Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.
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Disney and their hotel, resort allies keep betting that Anaheim voters are stupid.
The tactic didn’t pay off very well in the 2014 election, with Republican Mayor Tom Tait winning re-election by a landslide on an anti-corporate subsidy platform despite being bombarded by a tsunami of negative advertising.
Yet this week, we see that these special interests are doubling down on the same approach in epic fashion.
“The people of Anaheim should be alarmed,” said Tait, who is termed out this year, in an interview.
Earlier this year, Disney executives publicly stepped away from their huge, taxpayer-funded hotel subsidies.
People like Tait and his quiet preference for mayor, Democrat Ashleigh Aitken – who is running against Republican Harry Sidhu – both put out public olive branches saying they welcomed a different tone from Disney.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, is a major donor to Voice of OC and serves as our board chairman.
Yet looking at the early campaign finance disclosures, I took a different course in my column, publicly noting that it was just a matter of time.
Interests like Disney – in small cities like Anaheim – are often addicted to the same, thuggish and ugly approach to local campaigns unless really checked by organized, local communities.
This month’s most recent campaign finance disclosures show I was right to be suspicious.
They show the same pattern as always. A wave of last minute, nasty hit mail funded by dark money, cloaked in thick disclosure forms – and often filed late.
The most novel twist this year has been how Disney has hidden their hand.
We’ve all as reporters mainly focused on the direct money that Disney has funneled into their allied political action committees, such as SOAR (Support Our Anaheim Resort Area).
Overall Disney spending is over the $1.5 million mark, edging out their epic spending last cycle – which was also widely reported on.
Now, that spending has largely gone to bolstering positive name ID for the Disney-backed candidates that are vying for three seats on the city council, which would provide the votes needed to bring back subsidy deals after Election Day.
Yet the mayor’s race has taken on a darker turn.
One important lesson that Disney and it’s allies seem to have learned from the last decade – watching a strong mayor with community support like Tait run circles around the crony council they elected – is that the mayor’s bully pulpit matters.
“You can stop things as mayor,” Tait told me.
That’s why in recent days, we’ve started seeing the negative mail land.
The main target of the hit mail – largely funded by hoteliers who have gotten subsidies – has been Ashleigh Aitken, even though there are several other Democrat and Republican candidates in the race.
“I really thought Disney was serious about turning a new page and wanting to get along with everybody in the community,” Tait said about the tone of the political mail. “That’s why I’m so disappointed in them spending such a massive amount of money and continuing to be so political.”
So lets look at the players funding the hit mail parade.
Following intense debates over support for corporate subsidies, Orange County’s Republican Party declined to endorse their main candidate in the mayor’s race, Sidhu – a well off engineer who invested in fast food franchises and has competed for a slew of higher offices in recent years including a 2010 drubbing by North County Republican Shawn Nelson for a county supervisors’ seat.
Yet the closely allied Lincoln Club, where I have many conservative friends and many members publicly rail against corporate cronyism, now has their PAC finance hit mail against Aitken – with a series of contributions from hoteliers all staying below the legal threshold of $50,000 that would require they be named as major donors.
The California Homeowners Association is in at $48,000 along with Stovall Inn owner Bill O’Connell at $37,700. The Anabella Hotel is in at $24, 750, the Anaheim Plaza Hotel at $24, 750, Prospera Hotels at $37,750 and Michael Hayde at $49,500.
The Stovall Inn also contributed $49,500 to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC.
At the same time, late October campaign finance disclosures show the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC received $49,500 from the Anabella Hotel, along with $49,500 from Ajesh Patel (CEO of Prospera Hotels) and $45,000 from Michael Hayde (CEO of Western National Group) to fund positive mail advocating for Sidhu.
Both O’Connell and Sidhu were found guilty of violating campaign finance laws back in 2014 – after O’Connell illegally steered contributions to Sidhu’s 2010 supervisors’ bid against Nelson.
In 2012, Sidhu was among the 3-2 majority on Anaheim Council to approve a controversial $158-million subsidy for an O’Connell partnership to build two, four-star hotels near the outdoor GardenWalk mall.
Today’s game plan is similar to years past.
Use half-truths or non-truths in campaign mail to drive a candidates’ poll numbers down.
The mail against Ashleigh Aitken is nasty.
Note, this is a former federal prosecutor, a state fair board member, a Girl Scout leader, a mom of three girls.
Yet according to the mail funded by the Lincoln Club and hotel interests connected to subsidies, she loves free needles for drug users, is out of touch with working class people, single-handedly raises health care costs for families, supports lawless homeless camps all over the place and cheers on sex offenders.
The real message here is clear.
If you don’t agree to hand over Anaheim’s city treasury to Disney and these hotel interests as an elected official, then this mail machine will tear you up, rebrand you as the Devil himself.
If you have any sense of the kind of negotiating positions that these kinds of resort industry candidates will provide for the public, just listen to the rhetoric put out by Sidhu when the Angels cynically announced earlier this month they were opting out of their lease.
“As Mayor, I will fight to keep the Angels in Anaheim. The Angels are an important asset to Anaheim. I will change the political environment and keep the Angels in Anaheim where they belong.”
I am disappointed that they felt the need to opt out of the lease and explore their options, but it is not surprising in light of the hostile political environment in Anaheim. It is time for new leadership at City Hall that will work hard to keep our top business partners, jobs, and revenue in Anaheim.”
Now, keep in mind that these same people – folks like Councilwoman Kris Murray – who now argue that the city’s toxic political environment forced the team to opt out of their lease – are the same people who allowed them to opt out back in 2013.
I will never forget watching Tait argue against the contract attorney hired by the council majority that crafted an unpopular Angels’ sweetheart, dollar-a-year lease deal, one that eventually died due to a lack of public support.
While the lease deal quickly died, the council majority was successful in extending the Angels’ lease, voting to extend a critical trigger clause that the team should have been forced to consider when it expired way back then and options were not available.
Instead, the council majority closely linked to resort interests agreed to extend the lease trigger, even agreeing to allow the Angels to leave Anaheim out of their name.
All that was done in the interests of building goodwill for negotiations.
Negotiations that went nowhere…
What also went nowhere during that city council majority’s focus on special interest subsidies was community development, things like parks.
Instead, neighborhoods got heightened police presence and eventually riots in 2012.
Now, the team is again trying to leave.
And of course, it’s the fault of those who don’t want to just hand over the public treasury.
Tait summarizes the irony and the underlying issue of the campaign quite well.
“This idea that Anaheim is a hostile business environment is insulting to the city. Since when does not giving massive subsidies to businesses that don’t need it mean you’re anti-business?
“Anaheim is extremely business friendly – look, more than a dozen hotels have been built since 2012 without a dime of subsidies.
“The only people I find who support these subsidies seem to be the ones who are making money off them in some way.”