Those Orange County political observers who have been awaiting a repeat of the June supervisorial grudge match that pitted pension-reforming Shawn Nelson, then a Fullerton councilman, against union-backed Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu must be sorely disappointed.
In June, the unions tried to make an example out of Nelson, who blew the whistle on an unconscionable pension-spiking proposal in his home city. He was the one embraced by Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, who declared that the party would no longer support candidates who take union cash and endorsements. Sidhu was the recipient of more than $1 million in independent expenditures by the unions representing deputy sheriffs and rank-and-file county employees.
In the end Nelson received 30.2 percent against Sidhu’s 18.3 percent. Four other candidates split the rest, thus keeping the top-vote getter from an outright majority and forcing a runoff Nov. 2. All the union cash could not move Sidhu’s numbers more than few points, which no doubt explains why there have been no fireworks, no large union expenditures to date and even some olive branches extended between the union guys and Nelson, now an incumbent.
“I have found him [Nelson] to be extremely accessible, very open-minded and a tremendous critical thinker,” Orange County Employees Association President Nick Berardino told me, although he hoped his kind words wouldn’t hurt Nelson’s election chances. The union has learned that Nelson is the only supervisor willing to take on some of the pension and pay abuses at the management level – and the union guys have long argued that the managers are the biggest abusers of the system.
I figure local unions’ coffers are depleted for this cycle and they realize it’s in their best interest to find areas of agreement with a man that the unions will be stuck dealing with for a few years. Whatever the case, this go around it’s a snoozer.
Sidhu has a few signs around Anaheim and Fullerton that say, “Shawn Nelson: Job Killer,” referring to Nelson’s vote against a development project in Fullerton.
“I did kill one job. I admit it,” Nelson said. “I killed his job.”
Both sides have funded mailers that mainly feature personal attacks, including one by Nelson pointing out the more than 1,000 free tickets that Sidhu took as a city official to events at the Honda Center. Sidhu said he donated all the tickets to charities. He also insists that he is the pro-business and pro-development candidate and is trying – not too persuasively, in my view – to distance himself from past union support.
The big rap on Nelson is that, after winning his board seat based on an anti-government-pension platform, he immediately signed up for the most generous pension program offered by the county. Those of us who admired Nelson’s gumption in fighting and exposing the Fullerton pension deal – he tipped off the Register’s Editorial Board to the story and had to endure much criticism from the Fullerton establishment for doing so – were disappointed that he embarrassed himself so quickly after winning.
Nelson said he signed up for the plan because the county paperwork said that new employees must sign up for one pension system or the other (a more generous pension or a new, lower-benefit second tier that mainly benefits late-career employees who already maxed out on their main pension). He signed up and immediately began getting guff from his pro-union foes, especially liberal writers and Sidhu supporters in the local blogosphere. It was “gotcha” time.
Nelson said he later received a letter from the county stating that the pension system is optional, so he opted out – before he was seated as a supervisor. “Please tell your readers that I get zero, zipperoo.” That’s true, but Sidhu – who chose to take an optional retirement in Anaheim – is trying to capitalize on Nelson’s original choice by accusing him of “betrayal,” as the not-so-subtle campaign mailers put it.
I have mixed feelings about this matter. Nelson should have thought more carefully about how he would handle his own pension given that pension reform was such a big deal in the June primary race. His response was convoluted and argumentative. But these symbolic issues leave me cold. It’s not as if he is spiking his pension or doing something disreputable. The pension comes with the job. It’s too generous, but so are the salary and staff levels.
Supervisor and pension reformer John Moorlach stands to collect a large pension, but I’m more interested in his reform plans than in whether he takes a pension. I believe in privatizing the roads, but does that mean that I shouldn’t drive on public streets while I make the argument for a shift to the private sector?
None of that should matter now. Nelson has learned a lesson and already has proposed a mandatory 401(k)-style retirement for all elected county officials, although his proposal failed to get support from the other supervisors.
I’ve known both candidates for years. Sidhu is generally conservative but seems malleable on the issues and is perfectly comfortable accepting the full support of left-leaning unions who like that he has promised to drop the county’s lawsuit challenging the retroactive portion of a 2001 pension increase for deputies. He’s a nice guy who plays well with others, which no doubt explains why so many GOP business types backed Sidhu. They recognize a deal maker when they see one.
Nelson is an ornery cuss who gets it wrong sometimes. He also can be unnecessarily argumentative, as a number of Register editors can attest. But he is strongly committed to pension reform and limiting government, and he will go to the mat for his ideas. He already is shaking things up on the board and challenging the go-along get-along atmosphere on the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration.
“Sometimes it takes an abrasive SOB to get the job done,” said the OC GOP’s Baugh. “Playing nice appears to be a failing strategy.”
That says it all.