Disney’s Hidden Hand in the Anaheim City Council Race


The castle at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. (Photo credit: Public Domain)

When Anaheim City Council candidate Steve Chavez Lodge told a television reporter last month that he had only received the maximum allowable $1,800 campaign contribution from the Disneyland Resort — perhaps the city’s most influential political player — the comment was accurate.

But it wasn’t the whole truth.

While $1,800 is the total of direct contributions made by the mega-resort to Chavez Lodge, he and fellow council candidate Jordan Brandman — both darlings of the city’s business establishment — have received much more indirectly through a few political action committees (PACs) that are heavily financed by Disney.

All told, Disney has pumped more than $189,000 into four PACs, according to a review of current campaign finance reports. And those PACs have spent more than $111,000 promoting Brandman, Chavez Lodge or both. The PACs have also contributed $10,200 to Lodge's and Brandman's campaigns, the records show.

Unions, meanwhile, have spent heavily in support of former labor leader John Leos, who with former Councilwoman Lucille Kring represent the biggest challenge to Brandman and Chavez Lodge in the race for two open seats on the council. Together, the Orange County Employees Association and United Employee Organizations of Orange County have put more than $188,000 into a PAC supporting Leos.

Update: On Thursday evening, OCEA reported a $250,000 contribution to the Committee to Support John Leos for Anaheim City Council 2013 Sponsored By The Orange County Employees Association, bringing total contributions to that committee to $438,000

But the route that Disney has taken to fund its candidates has so far been more circuitous.

The political influence of Disney and other special interests has always been a given in Anaheim, but it has taken on greater significance this election season in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to change the city’s electoral system so council members are elected by districts.

Council members are now elected at large, which supporters of the ACLU lawsuit have argued unfairly tilts the playing field toward candidates supported by the city’s affluent residents and the business establishment. Four of the five current council members live in the wealthy Anaheim Hills neighborhood.

Under a council districts system, the power of campaign cash would be diluted because candidates could win elections simply by walking their small districts, say supporters of the lawsuit.

Anaheim's $1,800 contribution limit was imposed to prevent wealthy interests from exercising a “disproportionate or controlling influence on the election of city candidates” and to “minimize the opportunity for, and the appearance or perception of, corruption.”

The presence of independent PACs, however, has largely rendered the law ineffective.

The Orange County Business Council’s BIZ PAC received $30,000 from “Disney Worldwide Services,” the records show. The PAC has spent $69,838.97 on mailers promoting Chavez Lodge and Brandman for council, according to the records.

The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC, which records show received $48,000 from the “Disneyland Resort,” has spent $15,610.51 on “slates supporting” Chavez Lodge.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Taxpayers Association PAC, which lists Disney as a “crusader level” sponsor on its website, has received $60,500 from the resort and has spent $25,696 on mailers supporting Brandman and Chavez Lodge.

In other instances, the PACs make contributions directly to the candidates’ campaigns.

Both the Taxpayers Association PAC and BIZ PAC have made $1,800 contributions to the Brandman and Chavez Lodge campaigns, records show, while the chamber PAC has contributed $400 to Chavez Lodge’s campaign and $800 to Brandman’s campaign.

The Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) PAC — a group that former Mayor Curt Pringle has praised as having “critical” influence over council elections — has received $11,000 from Disney and contributed $1,800 to Brandman’s campaign, records show.

While these entities are independent of Disney, the resort has some influence over how they operate.

Carrie Nocella, Disneyland's director of government relations and minority business development, sits on the Orange County Taxpayers Association PAC’s nine-member governing board, according to the organization’s website.

Nocella also sits on BIZ PAC’s seven-member board of trustees and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee.

Lucy Dunn, treasurer of BIZ PAC, acknowledged that the PAC spends to elect candidates that support its interests but said that Disney has no direct control over where the money goes.

“It’s important for business to maintain that economic growth in Orange County, and having the right elected officials in place is part of it,” Dunn said.

Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown did not return an email and phone calls seeking comment.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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