Something rare happened in Anaheim this month. It left observers stunned, even teary-eyed. Not too long ago, many would have considered it virtually impossible.
A group of Latino activists took on City Hall — and they won.
They were fighting for the restoration of the “people’s map,” a City Council districts map with broad community support that the council majority had scrapped. They also wanted the map’s most Latino district to elect a council member this year and not in 2018 as the council majority had previously decided.
In the face of those decisions, the activists did something they always do — staged a protest at a City Council meeting, a protest so strong that Mayor Tom Tait had to prematurely adjourn the meeting.
But they also did something they don’t always do — hold a closed-door meeting with key members of the city’s business establishment, in this case a prominent hotelier and other representatives of the tourism industry.
During the meeting, say those who were privy to the details, the activists told the business representatives that if the people’s map didn’t pass, they would stage a big protest during the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) scheduled for late January. It is one of the city’s biggest annual conventions and a serious money maker for the hotels.
The activists threatened to turn 1,000 people to the streets during the show, shutting down roads and making it an unpleasant experience for conventioneers. The threats hit home.
NAMM representatives declined comment. But council members have said the leadership had in the past threatened to leave for another city’s convention center, and the activists knew if they could create a hostile environment, there’s a good chance 2016 would be NAMM’s last year in Anaheim.
“One of the first things we wanted to do was mobilize in a way we haven’t before,” said Ada Briceño, interim executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development. “We thought we would do something that made them feel uncomfortable… if they’re going to listen to someone and it hasn’t been us so far, we were going to go after their financial interests.”
Briceño said the activists contacted the police department in advance to inform them of their plans. Dozens of people were prepared to be arrested, and turn the NAMM show into political theater.
According to Briceño and other sources, the meeting was held at the offices of Unite Here Local 11, a union that represents hotel workers in Anaheim and where Briceño is also the elected secretary-treasurer. Many of the protesters involved are hotel workers.
Briceño wouldn’t comment on the meeting’s participants, but other sources say it was spearheaded by Shaun Robinson, who is general manager of the Hilton Anaheim and a strong voice at City Hall. Robinson did not return phone calls for comment.
Robinson and the others wanted to know what it would take to stop the NAMM protest. Briceño’s response was simple.
“We’re going to continue with our plan until we get our map back. So you should go and get us our third vote,” Briceño said. “And so they got a third vote.”
Briceño and other City Hall observers believe that third vote was Councilwoman Lucille Kring. Kring had flip-flopped on major city issues in the past – especially amid campaign fundraisers – and seemed the most vulnerable. Kring didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment.
In fact, at one point during the Jan. 12 council meeting at which the “people’s map” was restored, Kring walked out of the council chambers, with Councilman Jordan Brandman following her. When they returned, it seemed the winds had changed. Instead of the discussion moving toward choosing another map, council members voted unanimously in favor of the people’s map.
While they continue to revel in their victory, activists acknowledge that they had no idea how things would ultimately turn out that night.
The scuttlebutt was that the majority – particularly Brandman — was holding firm to its position. Members of the majority wanted a different map that had two majority Latino citizen voting age districts, but activists said it gave them a worse chance of electing Latino-friendly candidates.
Brandman didn’t return a phone call for comment.
Former Councilwoman Lorri Galloway confirmed that representatives of the city’s tourism industry had called her and asked her to help persuade Brandman to change his vote. She wouldn’t say who had called.
“I got called from friends in the resort area, definitely,” Galloway said. “Businesses and the resort area absolutely were not wanting [the protest] to happen.”
But Galloway said there was a lot of pressure on the council majority to stay firm. She was coy about who was exerting that pressure, but it seemed to be a veiled reference to big players in town like Disneyland and former Mayor Curt Pringle, who remains one of the city’s most influential lobbyists.
The victory could end up being looked back on as a watershed. Not only was it a rare example of activists staring down Anaheim’s business establishment, but it was also a significant step toward their ultimate goal of changing the make-up of the council.
The current split is 3-2, with Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman James Vanderbilt forming a minority bloc that is seen as at the very least not in lock-step with the interests of Disneyland and the city’s tourism industry.
With the expansion of the city council from five to seven members this year and the implementation of council districts, there’s a good chance that Dr. Jose Moreno, president of Los Amigos of Orange County and a likely council candidate in the city’s most Latino district, will win a seat.
From there, the activists only have to flip one more seat to win the majority.
“People were very happy. They really put their sweat and tears in this,” Briceño said. “For me it’s not what the hotel industry did, it’s what the people did to get them there… where they were willing to go in order to exert their voice, and push back.”