Working-Class Advocates Gaining Power in Central Orange County

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It was a watershed moment for working-class people standing up to the establishment in Orange County.

Community advocates in Anaheim took on the city’s most powerful players in a high-stakes battle over voting districts – and won – getting the City Council majority to back off their efforts to scrap the so-called “people’s map,” a districts map that had widespread support among residents, as well as all of the retired judges who oversaw the city’s districting process.

Faced with a council majority that has the backing of the city’s business and political establishment, the activists – who represented a broad cross-section of Anaheim residents, including Latinos, Arabs, whites, Asians, blacks and religious leaders – did something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

They mobilized over 300 people in a protest that shut down a council meeting after dozens pleaded with the council majority to keep the “people’s map.”

And they followed up by threatening an even larger protest that would significantly disrupt business at politically-influential hotels. Soon thereafter, the council majority reversed course and adopted the “people’s map.”

The Anaheim battle came amid what, by all appearances, is a strengthening advocacy movement for working-class and poor people in central Orange County.

Community-led efforts have successfully pushed Santa Ana school officials to significantly increase their restorative justice services for at-risk youth and county probation officials to end immigration holds of juveniles.

Advocates say these victories are the culmination of years of coalition building at the city and neighborhood level.

“Like any campaign you’ve got to build up towards that. You’ve got to pace yourself to get to that level, and we did,” said Ada Briceño, a leader with the hotel workers union UNITE Here Local 11 who was closely involved in the council districts campaign.

She cited the role of local groups, like Los Amigos, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Korean Resource Center, as well as support from her union and the Orange County Labor Federation.

“We have built a very strong coalition of community organizations in Orange County that is going to be very long lasting,” said Briceño, who has also been serving as interim executive director of OCCORD.

Part of a Nationwide Trend

What’s happening in Orange County actually mirrors a broader trend across America of marginalized communities standing up to the establishment, say current and former elected officials.

Throughout Orange County and the country, “disenfranchised groups are getting engaged, and you can see that and hear that in the presidential debates,” said John Palacio, the board president of Santa Ana Unified School District, who has long been involved in Latino community advocacy.

“The communities where the recession has impacted [their lives], you’re beginning to see much more engagement, much more involvement,” he said, adding that it’s similar to what he saw in the 1960’s, when “communities rose up” and wanted to be part of the solution.

There’s an emerging political movement in America to re-build the middle class, said former state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who used to represent central Orange County in Sacramento.

“The future battles aren’t gonna be easy,” said Dunn, who is running for the 46th Congressional District seat being vacated by Loretta Sanchez. “But they’re the right battles to ensure that Orange County has a very, very large middle class where men and women [who] are willing to work a full time job and work hard at it…can actually share a piece of the American dream.”

A sign of the growing movement came at a recent event celebrating advocates of economic justice in Orange County. The crowd ended up much larger than organizers were expecting, said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of CLUE, which hosted the event last month in Santa Ana.

“We thought…we’ll get 100 people.’ We ended up with 250,” said Klein. The turnout shows “the hunger” for economic justice in Orange County, he added.

CLUE, which has successfully advocated for low-wage workers in Los Angeles County since the 1990s, recently merged its OC and LA operations to “re-invigorate” and strengthen its presence in Orange County, Klein said.

Among its first efforts since the merger, the group played a critical role in getting faith leaders to speak up during the Anaheim council districts battle, Briceño said.

And more recently, Klein said his group organized over a dozen faith leaders – including Jewish rabbis, Muslim leaders, Protestants and Catholics – to offer prayer at an vigil attended by hundreds in Anaheim after violence broke out at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

“What we know is that we have a system and a model and really a theory of change that works really well with the diverse communities and the strong partnerships that are really evident” in Orange County, Klein said.

The advocacy movement has been aided by a generational shift in demographics, which has manifested itself in a growing support for progressive politics.

New Democrat Majorities

In a county long seen as a Republican stronghold, Democrats now hold a majority of registered voters in the county’s three largest cities: Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Irvine, as well as nearby Garden Grove.

Altogether, eight Orange County cities – home to 42 percent of the county’s 3.1 million residents – are now majority-Democrat in voter registration, according to figures from county election officials.

But the voters’ political shift notwithstanding, working-class advocates have found allies on both sides of the political aisle.

The Anaheim council districts battle brought together outspoken Democrats, including school board members José Moreno and Al Jabbar, along with key Republicans like Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and Councilman James Vanderbilt, who both consistently supported the “people’s map.”

Tait repeatedly urged his colleagues to stick with the map due to its widespread endorsement by residents. His positions and votes on other key issues – like opposing special taxpayer subsidies for politically connected developers – also align with those of OCCORD and other working-class groups.

Other conservatives have been adapting to the changing population in central OC, with the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors taking a greater interest in county services that affect low-income residents. These include mental health, child welfare, and homeless services, as well as the county’s health plan for over 700,000 poor and disabled residents, known as CalOptima.

For example, Republican county Supervisor Andrew Do – whose First District includes most of central OC – successfully pushed for the county to hire a homelessness “czar” to serve as a single point-person to track homeless services and better serve people who fall through the cracks. The position was approved and funded, with the recruitment process currently underway.

Advocates say they’re excited by their growing strength and the council districts success, and that they will continue to build on that.

“I think it’s the beginning,” Klein said. “It’s really the commencement of a much broader vision for working people in Orange County.”

Future efforts include preventing tax subsidies for developers who don’t agree to community benefits, implementing district elections in other OC cities, organizing low-wage workers like grocery store clerks and hotel employees, and increased mentorship and support for at-risk youth.

“We need to continue to be organizing and growing our base,” said Briceño.

And people need to keep showing up to city council meetings to speak up “and continue to exert our voice,” she added. “I think there’s a lot to come.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Diane Singer

    It is not only important to participate in local city politics, it is essential for the education of our children, that voters and families take an active role in school district governance. The decisions made at the school board level are probably the most critical and far reaching of any made by government. How schools are managed will impact a child for life.

    I recently sat on the school board in Orange (Orange Unified School District) — most of the trustees have their children in private schools, they teach in private schools, or their spouses teach in private schools. These trustees have publicly stated a propensity towards charter schools and they are actively engaged in selling school district surplus properties. And Orange is not unique. I see this as a frightening trend toward the dismantling of public education. How will working, minority, and middle class families educate their children if not in public schools? I see it as an attack on the future of our children.

    The only way we can mitigate this trend is to elect responsible people who support pubic education — at all levels, local and county. We have to get involved, attend meetings, and ask the hard questions. But more importantly, for the sake of our children, we have to stop electing people who disrespect public education. We have to get smart, research the issues and be careful, even critical, of those running for school board seats. We can no longer simply look at the ballot destination or the person’s name, or just skip that section altogether. We have to know who we are electing. Our children’s future depends on it.

  • Cynthia Ward

    I don’t think Nick is saying 42% is majority, I think he says 42% of the County lives in the 8 OC cities that are now majority Dem.

  • RyanCantor

    “Altogether, eight Orange County cities – home to 42 percent of the county’s 3.1 million residents – are now majority-Democrat in voter registration, according to figures from county election officials.”

    Please research the definition of “majority”. Yeesh.

  • David Zenger

    This is an editorial, right?