*This article was modified on June 12, 2010.
By 9:15 p.m. Tuesday night, Wolf Blitzer had already declared this primary election to signal “the year of the woman.” In the biggest statewide races, it was also the year of the bazillionaire, with the not-very-suprising Republican primary wins for gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina. In the race for the most powerful elected office in Orange County, the gender thing, at least, held up. People must now, officially, stop tacking the word “appointed” in front of the words “Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens.” On the night of the most-watched sheriff’s election in a long while, the Weekly was, well, watching. Here’s how it all went down.
8:13 p.m.: Who, exactly, shows up to a Sandra Hutchens party? The appointed incumbent, an ex-LA Sheriff's Department deputy, hasn’t rallied tea-partiers and partied with Arizona’s Joe Arpaio like Bill Hunt has, nor does she have the plurality of OC GOP kingmakers behind her like Hunter does.
But she does have supporters at Original Mike’s in Santa Ana, even though there’s not much evidence she has ardent fans outside of people with personal connections to her.
I spoke with two ladies who said they became fans of Hutchens because their husbands have for years been on the sheriff’s advisory committee—formerly known as Mike Carona’s Imperial Revolutionary Guards. “You ask her [Hutchens] a question, and she looks you directly in the eyes, and that’s how you know she’s telling the truth,” said Marybelle Musco.
A whoop went up moments ago from beneath Original Mike’s faux-classy chandeliers and animal trophies when the first results rolled in: 56 percent for Hutchens of the mail ballots that had been counted. Earlier, Hutchens—in a dark pantsuit and swooping choker—had told me she was a little worried about low turnout for the election. It’s always tough to tell how this sheriff is feeling, though: She may not be the most experienced politician, but she’s clearly learned to never, ever stop smiling.
9:16 p.m.: The scene at Craig Hunter’s shindig is decidedly more coffeehouse than Hutchens’ cocktail party. After all, it’s being held at Java Joe’s in Yorba Linda. Soccer-parent types lounge on couches, and some guy is strumming a guitar and singing Goo Goo Dolls and Evan McCain covers on a mini-stage in front of a “Hunter for Sheriff” banner. We know there’s a punch line in here about Hunter’s candidacy being as relevant as the music at his party. . . . Oh, there it is. The only person dressed for politics instead of mochas is campaign manager Alex Avetoom, a young guy in a suit with an American flag pin. The vote ratios haven’t changed since the beginning of the night; Hunter’s in third. Avetoom doesn’t sound all that convinced as he tells me how it’s “possible” Hunter could overtake Hunt once the in-person poll results are counted.
9:59 p.m.: With 116 of 2,084 precincts reporting, Hutchens is holding the line at 56 percent. And Chuck DeVore has conceded in the Senate race. We expect to see some tea-party tears of solidarity when we arrive at Hunt HQ in a few minutes.
10:23 p.m.: Stereotypes sometimes turn out to be true. Hutchens threw a patrician soiree. Hunter: a low-key coffee klatsch. Hunt? Fourth of July in June, of course.
The ballroom of the Hills Hotel in Laguna Hills looks like it was shotgun-blasted with red, white and blue balloons. Black Eyed Peas and Kelly Clarkson thunder out of the speakers. The crowd’s a mix of tea-party poster fogeys, young law-enforcement-loving types, vets in wheelchairs and, yes, a few minorities. The rumors are true: Hunt’s a populist.
That doesn’t mean he’s all that popular, though. The Registrar of Voters website is projected onto a screen, but whoever’s manning the laptop is clicking everywhere except for the incoming results of the sheriff’s race. The prospect of bringing Hutchens into a run-off is looking slimmer with each minute. “It’s disappointing right now,” Hunt says. But, he offers somewhat bewilderedly as he gestures around, “people are optimistic.” He doesn’t say he is.
10:50 p.m.: Hunt campaign man and GOP talker Tim Whitacre got on the mic to update the room on the fact that Hutchens’ lead has lessened ever so slightly. And then he said this would be a long but fun night; it’d be more fun, he suggested, if people would start making use of the dance floor. Burlesque is great and all, but that would be a slideshow we’d love to run.
11:20 p.m.: Whitacre jumps back onstage and says he’s got a “scoop”: Hutchens is now at 54.9 percent, and the only precincts that have been counted so far have all been in North County. “And everyone knows where the most hard-charging, butt-kicking tea-party patriots come from, and that’s South County!” Whitacre yells.
After exiting the stage, he does a funky spinaroo move.
Earlier, a Hunt supporter approached me to comment on our photographer’s laptop. When asked how he thought the night was going for Hunt, he didn’t seem all that hopeful. But, he said, if Hunt loses, it’s not the end of the world. “People thought the world would end when Barack [Obama] won,” he pointed out. “And that hasn’t happened.” We know a few commentators on FOX News—which is playing on a TV screen in the room—who might disagree.
12:25 a.m.: On the running board of a gorgeous, cherry-colored antique Packard in Original Mike’s, the sheriff sits with her legs crossed, her elbow on her knee, her chin on her knuckles, looking up at the screen that shows the Registrar of Voters’ results. She’s beaming. Another update comes: Her lead drops a few points to 52.4 percent. Hutchens is still smiling. With nearly 80 percent of precincts reporting, you get the sense she’s starting to envision what life might be like without having to campaign in a run-off.
A group of already-sloshed business guys took shots of tequila at the bar, toasting, “To our newly elected sheriff!”
12:43 a.m.: The lights at Original Mike’s are on timer, and it’s late enough that they all, at once, shut off. A cry went up: “But she’s the sheriff!” The bulbs promptly went back on.
We walk up to the sheriff while she’s in mid-conversation with a supporter. Hutchens is saying something about the “electoral mandate.” You can understand what she’s talking about: If she wins outright tonight, that means she’s no longer in office merely by the whim of three county supervisors. “I’m really happy,” she tells us. “It was difficult being an appointed sheriff. This is validation by the people.”
1:41 p.m.: By the time we get back down to Hunt’s Ballroom of Freedom in Laguna Hills, the final precincts have been counted, and the race was done: Hutchens 51.9 percent, Hunt 28 percent, Hunter 20.1 percent. No run-off needed.
Whitacre is once again onstage, running down the list of races that, given the night’s outcome, the tea-party crowd could influence in the fall. Hunt stands on the edge of the small dance floor facing the stage, flanked by fans. Hands in pockets, shoulders slumped forward, pursed-lip smile on his face, he is the picture of upbeat deflation. “There’s still the Constitution,” we hear one consoler say. Another thanks Hunt for getting him to become more involved in politics than he ever had been in his life.
What to make of the loss? “The people have spoken,” Hunt says. “That’s what this whole thing’s about.” Then he winks.
A version of this story previously appeared on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.