The great Russian playwright Anton Chekov famously said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.”
So, let me hang a pistol on the wall: government filings show the union representing Orange County’s sheriff’s deputies has piled up nearly a million dollars in order to keep former state Sen. John Moorlach from winning what should be a guaranteed victory in the March 9 election for a seat on the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, as the union is called, has already spent some of its bankroll on anti-Moorlach mailers. It has floated stories attempting to link Moorlach to a 2015 sex assault case that all evidence indicates Moorlach knew nothing about until a few months ago.
But the union will fire Chekov’s pistol multiple times in the next few weeks — will likely spend its million bucks and, by some estimates, twice that on grim mailers and stuff like dinnertime robocalls, yard signs, Facebook ads and bumper stickers.
Why all the pearl-clutching over at the deputies’ union office?
Because Moorlach is to government unions what clouds of locusts, rivers of blood, biting bugs and a sudden downpour of befuddled, croaking amphibians were to the pharaoh of ancient Egypt. His return to county politics after years in the state Senate signals the end of a free-wheeling casino-style party that accelerated in the first decade of the 2000s and which shows no signs of ending — barring a Moorlach win on March 9.
Moorlach is a bear-sized certified public accountant from Costa Mesa. His epic beard would delight a Fullerton hipster, but he’s worn it without irony since at least the 1980s, a time when such beards were limited mostly to bikers and packages of Smith Brothers Cough Drops. He is bespectacled, as you’d want for the lead in “John Moorlach CPA: The Movie,” and he is a guy of such phenomenal financial acumen that, when the county declared bankruptcy in December 1994, the county’s shell-shocked supervisors asked Moorlach to fix it. He accepted, cleaning up what was then biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Chastened for a time, the county’s elected officials temporarily heeded Moorlach’s warning to resist the perpetual demands of government union leaders for more — higher salaries, earlier retirements, richer retiree health plans.
But frugality went out of fashion with the rise of the dot-com bubble, at the end of the 1990s. Moorlach was still the county’s treasurer when, in 1999, public officials all over California, like sober alcoholics who can no longer remember their last bender, began acceding to the nonstop union demands for higher public employee pay and benefits.
In the most infamous moment, state lawmakers raised retirement payouts for state Highway Patrol officers and reduced their age of retirement to 50. Most disastrously, they also applied that new formula retroactively — meaning that the public was now on the hook for decades of service for tens of thousands of officers. They did all this with the support of the California Public Employee Retirement System, whose president remarkably told them the massive change wouldn’t cost “a dime of additional taxpayer money.”
That model quickly spread throughout the system. Union leaders throughout the state leaned on public officials from the tiniest school districts to the largest counties, including Orange County. Those officials caved. Few would be surprised to learn the result: in the two decades since 1999, state and local government obligations to public employees rose from $160 million to a remarkable $7 billion last year. Measured in dimes, that’s a difference of about 68.4 billion.
Self-interest played a role in this political and financial disaster. California’s government unions raise and spend $2 billion per election cycle, dwarfing the contributions of all other interests combined. They bankroll campaigns that benefit candidates left and right knowing that, once in office, those newly elected officials will be sitting directly across the negotiating table from union negotiators, eager to approve labor contracts that enhance union power in the workplace, and deliver higher pay and benefits for union members.
Few would brag openly about this legal corruption. But former Los Angeles teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl did. Last summer, he told members of his United Teachers Los Angeles union to campaign for a more pliant Los Angeles Unified school board.
“We have a unique power — we elect our bosses,” he said. “It would be difficult to think of workers anywhere else who elect their bosses. We do. We must take advantage of it. … If we win, they will decide how the hundreds of millions of dollars in additional money is used. They will be across the bargaining table from us in our huge full contract negotiations in 2022.”
For you and me such perfectly legal corruption has produced record government debt from Main Street to Sacramento. Local governments everywhere are spending more and more pay the obligations of that long-ago decision to boost public employee pay and benefits. And so they follow the familiar path of tax hikes, service cuts and borrowing. Life becomes more expensive for everyone, and more difficult for people already living on the razor’s edge. In the end, that path sometimes leads to government bankruptcy.
This pandemic, this frenzy among public officials eager to raise public pay in exchange for campaign support from government union leaders, came even to Orange County. Here, in the heart of Reagan Country, county supervisors in 2001 offered the Highway Patrol deal to the sheriff deputies’ union and firefighters — including the retroactive pay hike. Too generously, but less outrageously, they bumped up the pay and benefits of all other county employees, too.
You can just imagine John Moorlach confronting this Bourbon Street parade, this madness of doubloon-tossing, bare-chested public officials and their union allies just seven years after the words “Orange County” and “bankrupt” were in headlines all over the planet. At the time, I did imagine him, still scrubbing up after the 1994 bankruptcy and now developing some kind of exotic nervous disorder.
Instead, in 2006, he ran for and won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, promising to end the whole incredible orgy. And that’s when the sheriff’s deputies’ union’s blood feud with John Moorlach began.
By then, the board’s deal with the sheriff’s union had tripled the county’s pension debt, from $100 million to $300 million. Moorlach declared the board’s 2001 deal with the union illegal, saying it was likely a “gift of funds” and compensation for work already performed, and therefore unconstitutional. Debt of that sort was something only the voters could approve, not merely the board, Morlach said.
Because of Moorlach, the county went to court to unwind the deal, pursuing its case first to a state appeals court and, ultimately, the state Supreme Court. But in 2017, years after Moorlach had left the board, the state’s highest court refused hear the case.
Moorlach had lost. But the deputies’ union never forgot. When Moorlach ran for state Senate in 2015, the union poured about $400,000 into campaign operations supporting Moorlach’s opponent. Despite his opponent’s 4-1 fundraising advantage, Moorlach won. In November 2020, with Moorlach running for a second term in the state Senate, the state prison guard’s union dumped $1 million — the deputies added $100,000 — into a negative campaign against Moorlach. This time, Moorlach, the only CPA in a state Legislature with a Democrat super-majority, lost to a UC Irvine assistant professor of law.
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“I am sworn to uphold the state constitution,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter when the fight began, in 2007. “It has given me the biggest target on my back ever, but for me as an accountant, the focus has been finances. I have nothing against the deputy sheriffs.”
That target is still there. And in the next few weeks, if you own a mailbox in the county’s second supervisorial district, you’ll get to watch the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs fire Chekov’s pistol repeatedly at the target on Moorlach’s back.
They’ll say they’re doing it for you — to defend the things you care about, whether that’s law enforcement, or women’s rights, or rule changes in Scrabble. But in reality, they’re doing it for the money.
When you think about California’s mounting public debt and declining quality of life, you could say that, though they’re sworn to protect and serve, it’s themselves the deputies are most concerned with serving.
Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center, and cohost of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast.