choi entered the race on July 15 and insurgent Republican Katherine Daigle entered the race on July 18.  And then you’ll see that Mary Ann Gaido, whom I believe to be a Democrat, pulled papers yesterday.  This puts her, if she runs, on a de facto ticket with incumbent City Council member Larry Agran and former Assembly candidate Melissa Fox against a more integrated ticket of Choi for Mayor and incumbent Jeff Lalloway and challenger Lynn Schott for Council.

Gaido’s political involvement in Irvine predates Irvine itself.  According to a city profile, she was a City Council member from 1976-1984.  She has been involved in the Planning Commission for a long time, including acting as its Chair, and continues to serve on it today as Beth Krom’s appointee.  An admiring essay on Gaido by Melissa Fox (which itself speaks well for its author) emphasizes her environmental bona fides and dedication to a well-planned city.

All of that is fine.  And yet her entry — not even the subject of rumors until now — into the Mayor’s race on the third to last day pretty clearly signifies that she was a last-ditch choice to carry the Democratic banner (in what is, remember, a non-partisan race.)

If Choi were running unopposed, Gaido’s stepping forward would be absolutely admirable.  I have put a great deal of effort into candidate recruitment myself over the past couple of cycles– and I don’t exactly shy away from tilting at electoral windmills.  But what I do shy away from is committing electoral suicide by candidate recruitment — and that is exactly what this is.  Daigle is already running against Choi — as she did in 2012 — and has continued to build her electoral efforts over the past two years.  Is the point of a Gaido candidacy to beat Daigle for second place?  I had thought that the point was to have some reasonable candidate beat Choi.

Daigle is simply not going to drop out of the race; until yesterday, she had every reason to believe that she would be the candidate behind whom Choi opponents would rally in unison — unless Beth Krom got into the race, which seemed increasingly unlikely.  There’s no basis to think that Daigle would suddenly exist the race, which she didn’t do in 2012 against the formidable candidate Agran, in favor of a belated sacrificial lamb candidate like Gaido.  So, dividing up the anti-Choi vote between Gaido and Daigle guarantees a Choi victory.  I mean guarantees it.  And we’re talking about a blowout that could take down Fox’s candidacy — and perhaps Agran’s as well.

I know the old song and dance — we need a Democrat running!  And probably also — we can’t support Daigle, she’s against abortion!  (UPDATE: She’s NOT, by the way — nor is she anti-stem cell research, nor anti-science generally.)  Well, the first isn’t true and the second, under these conditions, wouldn’t matter even if true.  (She’ll be no worse on social issues from a Democratic perspective than are Choi or Schott — and maybe even Lalloway.)

What Democrats need is to defeat Choi with someone tolerable.  That’s it.  The question is whether Daigle is tolerable — and I think that she obviously is.  The most important thing about her is that she’s not Choi; the second most important is that she’s better than Choi; and the third most important thing is that she can peel off Republican votes, appeal to independents, and — if the Democratic Party is somehow smart enough to mime to voters that they should vote for her over Choi — is able to win a one-to-one race with Choi.

Gaido would not match up well with Choi one-to-one this year.  Democrats still seem to be in denial about just how much damage, much of it I believe to be unfair, has been done to Agran and Krom by these nasty and selective deposition leaks, which at worst can infect even candidates like Fox and Gaido who had nothing to do with any of it.  Fair or not, that’s the political lay of the land.  In a three-way race — one in which Daigle already has staked out positions on the main issues of the year while Gaido has, so far as I know, been invisible — Gaido has no chance at all.  Steve Choi could just send all of his campaign money to Young Kim, if he wanted to, and still prevail in this race.  (Do I have your attention NOW, Irvine Democrats?)

The main issues on voters’ minds right now (or at least the ones that will be imprinted on them in the months to come) in the Mayor’s race, aside from Choi’s laughable claims to have resuscitated Irvine’s economy, are:

  1. the evisceration of the Great Plan for the Great Park in the service of more palatial housing for Chinese Communist investors and high-end recreational opportunities for the un-needy;
  2. Choi’s repeated and frantic attempts to throttle the drive for a Veterans Cemetery in the Great Park; and
  3. the “water torture” disclosures of alleged mismanagement and worse by Agran and Krom, combined with counter-allegations that the Council Majority’s investigation is essentially a politicized witch hunt.

Fantasies about how this election can be made a referendum on Irvine’s exalted planningness aside, that’s what’s on the menu.  So how to Daigle and Gaido measure up?

Given her experience, Gaido is better equipped than Daigle to preach the gospel of Agran’s Master Plan — but that is exactly what does not need to be done in this election.  Rightly or wrongly, the Master Plan is dead, it has joined the Choir Invisible, and anyone who doesn’t get that by now does not deserve a seat at the strategy table.

In precipitously scuttling the entire plan and then suckling on the teat of Five Point, the Council Majority made an error that they ought to be made to pay — but the rallying cry should not be “Restore the Master Plan!” (because that’s impossible, the land being sold off and all) but rather “they created a false sense of urgency that benefited Five Point but didn’t get the people of Irvine nearly good enough of a deal.”  That’s true — and it doesn’t require converting people back to the True Faith of the Master Plan.  It just requires showing them some numbers — and pointing out that the Council’s “looking before it leaped” also came close to killing off the Veterans Cemetery as well, because the Council was in such a rush to kill the Master Plan that (giving them the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t flat out bought) they didn’t much care what supplanted it.

Who’s better equipped to make that case?  Pretty clearly Daigle can do so better than Beth Krom’s appointed Planning Commissioner, because Daigle doesn’t have to defend the Master Plan and definitely doesn’t have to defend Ford and Mollrich.  Fighting Daigle is the battle for which the Choi forces have not prepared.

What about taking on Choi for almost scuttling the Veterans Cemetery?  Daigle has been up and involved in that fight for months.  Gaido, so far as I know, hasn’t been involved at all.  (If I’m wrong on that point, Irvine Dems, please let me know — ideally with citations to videos where she’s speaking to Council about it.)  Daigle’s candidacy for Mayor reinforces Melissa Fox’s on that point and even strengthens Agran’s, although Lalloway (far more so than Choi) did neutralize what could have been a hellacious campaign against him on the issue.  Gaido’s campaign on the issue wouldn’t reinforce anything.  It would appeal to the already converted.

And then, finally, there’s the Forde and Mollrich issue: mismanagement and misfeasance regarding the Great Park.  I’m on record, and continue to believe, that so far as Agran is concerned this is tragedy rather than perfidy.  Orange County politics is a dirty sort of place.  He had to bring Forde and Mollrich into the project to ensure that the airport plan wouldn’t come back — and so he, successfully so far as I can tell, figured out how to work with them without breaking the law.  That Forde and Mollrich and those around them then strutted around City Hall swinging their genitalia like baseball bats and claiming to speak and issue threats in Agran’s name — well, that’s tragic and awful, especially given what deponents say that they said, but that does not mean that Agran wanted it, solicited it, knew about it, or condoned it.  He’s the visionary, the idea guy, and he was not focusing on details, less so the greater enrichment of Forde and Mollrich.

So that’s what I believe.  Now, do I believe that I can sell that to voters, in a circumstance where the Council majority has perfectly timed its drip-drip-drip of deposition releases so as to blow a gigantic hole in Agran’s and Krom’s favorability?  No, I do not — mostly because I am not an idiot.

I believe that Agran (and more so Krom) are getting a raw deal from a politically motivated investigation.  But, you know what?  That sort of thing often works — and it’s going to work here in the short term.  I think that they will both look a lot better in two years than they do now — but the election is taking place now.

Given all that, if we could pick just one, do we want Choi’s opponent to be someone who is Beth Krom’s appointee to Irvine’s top Commission, and might be expected to make a priority of protecting Krom’s and Agran’s backsides — because, you know, that’s pretty much what Choi’s gleeful team is going to say — or do we want someone who is not even from the same party, but who can criticize Choi for his wrongdoing while not being burdened with defending Agran?

Sure, Daigle has a disadvantage: she’s not part of Agran’s “machine” (to use Scott Moxley’s term — hi, Scott) and so she can’t be counted on to suppress an investigation.  Wait — did I call that a disadvantage?  It’s actually an advantage — because it’s exactly what voters should want.  As the likely swing vote on the City Council (if Lalloway wins and Schott doesn’t), all Daigle has to be is fair.  And that is the question that Democrats should ask: can Katherine Daigle be fair in dealing with all of the controversy over the Great Park.  I think that she can.  More importantly, I think that voters will think that she can — and that they will have serious doubts about Mary Ann Gaido’s ability to be fair, even if (as I hope) she absolutely could be.

There’s only one reason that Democrats might rationally consider the certain defeat that comes with Gaido making this a three-way race to agreeing to support Daigle in a marriage of convenience: and that is to prevent Daigle from rising to higher office.  Frankly, I don’t think that she has ambitions to rise beyond Irvine government — but let’s say that she does.  In the last big Assembly race, the one in which Melissa Fox participated, the Republican primary (we once had such thing) was between Steven Choi, Jerry Amante, and Don Wagner.  I submit to you that Daigle is far better than any one of those three, far better than Mimi Walters, better (if we’re talking Supervisor material) than Bill Campbell or Todd Spitzer — because she’s honest and fair.  (I think that Spitzer’s basically honest too, but he has other drawbacks.)  She can be reasoned with — and in OC, that’s a very nice attribute for a Republican to have.

So what will it be, Democrats?  Ensure Choi a victory because you don’t want to vote for a social conservative even for local office?  Or perhaps beat Choi with someone honest and fair?

When we see whether Mary Ann Gaido has qualified for the ballot by Friday, we’ll know what choice they made.  I wish that my hopes were higher than they are.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)