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Battle for 37th state Senate seat reflects shifting Orange County

Once-safe GOP incumbent John Moorlach is facing a strong Democratic challenger, Dave Min, in Orange County’s affluent 37th Senate District.

Moorlach hopes his experience and his voice as the only certified public accountant in the state legislature will be particularly valued as California faces tough days ahead to balance its budget in the face of massive revenue declines during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What do the voters think is the biggest existential threat? Is it really climate change?” Moorlach said, referencing Min’s platform. “Or is it whether we’re ready for the next drought or flood or pandemic? Are we financially set to handle these things?”

But Moorlach said he’s “a realist,” and he acknowledged that the pundits and polls both show Min has a real chance of taking the seat Nov. 3.

That’s partly due to shifting demographics. Though SD-37 once was solidly red, the GOP’s registration advantage has fallen to just 0.1 percentage points. Four years ago, district voters chose Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump, and they followed that up in 2018 with a narrow choice of Democrat Gavin Newsom for governor. And this year, in the March primary, Moorlach got less than half the vote even though he was the only Republican on the ballot.

Min has raised nearly $1 million more than Moorlach this cycle, with the California Democratic Party giving him $369,501 more than the California Republican Party has given Moorlach. Outside groups also have independently spent four times more money opposing Moorlach, with law enforcement and education groups using $2.2 million on mailers and TV ads attacking the incumbent.

Min says the growing Democratic presence in SD-37 and the strong financial support for his campaign reflect a rejection of what the Republican party has become. And the UC Irvine law professor argues that Moorlach has taken his seat for granted, as Min says many Republicans did in Orange County for far too long. That helped trigger a blue wave for House seats in 2018 that Min hopes will reach state seats, such as SD-37, on Nov. 3.

“You can’t just ride on your reputation for 20 years and expect people to be excited about your campaign anymore,” Min said.

Moorlach runs on fiscal record

Moorlach’s reputation is firmly cemented in Orange County’s history.

He was working as an accountant when he famously predicted Orange County’s 1994 bankruptcy — a move that, over the years, has helped him win elected office as county treasurer, supervisor and senator.

Looking back, Moorlach, 64, says it’s fascinating to realize how many seemingly serendipitous events led him to where is today.

Moorlach was born in the Netherlands. His father was destined to take over his grandfather’s successful flour mill, but Moorlach said his dad didn’t feel like he was able to have enough of a voice in the business. So when Moorlach was 4, his family left their affluent life behind to start over among a Dutch community that had formed in the Cypress area.

Moorlach’s first brush with politics was as a kid taking fliers door to door for his uncle, who was running for the Orange County Republican Central Committee. He said his entire family was always conservative, with a libertarian streak. And he’s never strayed from the Republican party.

When Moorlach was attending Western High School in Anaheim, he took an accounting course from a teacher who made the subject come alive for him. And before he’d graduated from college, Moorlach was hired by an accounting firm, where he would go on to become a partner.

Moorlach and his wife bought a home in Costa Mesa in 1984. During a Christmas potluck, his politically connected neighbor suggested Moorlach run for the GOP Central Committee. He defeated an incumbent and won his first elected position.

In 1993, Moorlach said people in his network started asking him to run for county treasurer against incumbent Robert Citron. Moorlach initially balked at the idea, tired of always being asked to be treasurer of every organization he got involved in. But after Moorlach reviewed the county’s bond portfolio, he realized it was in trouble, with Citron using borrowed money to buy bonds the county couldn’t afford.

Moorlach lost that election. But during the campaign, he’d sounded alarm bells about the county’s financial position. While most reporters and politicians dismissed his concerns at the time, they came calling a year later, when OC was forced to file bankruptcy.

With Citron out, Moorlach was appointed treasurer. He got the county out of bankruptcy in 18 months and was elected to the position three times. He ran for county supervisor in 2006 and got 70% of the vote, then ran unopposed in 2010.

Moorlach first won the SD-37 seat in a 2015 special election held to fill a vacancy when Mimi Walters was elected to congress. A year later Moorlach won reelection, beating his Democratic challenger by 14 percentage points.

In Sacramento, Moorlach has introduced legislation on everything from supporting mental heath to preventing elder abuse to a report on the feasibility of implementing a German-style autobahn highway system in California. He’s had 14 bills and five resolutions approved. He also tracks unfunded pension liabilities and pushes for reforms.

His highest profile bill, to require energy companies to bury power lines, passed the legislature in 2016 but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Since then, several massive wildfires have been blamed on faulty above-ground power lines.

While Moorlach’s opponents recently have accused him of being “anti-science” because he wants to see fewer regulations to address climate change, Moorlach pointed out that big wildfires cause more greenhouse gas each year than all cars on the road. So, while he doesn’t support, say, mandating a move to electric cars, Moorlach insists his efforts to curtail wildfires would be a bigger environmental win.

The other hit on Moorlach is that he’s not accessible to constituents and that he’s “just like Trump.”  Moorlach said he avoids social media and prefers to reach voters via email. He notes he’s never met Trump, and wishes the president didn’t tweet as much as he does, but he likes what he’s done for the economy.

Moorlach said one reason his campaign is at a financial disadvantage is because he doesn’t take money from public employee unions. Black Lives Matter supporters pointed out he’s the only California legislator who doesn’t take police union funds. Now, police and educator PACs are spending big to oppose him.

“Serving another four years would be good,” Moorlach said. But if he’s not reelected, he added, “I can leave at peace that I stepped out of my comfort zone just like my dad did and that we gave back.

“I’m real happy with my record. And if Orange County has changed, then so be it. But at least they know they had someone who worked really hard for them to make sure that we had a well-run county and trying to give us a well-run state.”

Min focuses on long-term change

Min’s expertise also is in finance. His right-leaning parents immigrated to the United States, too, and Min himself was once a Republican. But that’s about where the similarities between the two SD-37 candidates end.

“To be honest, if the Republican party hadn’t changed so much, I might still be a Republican today,” Min, 44, said.

His parents grew up “dirt poor” in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War. They moved to the Bay Area in 1971 and he came along five years later.

Growing up in the Silicon Valley, Min said he sees parallels to Orange County today, with the area becoming more diverse and less affordable for working-class families.

While still in high school, Min volunteered for former GOP state senator and congressman Tom Campbell, whose fiscal conservatism and social liberalism aligned well with his own views. But as Min studied business and economics as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, occasionally running into classmate Donald Trump Jr., his fiscal views started to change.

“I think what we’ve seen as far as economic policy is that we’ve tilted the playing field a lot in terms of people who have a lot of money, and made it harder for people who work for a living.”

As he saw the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric that took hold of the Republican party in the 1990s, Min officially changed teams. He said those distinctions have become more clear to him since the political rise of Donald Trump Sr.

“Lots of people no longer believe America represents the values that America has always been known for,” he said.

As Min finished his law degree at Harvard, he turned down a job at a prominent investment bank and took a position working for the Securities and Exchange Commission. While it wasn’t as prestigious or profitable, Min said he was always “more interested in trying to think about deep policy questions” and wanted to give back to the country that had given his family so much by trying to make capital markets work more fairly.

Min later worked as a senior advisor to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and then as a policy director at a think tank focused on housing finance reform in the wake of the mortgage crisis. In 2011, UC Irvine invited him to teach at its burgeoning law school.

His wife, who is a family law attorney, now runs the domestic violence clinic at UCI. They live in Irvine with their three children.

While Min had always worked on the policy side of government, he ventured into politics after Trump’s election. He ran against GOP Rep. Mimi Walters in the 45th District in 2018. Min was endorsed by the California Democratic Party, but fell 2% short of advancing out of a competitive primary. Rep. Katie Porter went on to take the seat.

Still, Min said he was encouraged by the close result and by engaging with people and sharing his vision. As he looked to 2020, he targeted SD-37, believing Moorlach to be out of step with the increasingly diverse and purple district.

When it comes to helping California’s economy through the pandemic, Moorlach is calling for immediate cuts to state department budgets to get out in front of shortages. Min said he thinks California should do some borrowing to avoid further harm for residents, then pay that borrowing back when times are good.

Though Min has a financial background, he said he’s not interested in in being “a banking guy” in Sacramento. “I’m running to turn this community and state around, and to focus on issues such as climate change and education.”

Min also hopes to combat gun violence, bring more tax money back to Orange County, achieve smaller classes sizes, make college debt free, support Medicare for All and to be highly accessible to residents.

The challenge, he recognizes, is trying to pair such ambitious progressive ideals with policy that works on the ground. But Min said his philosophy is summed up well by a Greek proverb:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

Source: Orange County Register

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