This was John Wayne’s favorite booth, the server says. It’s all dark and rustic and Jolly Old England; the Duke himself gazes from a framed portrait over the table, pensive beneath his cowboy hat. The server wrests the table from the wall to reveal an ancient phone jack, which allowed John Wayne to conduct movie star business over giant plates of prime rib at Gulliver’s Restaurant many, many years ago.
Across the table sits John Moorlach, the man who predicted the Orange County bankruptcy before it happened. The man who warned of public pension pain before it bit so hard it hurt. Long a political powerhouse as O.C. transitioned from that Wayne-esque Republican era to its purple present, Moorlach was the treasurer-tax collector who stabilized and professionalized the county investment pool after the implosion, the county supervisor who became Enemy No. 1 of public employee unions when he tried to rein in their retirement benefits, the state senator who joined with Democrats to prod counties to adopt Laura’s Law, which can compel mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves or others to accept help.
Moorlach may also be evidence of how much Orange County is changing. After five years in the Senate representing central O.C. from the coast to Anaheim — long a red district — he lost to Democrat Dave Min in 2020. The next year, he ran for a familiar seat on the Board of Supervisors, and lost to Democrat Katrina Foley. He mulled jumping into the recall race against Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as running for state controller or state treasurer, but is well aware that no Republican holds statewide office in California and is leaving that challenge to fellow Republicans.
He took out papers to run for county auditor-controller — a fiscal watchdog post that might be well-suited to Moorlach’s background — but his CPA license is officially inactive and critics charged that he was thus unqualified to run. Moorlach maintains he could easily fulfill the license’s continuing education requirements before the fall election and filled everything out.
“I have to drop these off,” he said he told his wife, Trina, on the day of the filing deadline back in March.
“No, you don’t,” she told him, reminding him that he’s Public Enemy No. 1 to O.C.’s public employee unions and that it could get messy. “You’ve been doing this for 25 years. Take a rest.”
“I said, OK. I have to let go,” Moorlach recounted in that moody booth, framed by a Guinness mirror. “It was emotional.”
So what now for one of O.C.’s most stalwart institutions?
Moorlach is working through mountains of old newspapers that he’s been saving for more than a quarter-century. He’s made it back to 1995 — the year he was appointed Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector, replacing the disgraced Bob Citron — and he clips out stories that mention him and saves them in scrapbooks. (There are fewer than 100, he assures us.)
He’s tending to his book collection — more than 4,000 tomes arranged on Mission Craftsman-style bookshelves in his Costa Mesa home — with a keen emphasis on California history.
He’s writing regular columns on Southern California for the conservative, anti-communist Epoch Times (“Personal Ambition in Politics Can Do More Harm Than Good,” “Road Trip: See California’s Socialist Failures as Historical Landmarks,” “$400 Rebate Doesn’t Address High Gas Taxes in California), and they want him to write more often. He is entertaining various private sector CEO/COO offers (“My next job should be the best job”) and fundraising for other Republicans like Pat Bates, who’s looking to return to the Board of Supervisors.
How about becoming a fellow at the California Policy Center? The Libertarian think tank “was created to hold government officials accountable for their spending and disastrous regulation, and, man, I can’t think of many people better built for that work than John,” said Will Swaim, president, by email.
“He is to accountability what Jefferson is to the Constitution, what Teddy Roosevelt was to mustaches. He’s iconic. He paid for that, of course. Accountability is to most politicians what holy water is to vampires, and the vampire class opposed him every election cycle. Their victory in the last election cycle has been the state’s loss. Bringing him into CPC gives John another chance to keep those bastards honest.
“In his years in Sacramento, John was the only CPA in the legislature,” Swaim continued. “Part of the pleasure of watching him from the cheap seats was seeing him explain math to the liberal arts majors and lawyers who were his colleagues. It was like watching a man attempt to train a dog to walk on its hind feet – only occasionally successful, but always educational for us if not for the dog.”
Elected office, though, can be a hard habit to quit.
California is in desperate need of a tax overhaul so its revenues don’t peak and plummet like some Disneyland roller coaster, Moorlach says. There’s obviously a problem with how we’re handling services for the mentally ill and homeless (“When Reagan closed down the ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next’ type mental institutions, what was supposed to follow was community clinics — but that never really happened”). He’s a fan of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed CARE Court, a Laura’s Law-esque effort that would require counties to provide the services sick people need to get healthy.
“The largest mental institution in Orange County is the O.C. jail,” he says. “Same in L.A.”
No matter where he lands, Moorlach will keep parsing numbers tracking the fiscal health of cities and school districts. He’ll keep a firm eye on how much sweetened public pensions are costing taxpayers (while pulling down his own $93,451 pension from his years at the county — he has often said he wants to ensure there’s enough money to pay for his, and everyone else’s). He’d be a good state controller, he says.
At 66, a conservative Republican in an increasingly progressive county, we wonder what the future holds for Moorlach. Politics is brutal, bare-knuckled sport, perhaps even more so on the local level: Every move will resurrect union claims that he seeks to destroy the working folk, spurring generous funding for his rivals. Controversy over what he knew about a staffer’s alleged rape by then-Assemblyman Bill Brough will be raised again. Harsh words he’s had for his opponents will not quickly fade from memories.
The changes in O.C. — as it morphed from red to purple to, in many places, blue — are disappointing, Moorlach says. He tells us to write down “2000 Mules” — the name of a film by a “right wing” commentator purporting to prove that voter fraud stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Using geo-tracking cell phone data collected by a group called True the Vote, as well as video set up at drop boxes, the film asserts that “mules” were caught delivering 400,000 illegal votes.
The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, and many others, say there’s no there there. The evidence it points to is inherently flawed, as many states allow people to return completed mail ballots for others; and Truth the Vote didn’t claim the ballots themselves were necessarily illegal, but that the process was, as some states forbid dropping off another person’s ballot.
Research has shown that there’s always some voter fraud, but hundreds or even thousands of ballots in an ocean of millions don’t tip an election. We asked Moorlach if he really believed that, in this case, it did. He tried to play the trailer for us, but cell phone reception wasn’t good in John Wayne’s favorite booth. We packed up and headed out.
The server asked if we enjoyed our meal. Moorlach deadpanned that it was terrible. A shadow clouded her face before he burst into a gigantic smile and everyone laughed, and he assured her the meal was fantastic. We left the moodiness of Jolly Old England and stepped into the bright afternoon sunlight, where the sky, like the county itself, had turned a deeper shade of blue.