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By Roger Bloom | NB Indy

 

The status quo is alive and well in Newport Beach.

In an election that saw a virulent throw-the-bums-out insurgency in many states and districts across the nation, Newport Beach voters returned incumbents Leslie Daigle and Judy Franco to the City Council and school board, elected longtime “eighth councilman” Rush Hill to an official council seat, and ratified the council-backed Measure V, a package of revisions to the city charter that drew intense fire from some candidates and community groups.

The big win was Hill’s. He and Ed Reno had waged a high-profile pitched battle for the 3rd District council seat being vacated by Don Webb. Webb was prevented by the city’s term limits from running again.

During the campaign, Hill, an architect, stressed his 35-year history of community involvement, walked neighborhoods and attended coffees, and loaned his campaign $50,000.

Reno, the chief lobbyist for Allergan Inc., maker of Botox and other pharmaceuticals, painted Hill as part of the city’s establishment and declared, “I’m running against the status quo.” He questioned the scope and cost of the Civic Center project and hammered on the city’s employee pension liability.

He secured the endorsement of the local Republican Party and several prominent Republican officeholders and raised more than $100,000 in donations, spending none of his own money.

The campaigning was hot and heavy, and veered into negative territory as a pro-Reno mailer said Hill would make Newport Beach into “Bell-by-the-Sea,” and Hill’s campaign briefly raised the issue of animal testing by Allergan. Hill also painted Reno as a latecomer to city politics and implied that Reno was trying to use the Newport council as a springboard to higher office.

In the end, Hill prevailed with 55% of the vote, a comfortable win but not as big a margin as those given Daigle, Franco and Measure V.

Hill beat not only Reno, but also Reno’s campaign consultant, Dave Ellis, whose work in Newport Beach has reached legendary status. Six of the seven current councilmembers were Ellis’ clients. Candidates have been known to hire Ellis solely to prevent rivals from retaining him, and it has been said his presence in a candidate’s corner can discourage potential challengers.

But this election was a tough one for Ellis in Newport Beach. He and Daigle parted ways in September amid a disagreement over campaign strategy, and Reno, though he finished respectably, still lost.

Saying that Reno’s strategy of running against the status quo was “a big mistake,” Councilman Ed Selich, who used Ellis in his races, said, “I think he got caught up in the tea-party anti-incumbent fervor.”

Mayor Keith Curry said that Ellis’ “record speaks for itself – he’s an excellent consultant,” but also labeled Reno’s strategy “a mistake.”

“David tried to run a campaign catching the national mood of discontent in the only city around with a 92 percent citizen approval rating,” Curry said, referring to a recent citizen satisfaction survey done by the city.

Noting Reno’s reliance on Republican Party support against fellow Republican Hill, Curry said, “There are limits to running as a Republican against a guy who built the cabinets at Reagan’s ranch.”

For his part, Ellis said he was proud of the campaign Reno waged, noting that he out-fundraised Hill and got 45% of the vote against a virtual incumbent.

“Ed raised more than $105,000 from 485 individual donors,” said Ellis. “He built a great campaign.”

Hill, he said, “had $50,000 and 35 years in the community – he started on third base.”

As for the anti-status quo strategy, Ellis said once Hill got in the race the Reno campaign had “no choice.”

“To his credit, he is an exemplary citizen,” Ellis said of Hill. “All the endorsements, all the activists, all the town leadership migrated to Rush.”

Still, Ellis said, “just a 1,006-vote change and we’d be having a different conversation.”

As for the Monday-morning quarterbacking, Ellis took it in stride.

“Remember,” he said, “there’s an election every two years.”

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