The three most well recognized candidates for the Laguna Beach City Council came out on top, with very few votes separating the winners. Incumbent Kelly Boyd received about 60 more votes than incumbent Toni Iseman, who was about 80 votes head of newcomer Rob Zur Schmiede, who with 13 years on the Planning Commission had at least some name recognition.
But in vying with the sitting Council members, Zur Schmiede didn’t rely solely on the folks who might have seen him in action on the Planning Commission. “I was still a new candidate and I felt I needed to get my name out there and let people get to know me,” he said.
To that end, Zur Schmiede in January was the first to announce his candidacy, allowing for three major campaign events, 16 neighborhood meet and greets, seven candidate forums and pounding the pavement, knocking on about 700 doors.
The effort paid off, literally, since he collected the most in campaign contributions, $57,000, and he won election in his first effort. “It’s kind of tough coming out of the box as a first time candidate and scoring a win and I feel very proud of that accomplishment,” he admitted after the election.
First time contender Paul Merritt, who came in sixth and 2,600 votes behind Zur Schmiede, believes his campaign’s underfinancing had a hand in his performance at the poles. He described himself as “naïve,” under-estimating the power of slate endorsements and the amount of money necessary to run an effective campaign. “There’s tremendous influence in slate psychology,” he said, admitting that he had hoped for endorsements from the police and firefighters associations and Village Laguna, which all went to Iseman and Zur Schmiede.
And endorsements do go beyond moral backing. Independent committees that included Village Laguna, firefighters, police and the Taxpayers Association cumulatively collected another $51,000 to spend backing their choices, based on Oct. 18 disclosure reports.
“I had no idea people would plow that much money in,” said Merritt, who declared $12,080 in contributions, most of it a loan from himself.
Even so, newcomer Michele Hall, who only declared $15,920 in contributions, came in with 1,300 more votes than Merritt and 1,200 votes behind Zur Schmiede. Hall said she is proud of her fourth-place showing and described the campaign as “grueling” but also fortifying. “I found a strength in myself, fed by being tested,” she said.
Hall intends to capitalize on the name recognition she gained through her campaign. “I’m going to stay involved. My goal is to get that skate park built,” she said. She may get help from Zur Schmiede, who also has a skate park on his to-do list.
Meanwhile, first-timer Jon Madison, an early favorite who pulled in the second-highest campaign contributions at $55,000, received only 400 votes more than Merritt, taking fifth place. Yet it is almost certain that his status among the local electorate was hurt by the controversy that began on Sept. 7 when the Orange County Register published an article scrutinizing his academic and professional credentials.
Asked about how his campaign was undermined by an inflated resume, Madison said, “no one questioned it for 14 years.” While he blamed himself for “being stupid and naïve,” Madison contends four people he did not identify sabotaged his campaign. “Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
He also felt the brunt of what he described as a “nasty” campaign, ranging from people who lied to his face, who left obscenity filled messages on his phone and who made death threats against his dog.
With no campaign contributions reported, Grossman came in sixth, 500 votes behind Merritt. His campaign, which amounted mostly to participation in debates and a radio interview, focused on his belief in pervasive corruption at city hall and the police department. He said the election went as he expected it would. “I tried. I did my best,” he said, adding that he found the campaign to be fun. Still, he took issue with the process. “You guys [the press] did not help me by giving me exposure. The public gets what it deserves, and you guys facilitate that ignorance,” he commented.
Iseman and Boyd had the third and fourth most campaign contributions, respectively, yet still grabbed the most votes, which suggests name recognition and at least some degree of voter satisfaction with their records. Iseman has served for the past 16 years, while Boyd served from 1970 to 1982 and again from 2006 to the present.
“I think Laguna residents want us to protect their best interests,” said Iseman, who admitted to feeling “relieved and inspired” by her win and gave credit to a campaign team and support across many groups in the community. The debates also had great value in helping voters get to know the candidates, she said.
However, like Madison, Iseman found an unprecedented level of nastiness in the campaign. “How are we ever going to have competent responsible people running for office when they see what happens in an election like this?” she said, and singled out Howard Hills, president of the Laguna Beach Republicans, as the author of particularly vituperative missives that lowered the bar on negative campaigning.
Boyd admitted that he’s tired after a campaign that has been too long and had too much going on.
“Everybody’s exhausted, and it shouldn’t be that way,” he said. But he’s ready to get to work with the new Council. “We’ve got a lot on our plate, and we should get a lot accomplished,” he said, noting ongoing issues such as the village entrance improvements, updating the downtown specific plan, and improvements in the canyon such as undergrounding, bike safety and pedestrian paths.
Zur Schmiede, too, is ready to get to work. “I want to work together as a team with the residents and tackle some of these problems we have,” he said. “We’ve got a group that I’m very optimistic is going to be able to work together and be productive.”
Candidate Vote Count Percentage
Kelly Boyd 3,676 23.2
Toni Iseman 3,617 22.9
Rob Zur Schmiede 3,537 22.4
Michele Hall 2,274 14.4
Jon Madison 1,342 8.5
Paul Merritt 914 5.8
Eli Grossman 439 2.8
Source: OC Registrar of Voters