A ‘People’s’ Victory in Anaheim

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Residents at an Anaheim City Council meeting in early 2016 protesting the council's rejection of the voting district map known as the "people's map." Council ultimately reversed that decision.

In a stunning late night reversal that left observers jubilant and teary-eyed, the Anaheim City Council Tuesday voted to restore a popular council districts map and place its Latino majority seat up for election in 2016.

The decision marks a rare but crucial victory for activists who want more representation at a city hall that has historically been controlled by Disneyland and other players in the tourism industry. And it follows a show of force by hundreds of residents and activists who flooded the council chambers at the last meeting and shut the proceedings down with loud protests and chants.

Many of the same people showed up again on Tuesday, with the crowd overflowing into the City Hall lobby. Public comment went on for hours, with resident after resident demanding that members of the council majority — consisting of councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring, and Councilman Jordan Brandman — reverse their decision to scrap a map called “the people’s map” because it has such broad community support.

The surprising change of heart by the council majority wasn’t a final vote, but it places the map en route to become the centerpiece of the city’s transition from electing council members citywide to electing them by district.

The map carves the city into six districts and requires council candidates to live in those districts as they campaign for council. Supporters said it perfectly balanced the interests of the city by not dividing communities of interest and neighborhoods between districts.

Two more council votes must take place for the map to be set in stone. The next vote is scheduled for the council’s Jan. 26 meeting.

The council had originally chosen the map in October. But a series of political machinations led to council members rejecting it at the Dec. 8 meeting.

First, council members excluded the map’s only Latino majority district from electing a council member in 2016, triggering outrage from activists. Then, Brandman – who was considered the swing vote because he’s the council’s only Democrat – blamed the acrimony on the map itself because it only had one Latino majority district.

So the council majority decided to pick a new map that includes at least two Latino majority districts. But the move only further outraged activists and residents, who suspected that the ulterior motive was to keep Los Amigos of Orange County President Jose Moreno – who in the 2014 election won the popular vote in what would have been the Latino majority district of the People’s Map – off the council.

A Moreno victory in 2016 would mean Mayor Tom Tait — a consistent opponent of major subsidies for the tourism industry – would only have to flip one more seat to gain the council majority, which in many respects would represent a shift in the city’s power structure away from the business establishment and to city residents, the majority of whom are Latino.

After threats of more protests – including one that would shut down an intersection outside of the city’s convention center next week during one of the largest trade shows of the year – the current council majority relented to the activists’ demands.

Tait haled the night as “historic” and thanked residents for coming to the council and expressing their “passion” for the city. And although the evening began with a stern rebuke from Tait against the city manager for not putting a more immediate restoral of the people’s map on the agenda, he thanked city staff after the turnaround.

“I want to thank the entire community of Anaheim,” Tait said.

Murray, considered the council majority leader, appeared bleary-eyed and discouraged throughout the night. She insisted that the council had wanted to support the people’s map all along, but that a letter from a national Latino organization had thrown the majority off course.

That letter, which was from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), had threatened to sue Anaheim over excluding the Latino majority district from the 2016 election, arguing that it would be a violation the federal Voting Rights Act. But members of the council majority read it differently, claiming that it indicated the people’s map was legally insufficient because it didn’t have enough Latino majority districts.

Activists have been dubious of that explanation, especially since members of the council majority had previously said they didn’t need to put the Latino majority up for election because Councilman James Vanderbilt, who is half-Peruvian and previously lived in the district, was enough representation for its largely Mexican-American population.

Tuesday night, MALDEF Staff Attorney Matthew Barragan publicly clarified that MALDEF didn’t object to the map.

After the vote, activists chanted “si se puede!” (Yes, we can in Spanish) while they reveled and exchanged hugs.

There was also another common refrain.

“We did it!”

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