Opinion: Unintended Election Consequences

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By Bill O’Hare

In the chaos of our national election, it may be easy to overlook some of the drama and disappointment in our small-town local election.  Both were evident in the top two local races, for city council and our school board.

Two city council incumbents faced the voters – Bob Whalen and Steve Dicterow.  The predominant political divide in our local elections turns less on political party, and more on political action committees who urge a more development-friendly council (Liberate Laguna) and those who advocate for preservation of a smaller scale village atmosphere (Village Laguna). Village Laguna somewhat predictably endorsed two like-minded challengers, George Weiss and Ruben Flores. Liberate Laguna followed a more curious path. They endorsed incumbent Bob Whalen and a challenger, Larry Nokes.  They opposed and spent heavily on a negative campaign to defeat incumbent Steve Dicterow. Dicterow campaigned as an independent voice, though one whose record suggests he’s open-minded toward development interests and is seemingly on the conservative/property rights side of the political street, having worked as an aide to former Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

Now that the votes are in, it turns out Liberate Laguna got it half right, and not in a good way.  Bob Whalen deservedly coasted to another term with a strong first place finish. The negative campaign apparently worked to defeat Steve Dicterow, who finished last. Liberate Laguna thus cleared the way for a challenger, enabling Village Laguna’s two endorsed candidates to finish strong in second and third place, with George Weiss the apparent winner of the second city council seat. So, put it all together and Liberate Laguna reportedly spent a healthy six figure sum to replace a councilmember who, based on his record, was a willing listener to their concerns, with a new member who threw some pretty sharp barbs at Liberate Laguna during his campaign, and may be expected to be somewhat of a foil to the two sitting councilmembers supported by Liberate Laguna in 2018. 

Looks like George owes Liberate Laguna at least a nice thank you note.

This brings me to the school board race, with one incumbent up for reelection (Jan Vickers), another open seat, and four other candidates vying to join the board (sort of).  One of those challengers was attorney Howard Hills, a longtime Laguna resident, LBHS graduate and vocal critic of the school board and administration. Hills first ran and lost in 2016. In the 2018 election, Hills did not file candidate papers or get on the ballot. But then he changed his mind and decided to wage a write in campaign, a long-shot effort that predictably resulted in a loss. Now comes 2020, and Hills got his act together, timely filed his candidate papers and earned a place on the ballot. Then Hills had yet another change of heart and decided to abandon his campaign, when he belatedly recognized that his candidacy would obviously draw votes from two other like minded challengers for those two board seats (Sherri Morgan and Amy Kramer). Not surprisingly, with Hills’ name still on the ballot (as the first name listed), he managed to still draw more than 2,500 votes, more than enough to cover the 900-vote spread between Amy Kramer and victorious incumbent Jan Vickers, who came in a distant second to newcomer Kelly Osborne. Looks like Jan owes Howard a big thank you.

Bill is a Laguna Beach resident and former president of the Laguna Beach Education and Endowment Foundation.

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  1. In 20/20 hindsight, Bill got it right. He missed only one big thing: Village Laguna ruined its own reputation. They talk “civility” yet they ran the dirtiest local campaign in Laguna’s modern history. Almost all their ads and communications were attacks on Liberate Laguna (they sought to make Liberate Laguna a “straw man” evil force) and most of their attacks consisted of outright lies and they knew it.

    So congrats VL on both your win and the simultaneous destruction of your own carefully crafted image

  2. Interesting Bill. Thank you for the campaign and election results review. Residents saw through much of the negative campaign rhetoric and selected sound and respected individuals as representatives.

    As for Mr. Ray’s comments. He missed one thing: “civility and dirty campaigning” was not a focus in our city until the Liberate Laguna PAC entered our political arena. This is LL’s legacy. Their targeted destructive and expensive campaign efforts to demonize VL in 2018 saddled our town with Peter Blake, hands down the most divisive/destructive city representative in our towns history IMO. I’d say this election showed that locals have had enough of the LL PAC approach and agenda. Fact is, their candidates (Nokes and Tracy) were rejected by voters and we all know that Incumbent Bob Whalen didn’t need their support to get re-elected. I’d go so far as to say that their endorsement of him caused voters some concern. 2020 Election take away: Individuals considering running for office in 2022 should take note of this election outcome before seeking LL PAC support.

  3. Nice Try MJ!

    Ugly politics in Laguna have been part of the status quo for any candidate not endorsed by Village Laguna for decades. If you’re not with them, then you’re in the pocket of developers and will destroy the “village character” of our little town. MJ Abraham would know about dirty politics. She and her lapdog Michael Morris, launched the pathetic attacks on Steve Dicterow back in 2016 over his personal finances. In 2018 when Village Laguna, George Weiss, and the likes of MJ started the bulldozer ads attacking me, they were met with an unexpected result- I stood up, fought back, and won.

    MJ, thanks for the compliment about being the “most divisive/destructive city representative in our town’s history” Coming from a political predator like yourself, it’s a compliment. Look for more where it came from!

    You’re right, “Individuals considering running in 2022 should take note of this election” Village Laguna ran an ugly and dirty campaign on behalf of their candidates Ruben Flores and George Weiss. They surpassed even their own incredibly low standards. Larry Nokes and Steve Dicterow ran clean campaigns and they lost because they would not fight at the level of ruthless activists like yourself. In the end, they split the votes and allowed the election of the most unqualified Councilmember imaginable. Although it is a step backward, we still have the 3 votes we need to continue the progress the residents want. Please stop kidding yourself about some mandate from the voters because George Weiss got elected. It, like you, means nothing!

  4. I am somewhat puzzled by Councilman Blake’s claims that Village Laguna ran a dirty campaign, as compared to what–Liberate Laguna? Perhaps, Mr. Blake didn’t receive the mailers from Liberate Laguna (LL) that smeared his fellow Councilman, Steve Dicterow, for his past bankruptcy and failure to pay his health insurance premiums. (Note: The latter was also itemized in at least two letters in this paper from retired Mayor and Councilman Kelly Boyd). Those seemed particularly nasty LL mailers, and may have contributed to the low votes for Dicterow and Nokes. Then, there were a series of ads and mailers by LL accusing Flores of being in rent arrears for his business, and Weiss for failing to trim a lemon tree and rosemary bush. It seems that all of these smear actions bear a strong resemblance to what Mr. Blake would label “dirty campaign tactics”—right?


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