Speak Up Newport hosted candidates in the California Assembly District 74 race for a forum Wednesday night. From left to right: Keith Curry, Emanuel Patrascu, Matthew Harper and Anila Ali. (George Schroeder / April 10, 2014)

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When the expensive new civic center opened in Newport Beach last year, some claimed it as a symbol of an irresponsible government out of touch with the people it represented.

Councilman Keith Curry served as mayor at the time. He has embraced the project, which ultimately cost the city nearly $140 million, as an example of quality work that will meet the needs of the community for decades to come. He noted that the project is more than just a City Hall; it comprises a library, park, emergency center, community room and parking structure.

Nearly a year after the building opened, the project continues to follow Curry, now a candidate for California's 74th State Assembly District.

Supportive of leaving local issues to local government, Curry explained that those who tried using the project against him should instead be focusing on the important topics in the race.

"The issues that we should be talking about in this campaign are creating jobs, cutting taxes, protecting Proposition 13 and improving our schools," Curry said in an interview Thursday. "My opponents are in the cul-de-sac of fire rings," a reference to Newport's effort to regulate the fire pits that dot the beach areas and Huntington Beach's effort to leave them alone.

During a forum hosted by community group Speak Up Newport on Wednesday night, Curry and his opponents answered questions that ranged from how they were most qualified for the seat to what they thought about the "split roll" property tax. But Curry also fielded a question about the very place where they sat: the Civic Center.

Toward the end of the evening, the four candidates present — Curry, Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper, Irvine teacher Anila Ali and Emanuel Patrascu, district director for Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) — were each allowed to ask a question of another.

Petrascu took the chance to press Curry on allegations that extra spending on the civic center went toward helping the architect enhance the space in order to win awards.

Petrascu prodded Curry on whether such motivations represented conservative values. (He, Curry and Harper are Republicans, while Ali and Santa Ana community activist Karina Onofre, absent that evening, align with the Democratic Party.)

"Mediocrity in urban design is not a conservative value," the Newport Beach councilman retorted, describing the project to the roughly 50 people in attendance as a tangible contribution to the improvement of the quality of life.

Curry reiterated Thursday: "It's what results from leaders who lack both vision and ability."

Indeed, the Newport Beach Civic Center and Park has won two awards from the Orange County Chapter of the American institute of Architects and is LEED certified — an environmental designation — at the gold level, the second-highest of four rankings.

The opening May 4 was attended by about 1,800 people, and only a few people showed up in protest, he added.

"I think this is a jewel in a crown that we call Newport Beach," Ali said in congratulations to her opponent, as she received the microphone to ask Harper about why seniors in Huntington Beach seemed so unhappy with him during a recent council meeting.

Harper responded that she attended on a night when council members were hearing a controversial item. He then traced back to his core principles: "I believe in America, and I believe in freedom."

Earlier in the 40-minute forum, Harper urged people to look at his voting record if they are concerned about tax and fee increases being imposed by an unrestrained government.

"My record is solid," he said.

The only woman on the panel, Ali had noted that she knows what it's like to be in the minority. She spoke energetically, promising to reinvest in infrastructure and schools in the district, which includes all or parts of Newport Beach, Irvine, Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods and Huntington Beach.

"I am going to bring money back to our district," she said. "We've been a donor district for far too long."

Ali further envisioned a more global California, with a stronger economy fueled by leaders who can follow in the footsteps of the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame.

Still, Petrascu argued that he was best qualified to bring about reform in Sacramento because he was familiar with those who worked there.

He also described himself as a businessman — a description Curry challenged — who has worked much of his life.

"Businesses need to have the ability to predict what their expenses are," he said of his support for Proposition 13 and rejection of the split roll, which taxes businesses and residential properties at different rates.

Curry also aligned himself with those opposing the split roll tax, explaining it would devastate California businesses, as did Harper and Ali.

Proposition 13, a California ballot initiative passed in 1978, said that a home's assessed value could rise no more than 2% per year, and property was reassessed to full market value only when sold.

As the forum drew to a close, Curry continued by saying he believes he has brought the community together.

"I think I've delivered here," he said to the audience, who sat with their backs to the new Civic Center Park.