Wagner’s ‘Sensible Moderate View’ is to Let Powerful Interests Screw the Public. Moorlach Disagrees.

Wagner bathing in money & Moorlach points - South Park

If anyone momentarily forgets what a treasure we have in Voice of OC, Norberto Santana’s article today on the SD-37 special election should remind them with overwhelming force.  It is the best mainstream article that we’ve seen on this race — mandatory reading for those who will go to the polls tomorrow.  It’s journalism the way you (hopefully) remember it.

Invoking the purpose of criticism, I will quote from it more extensively than I usually would, simply because Norberto has identified the differences between the candidates (and the rents in both the Republican and Democratic parties) better than any other media figure has done.  He’s also gotten the best quotes.  I disagree with some minor points in a few places — where I think that he’s focused on the label without looking at the ingredients — as I’ll point out below.  But that’s the sort of close engagement that a really well-written and well-researched article allows.

Norberto’s writing is in blockquotes:

[T]he race between state Assemblyman Don Wagner and former County Supervisor John Moorlach features the latest in a series of intensifying election clashes between moderate, pro big-business factions and more fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning wings of the OC GOP.

“Pro-big-business versus fiscally conservative,” yes.  But “moderate vs. libertarian-leaning,” I think, misses the point.  I don’t mind “libertarian” being applied to Moorlach’s camp, but that’s a overweening categorial term to apply to essentially one thing: Moorlach opposes government economic intervention that is driven by its benefits to big contributors and agents.  I don’t even know that Moorlach is opposed to government economic intervention that isn’t driven by the benefits that it can provides to big contributors and agents; do people actually propose such things here in Orange County?  I suspect that where the public is well-served and big donors and middlemen are not snarfing up the lion’s share of the benefits, his criticisms, if they existed at all, would be relatively muted.

Moorlach’s position here is the polar opposite of Wagner’s: it is THE primary issue dividing them.  Wagner routinely favors government economic intervention that is driven by its benefits to big contributors and agents.  That’s why he has all those humongous contributions and independent expenditures on his side.  One can apply many terms to this, some of which (“practical,” “pragmatic”) are value neutral and some of which (“self-serving,” “complicit in ripoffs”) are not.  But I see no basis whatsoever to call them “moderate.”  In fact, time and again, these projects are anything but moderate.  But to get ahead in politics, one must usually — and Moorlach is an exception here — “go along to get along.”  That’s what Wagner does.  Wagner is conventional while Moorlach is unconventional.  And Wagner seems to truly believe that there’s nothing wrong with clubby conventionality turning into complicity.  In fact, he’s outraged by Moorlach’s outrage over it!

[Wagner] criticizes the former CPA – credited with pointing out the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy – for running “a scurrilous, negative campaign based on the principle that ‘everybody is wrong except me, John Moorlach.’ ”

“That’s how he has conducted his public career,” Wagner said. “You either agree with John or you are stupid, and bad and a sellout.”

That may be the most heartfelt-seeming quote I’ve ever heard from Wagner.  HOW DARE Moorlach criticize him for going along with someone else’s scheme to get rich(er) via “public-private partnerships”?  Everyone in Wagner’s circle of close colleagues does it, after all!  It’s like blaming a individual for looking the other way when a sexual assault is taking place at a frat party!  (One can imagine Wagner as a fratboy, in college years ago, facing criticism after word of “men going too far” leaked out:  “We’re all adults here (except for maybe that girl passed out in the corner), we’re not going to change the culture, so we just have to go along with it!  What the hell is his problem?  Why is he singling people out when everyone’s doing the same thing?  This is the real world here!“)

Yes, Moorlach thinks that Wagner is a “sellout” — the “bad” and the “stupid” and the “wrong” all derive from that.  If Wagner thinks that the term is defamatory, he should remember that the truth is a defense against defamation.  Wagner may not feel like a sellout, but that’s because after enough times perhaps one hardly notices it anymore.  It’s not “selling out” to him; it’s just how things are.

Just like last November’s mayoral election in Anaheim – where Mayor Tom Tait stood in stark contrast to an array of business interests like Disney and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – Moorlach finds himself standing up against just about every member of Orange County’s political establishment.

Wagner slams Moorlach, 59, as an ideologue who can’t work with others and sees nearly every public policy initiative through the lens of an accountant who concludes that virtually all government is a boondoggle.

It’s bizarre to argue that Moorlach “can’t work with others”; I’ve seen him work excellently with others, including our Vern Nelson, on projects like blocking the Toll Lanes on the 405.  What Wagner defines as “working well with others” seems to be focused through the lens of “can’t work well with others to promote government economic intervention that is driven by its benefits to big contributors and agents.”  That, to Wagner, is what legislators DO — and Moorlach would only get in the way and gum up the works!

Yes, indeed.  Moorlach would be a brake on the bipartisan locomotive designed to get tax money into the hands of thieves like Poseidon and knaves like the middlemen and politicians (Steve Sheldon, Brett Barbre, many more) who would profit from it.  As one person, he would not be much of a brake.  But that train needs brakes!  Even when Moorlach is wrong — as he was on the Veteran’s cemetery in Irvine — he’s speaking as an unconvinced accountant.  But — as Wagner seems not to realize — accountants can be convinced by facts and rational arguments.

Wagner, 54, sees himself as a sensible conservative that can work with business and unions and others with the aim of crafting broad-based policy.

“I can vote no without voting ‘hell no’ or poking you in the eye,” said Wagner, a former school board member and Irvine resident who has served two terms in the state Assembly.

Wagner is pursuing no real ideology, when it comes to scamming money from the public without delivering equal (let alone greater) value, except for doing what doesn’t get him excluded from the club, and what also just happens to stuff his campaign coffers to the gills.  Of course he never feels the need to poke anyone in the eye over such things — he’s not voting no if he’s told not to do so, and he has no applicable values to aggrieve.

Does that make him “sensible”?  Not at all.  He’s only as “sensible” as the policies he ends up promoting — and those tend to be ripoffs of the public.  He’s “sensible” in terms of acting the way he has to act to be a member of the club and getting ahead — which may be why he’s now getting so frenzied at seeing Moorlach standing in his way — but being that sort of “sensible” politician does not equate to being a sensible policymaker.

Moorlach – who has indeed always kept a fairly independent profile since taking over the treasurer-tax collector’s office after the county bankruptcy – sums up the mountain of endorsements arrayed against him simply.

“Crony capitalism,” said Moorlach, taking aim at much of Orange County’s political establishment.

Orange County Republican candidates like Moorlach – independent, libertarian-minded ideologues – much like Tait before him and Supervisor Shawn Nelson before both of them, are increasingly running against establishment interests.

“Crony capitalism” — a term applicable everywhere from post-Soviet Russia to Mussolini’s “corporatist” Italy — is the right term here, and there are few phrases that “establishment” politicians like hearing less.

Norberto mentions that Tom Tait and Shawn Nelson, Moorlach’s prime endorsements, are “largely opposed to business subsidies and the rising costs of public sector pensions.”  I don’t have great relations with Nelson, although (with the possible emerging exception of Lisa Bartlett) he is my favorite among the Supervisors, but I have respect for his streaks of non-self-serving pragmatism.

I have talked a lot to Tait, though, and my impression is that Tait wears the same green eyeshades as do CPAs like Moorlach.  He’s opposed to business subsidies that don’t create greater value for the public.  If he’s opposed to most of those presented in OC, it’s because most of those presented in OC — at least when you look at them closely — don’t pass that test.  And while he is intent of not letting the cost of pension drag down state and local government, he’s not opposed to working class and middle class people being able to retire with a decent negotiated pension, although he might argue them down just as his opponents in negotiations would argue them up.  That’s normal negotiation.  He’s opposed to what he sees as bloated pensions for those in the upper ranks of public employees, who have massive influence over the course of negotiations and often can negotiate their own pension.  There, when the funneling of public money into private hands starts to look more like unfair capitalization on opportunities, is where the CPA types think that stronger opposition is required.

This pair of quotes is lovely and telling:

Moorlach argues that special interests have little impact on him because he hasn’t had to cut any deals with them to get into office.

“It is very difficult and very intimidating,” to go up against the Orange County Business Council and their interests, Moorlach said. “But it’s also rewarding that I’m running a campaign funded by individuals…friends are stepping up. I have no PAC (political action committee) money. I have no union money. I’m an independent, free spirit. That’s comforting. Win, lose or draw, I’m not in anyone’s pocket. And that’s what frustrates the crowd I’m up against. A lot of these electeds are concerned about being in elective office. I’m concerned about doing elective office.”

On this front, Wagner is the exact opposite.

“All of the folks that I’m working with up in Sacramento are backing me and all of the folks that John is working with in Orange County are backing me,” Wagner said. “That tells you something.”

Wagner’s right: it tells you that Wagner is the candidate of political insiders who are happy with the mechanisms by which public money gets shunted to them, and Moorlach is the candidate of outsiders who don’t abide pilfering from the commonweal just because it comes at the behest of people in expensive suits.

Skipping ahead, because there’s just so much good stuff in Norberto’s article.

Moorlach counters that he started paying into it just when other managers agreed to do so.

The two men are likely to bring a very different game to Sacramento.

Moorlach said he’s sharpening his accountant’s pencil.

“I want to dig. I want to play with numbers. Work with the state auditor. Follow up on reports. Do my own analysis,” Moorlach said, noting that he’s worried about a mountain of debt affecting the state and is unafraid to sound alarm bells.

Wagner said that kind of approach shows why Moorlach won’t be successful in Sacramento on behalf of his constituents.

“He has no idea how it works up there,” Wagner said. “We have tons of accountants up here.”

Isn’t that lovely — and telling?  “We have tons of accountants here,” says Wagner, so don’t bother doing your own analysis.  Just digest what you’re fed.  One wonders if Wagner accepts the reports from lawyers — are there megatons of those in his and my profession up there? — with the same blithe acceptance.  I can see one really good reason to want an independent CPA in government — because he might find things that would give even a Don Wagner pause.  Wagner never will; Wagner will not even try to look.  He’d be a passive, reliable vote in the State Senate — doing exactly as he is told and raking in the rewards.

Wagner’s argument to self-serving Orange Countians is that he won’t deliver for his constituents.  Well, one hates to point this out, but neither did Mimi Walters, and she was as clubby as they come.  If a Moorlach in the state legislature helps to strip the waste going to the other 52 counties in the state, then there will be more money to go around for good purposes in all 53 of them.  And OC will get its share — even if Moorlach himself doesn’t vote for it.  We’ll get more, I’d say, then we would if the Don Wagners of the world send so much of that public money to the wealthy (where a little of it trickles down to their employees and to union members) rather than for the public generally.

I can’t and won’t endorse Moorlach for Tuesday; I disagree with him on too many other issues.  But on those issues I generally disagree with Wagner as well — and this is the major issue on which whoever is elected is more likely to make a difference.  I’d like to see Louise Stewardson get as many votes as she can and I’d like to see Naz Namazi get a bunch of votes as the de facto “none of the above” option for conservatives and Republicans who aren’t yet convinced.  But if I rank them #1 and #2 tomorrow, then Moorlach — much more so now, after the ads and the donor reports, than when the campaign started — is ranked #3.  And #4 is — if you can’t vote for one of the above, don’t vote at all.  There is no #5.  OC has more than enough politicians like Don Wagner in politics already; we don’t need to elevate one more.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-disabled and semi-retired, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally ran for office against jerks who otherwise would have gonr 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.) His daughter is a professional campaign treasurer. He doesn't usually know whom she and her firm represent. Whether they do so never influences his endorsements or coverage. (He does have his own strong opinions.) But when he does check campaign finance forms, he is often happily surprised to learn that good candidates he respects often DO hire her firm. (Maybe bad ones are scared off by his relationship with her, but they needn't be.)