Jim Righeimer is the new mayor of Costa Mesa. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / December 13, 2012)

All that? It's attack-style politics, Righeimer says. "And so what happens is the labor unions are clear that they have to destroy Jim Righeimer and say horrible things about him to make it about him."

Righeimer sums it up as voters who are going to believe it all, others who won't and "another chunk in the middle who goes, 'Ya know, I'm not real sure, honey, about what's happening here.' That's when a husband a wife talk. 'But gosh, when there's smoke, there's fire. There must be something here.'

"Anybody else who knows me or meets me goes, 'That's not Jim Righeimer. What are they talking about?'"

Baugh said a conversation he had with Righeimer helped spur an OCGOP policy: Don't help candidates who take money from public employee unions.

There were "too many Republicans taking money from the public employee unions, then voting to give them rich and unsustainable benefits," Baugh says. "We had to stop supporting those Republicans."

Righeimer says when lost his Assembly bid in 2000, he thought his time was up.

"They won. I never really thought I'd ever be in politics again because of being a homebuilder and having all those things happen," he says. "Yet I paid back all my debts. I never filed for bankruptcy. I got through it all, but it still looks [bad] on paper."

Trying to stifle the financial prowess of unions has long been a goal of his. He helped with Proposition 226, though the measure failed in the 1998 California primary. It would have required employee permission for employers and labor organizations to use wages or dues for political purposes.

"Unions can take money out of your union dues and spend it on politics? Even if you disagree?" Righeimer asks. "It just seemed so obviously ridiculous."

Within the past two months, though, Righeimer has toned down some of his talk and indicated he's more willing to negotiate with labor.

This has been well-received by the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents about 200 of Costa Mesa's workers.

"I hope we receive national attention for coming back from a raucous and acrimonious relationship to a relationship that fosters creativity, that fosters innovation, that fosters growth and a new way to deliver services in a more efficient way to the citizens," OCEA General Manager Nick Berardino said during the Nov. 20 council meeting, when Righeimer formally proposed rescinding the remaining 70 layoff notices.

The OCEA has certainly had its differences with Righeimer, says OCEA spokeswoman Jennifer Muir, and some of those differences are still there.

"But coming in 2013, OCEA is committed to working together and figuring out a way that we can again have a collaborative relationship that is in the best interest of Costa Mesa, its residents, the community and the city employees," she says. "We're really looking forward to that with Jim in the coming year."

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Exemplary South Coast Plaza

"We got out of the ER, but we're still in the hospital."

That's how Righeimer describes his city's financial situation. In an interview, he repeatedly goes back to what he contends is an unsustainable employee pension system. "It's just please, OK. Thank you for sharing, but you're out of your mind. There's no math that makes this work."

He's proud of the five-year capital improvement budget that's been put together and points to South Coast Plaza an exemplary. The city should be maintaining itself like the top-rated shopping center does.

"Do you see anything torn up over there and not right?" Righeimer asks. "They put away money to repaint it, to fix it, to put a new roof on it every 12 years. They reseal the parking lot every five years. It's just what the rest of the world does — and cities used to do — until they ran out of money."