A name from the distant past popped up recently and really gave us a good chuckle. Did I say chuckle? Actually, it was more like we fell onto the floor laughing so hard tears ran down our cheeks.
Deputy District Attorney Kelly Ernby, who is running to replace Assembly Member Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-74th District), sent out a press announcing that the former Orange County politician Jim Silva had just endorsed her. Not only that, but that she was happy about it.
“Jim Silva’s record of getting results for Orange County citizens is an admirable achievement, and I am honored to have his endorsement and support in this race” said Ernby in a July 18 press release on his endorsement. “As your Assemblywoman, I will seek to preserve Jim’s record of results through fighting for lower taxes, deregulation, and an end to government unaccountability in Sacramento.”
While we know most young people probably have no clue who Silva is (oh, how we envy you), he really is someone everyone around here should be familiar with, because he’s both one of the saddest excuses for a public servant we’ve ever seen and also one of the most successful. In 2000, we even inducted Silva into our Bob Dornan Scariest Hall of Fame, giving the eternal dope the eternal glory he so richly deserved. If you want to understand why things happen the way they do at the county, you have to understand people like Jim Silva.
A longtime foe of environment land preservation, Silva spent much of the early 1990s on the Huntington Beach City Council voting again and again to make sure Koll Company could build thousands of homes atop the Bolsa Chica mesa. He also sometimes just said things that made no sense.
In early 1995, then-Governor Pete Wilson showed how much contempt he held from environmental protection by appointing Silva to the California Air Resources Board. Though he missed a lot of meetings, he did find the time to show up for the March 1997 gathering. I always wished I could have been there, to see the other board members’ faces as Silva gave this rambling monologue full of disjointed thoughts and overlapping metaphors:
“I’m sure that we’ve all been at meetings where they say, ‘Well, we’ll have a deadline,’ but if we don’t meet that, then we’ll create another one, which I think is really confusing the market, in this case, the manufacturers as well as the consumers. I don’t want to poison the well, but I also realize that we have a target that we’re shooting at. And I think if we’re sending out mixed messages, we’re going to be creating more problems on down the line. I will be supporting this, but I do have some reservations.”
But Silva wasn’t just mediocre–he also wasn’t trustworthy. Even other Republicans found this out the hard way.
One of the best examples of this was the Oct. 6, 1998 Board of Supervisors meeting. It was a tense vote to renew County CEO Jan Mittermeier’s contract, Silva votes (surprisingly) with Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson to require a simple majority vote to veto any CEO department chief appointments, saying such a vote requirement is good to maintain “accountability.” But with Silva, what he said was never much value. It also rarely made sense. “I think if we just stay firm, we’d probably never get from Point A to Point B,” he had said earlier in the meeting, clearly reading from note cards. “If there is a straw vote taken, we can take that.”
After lunch, when told that such a requirement will be a “deal breaker” and could in fact lead to Mittermeier’s resignation, Silva flip-flopped and voted to require four-fifths of the board to overturn appointments. “An hour ago, we left a clear message that we are in control,” Spitzer told Silva immediately after the vote. “Your position has metamorphosed over a lunch break. Let’s be honest and say this is about a person and not a position.” Spitzer then slipped Silva a note withdrawing his election endorsement.
As Spitzer had learned, Silva’s word was worthless. Using a tactic often employed by powerful Republicans in Washington today, he often said things that just didn’t reflect reality. Two days after the big Supervisors vote, Silva appeared on the old OCN network and blatantly lied to anchor Brooke Robbins about the fact that a huge portion of his campaign contributions came from Newport Beach, which was outside his district. While that was perfectly legal, Silva had been hammering his opponent in the race, Huntington Beach City Councilmember Dave Sullivan, for accepting contributions from South Orange County:
BROOKE ROBBINS: “You’re also getting a lot of Newport Beach money.”
JIM SILVA: “Actually, I think if you look at my campaign reports, you didn’t see any Newport Beach money in there.”
BROOKE ROBBINS: There’s reportedly $126,000 that’s from outside your district. I would assume most of that came from Newport Beach”
JIM SILVA [after an awkward pause]: “Uh, the $126,000 is all over the county. It is not from Newport Beach.”
In fact, as we later confirmed using records at the County Registrar of Voters, Silva had accepted just under $100,000 in contributions from developers, lobbyists, and activists in Newport Beach. We also determined that just 15 percent of his contributions came from within his 2nd District.
And yet none of this ever hurt Silva’s career even a tiny bit. He was terrible on the Huntington Beach City Council, but then got himself to elected to the Board of Supervisors, where he was even more terrible, spending years shilling for land developers at the expense of honest government and environmental protection. When he was through there, he got himself booted up to the state Assembly, where he stayed until term limits mercifully brought his career to a close in 2012. Silva, the absolute king of failing upwards, had learned that the only thing that mattered in Orange County politics was that he make his rich Republican benefactors happy.
So good for you, Kelly Ernby, for getting Silva’s endorsement. Just be warned that it means a great deal more than you probably want.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.