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This year’s election could be another referendum on Anaheim’s relationship with its biggest business interests, as voters will select a new city council majority and vote on a controversial minimum wage initiative requiring taxpayer-subsidized businesses to pay their workers more.
Mayor Tom Tait, who has led the charge against corporate subsidies and projects he views as prioritizing Anaheim Resort businesses over the city’s residents, is termed out after eight years. His supportive council majority is also up for grabs, with two allies, Councilmen Jose Moreno and James Vanderbilt, facing re-election. A third council seat will be vacated by termed-out Councilwoman Kris Murray, a vocal critic of the mayor.
On the other side are those who say Tait’s crusade against subsidies has devastated the business partnerships that are the backbone of the city’s economy. The Disneyland Resort recently rescinded two major subsidy deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and cancelled a four-diamond luxury hotel project receiving one of those subsidies.
Voters will also decide on three ballot initiatives written and sponsored by resort worker unions.
Measure L would require certain businesses in the Anaheim Resort that receive taxpayer subsidies to pay their workers $18 an hour by 2022, wages that will increase each year after by two percent or higher based on cost of living increases.
Although there is disagreement over whether the measure, if passed, would apply to Disneyland’s 30,000 workers – opponents say it won’t and the measure’s author says it will – many of the theme park’s employees have protested and spoken at council meetings about how their wages aren’t enough for basic expenses.
In recent months, Disneyland has approved new contracts raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019 for more than 10,000 of its employees.
Two other union-sponsored initiatives, measures J and K, would if rejected by voters invalidate development agreements that include subsidies for two luxury hotel projects by the Wincome Group. Even if the measures pass, keeping the agreements intact, opponents of Measure L have argued the minimum wage measure would keep the Wincome Group from moving forward with construction.
Disneyland, worker unions and resort businesses have poured an unprecedented amount of money into this year’s election, with Disneyland alone spending $1.5 million and worker unions collectively spending another $1.5 million.
While Disney and unions are about tied for total spending, they’re also spending for different purposes. Almost all of Disney’s contributions have gone toward the Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) political action committee, which is spending on the city council race, while the majority of resort worker union funding has gone toward promoting Measure L and to opposing two other ballot measures validating subsidized hotel projects.
Hotel developers also are mobilizing in the mayor’s race and to influence ballot measures. The Wincome Group, which has two hotel projects in the pipeline that once built would receive city subsidies, has spent at least $626,600 to support Measures J & K. The company has poured another $462,420 to oppose Measure L.
William O’Connell and Ajesh Patel, developers of the Doubletree Hotel, have both given tens of thousands to political action committees supporting former city councilman Harry Sidhu for mayor. O’Connell is also the developer behind two luxury hotel projects by the GardenWalk Mall which may also be subject to Measure L’s requirements.
Sidhu, a licensed mechanical engineer whose company SRH Management owns and operates fast food restaurants, served on the city council for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2012. He’s been endorsed by the city’s police and fire unions, Orange County Business Council, and supported by the hotel industry and Disneyland Resort.
Sidhu has called Disneyland and the Anaheim Resort the city’s “golden goose” and says continuing to support those businesses – through subsidies and incentives – will generate funds for public safety and other essential services.
He has also touted addressing homelessness as a top campaign priority. At a candidate forum in September at GOALS Academy charter school, Sidhu said Anaheim should push for “compassionate” solutions to homelessness for individuals that want help and use law enforcement to address the remainder – which he estimated at 70 percent – who are not interested in accepting assistance.
Aitken, a trial attorney and former federal prosecutor, is a political newcomer in Anaheim. She also serves on the Orange County Fair Board.
When she announced her campaign, Aitken said she generally supported subsidies and believed they are important incentives for businesses but the deals needed to be “fair for everyone.” More recently, Aitken said Disney and other companies need to be held accountable for accepting subsidies by paying higher wages.
At the GOALS Academy debate, Aitken said the city has already been a leader on homelessness and should focus on building more permanent supportive housing rather than opening up another shelter in the city.
Hotel developers like Wincome, O’Connell and Patel have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to different political action committees supporting Sidhu.
The Anaheim / Orange County Hotel & Lodging Association political action committee, funded in large part by O’Connell and Patel, has spent $88,692 against Aitken and $57,427 to support Sidhu, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures.
The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce PAC — which has received $49,500 donations each from Patel, a Wincome subsidiary and the CEO of real estate company Western National Group — has spent at least $181,000 to support Sidhu.
Two Wincome Group subsidiaries and Western National Group also each gave donations of $24,750 to a PAC called Citizens for Anaheim’s Future, which has spent at least $76,000 on Sidhu’s behalf.
Longtime community activist Cynthia Ward and former councilwoman Lorri Galloway have also jumped into the race.
Ward, a supporter of Tait, has been a fixture of city politics as a citizen for more than a decade. Like Tait, she’s staunchly opposed to any kind of taxpayer-funded financial incentives for big businesses and argues the city needs to diversify its economy to be less dependent on low-wage tourism industry jobs.
She is also the leader of a citizen watchdog organization, Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility (CATER), which has sued the city a handful of times. One lawsuit was over a proposal to give Angels owner Arte Moreno a new lease, and another over bonds approved to finance the expansion of the Anaheim Convention Center.
The Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), which has endorsed Aitken, has given $100,000 to the California Taxpayer Protection Committee, which in turn has paid for mailers to oppose Sidhu, support Ward and also support a city council candidate in District 3, Robert Nelson.
Other candidates for mayor include emergency medical technician Robert Williams, Educator H. Fuji Shioura, small business owner Rudy Gaona, and Tony D. Martin.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, is the chairman of Voice of OC’s board of directors. OCEA is a major donor to Voice of OC.
Incumbent councilman James Vanderbilt is running for the first time in the city’s new district-based elections system in District 2.
While Vanderbilt has voted with Tait on major issues, like opposing tax subsidies, other times he has been a reluctant ally to the mayor. Vanderbilt has served on the Anaheim Community Services Board, Planning Commission and for a decade as a board member at the Anaheim City School District.
In his candidate statement, Vanderbilt (who has self-funded his campaigns) touts his work securing improvements at parks and more aggressive code enforcement efforts to cut down on “for-sale” cars and recreational vehicles parked on city street and in neighborhoods.
Former city councilman Jordan Brandman served one term between 2012 and 2016. After losing his bid for re-election in District 3 against Moreno in 2016, this year Brandman moved to District 2. Brandman is a former board member for the Anaheim Union High School District.
Brandman has called for creating neighborhood improvement funds that will target homelessness and increasing the police force by 25 officers.
Support Our Anaheim Resort, which is largely funded by Disney, has spent $297,016 to support Brandman, who supported subsidies for Disney and luxury hotel developments while a city councilman. Recently, he told the Orange County Register that he would hold Disney “accountable so the city’s largest employer is doing right by all residents.”
Duane Roberts, a longtime community activist from West Anaheim, has pushed for a Public Safety Board with expanded powers. He is a strong advocate for rent control, has called for a “safe parking” program for homeless people living in cars and recreational vehicles, and has proposed turning Dad Miller Golf Course into a large public park.
Licensed private investigator Robert Trimble and accounts receivable director Donald Bruhns are also appearing on the ballot, although neither have filed a ballot statement.
Moreno, a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is known for suing the city of Anaheim to force the transition to district-based elections. He was elected to the city council in 2016, but is up for re-election after half a term, after the city clerk picked his seat in a lottery to serve a shortened term as part of the city’s transition to district elections.
Before he was elected to the city council, Moreno served on the Anaheim City School District board.
Moreno, like Tait, has criticized Disney and hoteliers for subsidies that amount to “taxpayer giveaways” and believes the city’s long focus on the prosperity of the Anaheim Resort hasn’t trickled down to the city’s neediest residents. He says Anaheim needs to focus on quality-of-life issues, including expanding affordable housing and resources for the homeless.
Mitch Caldwell is the vice president of a roofing contracting firm, Howard Roofing. Caldwell has served on the Planning Commission and Charter Review Committee, and is a founding board member of the Anaheim Historic Preservation Foundation.
Caldwell – who has also benefited from $302,256 in spending by SOAR – is among the industry-backed candidates who say city-funded financial incentives have enabled the success of the Anaheim Resort, allowing the city to avoid higher taxes and fees on residents.
He lists homelessness, hiring more police officers and increased transparency “about the revenue the resort generates and direct money to our neighborhoods” as top campaign issues.
Robert Nelson, an aircraft mechanic for American Airlines who ran for the same seat in 2016, has said he opposes “sweetheart deals for rich hotel developers” but pitches himself as a neither a hardline critic of subsidies nor a supporter of Anaheim Resort interests.
Nelson is a member of the Public Utilities Board and a former vice chair of the Public Safety Board.
Three candidates are running in Anaheim Hills to fill the seat held by Kris Murray, who is running for county supervisor should Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer win his bid for District Attorney.
Trevor O’Neil, owner of Colonial Home Care Services in Orange, is a member of the Anaheim Hills Community Council, Orange County Taxpayers Association board, and sits on a legislative committee for the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
O’Neil has also benefited from spending by SOAR, $318,937 in campaign advertising so far this year. He opposes the minimum wage initiative and has been a vocal critic of the current city council majority.
Grant Henninger, an urban planning consultant, has served on the Planning Commission and Community Services Board. He previously worked for Jamboree Housing, an affordable housing developer.
Henninger says he would work to change the polarized and divisive atmosphere of the current city council. Both he and O’Neil say they would increase resources for the city’s police and fire departments.
Henninger points to his previous work experience for Jamboree as giving him special insight into the homelessness problem, and says the Anaheim Housing Authority should take a more active role in preventing homelessness, although his website doesn’t offer any specific solutions.
Patty Gaby, a retired teacher for the La Habra High School district, has touted her endorsement by Tait and has highlighted the role of special interests in city politics in her campaign materials. Her website largely praises Tait’s work as mayor: his opposition to tax subsidies, his opposition to a proposed deal for Angels owner Arte Moreno, and efforts to trim regulations on businesses.
Corrections: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Wincome Group spent $626,000 to oppose Measure L. The company spent $626,600 to support Measures J & K and another $462,420 to oppose Measure L. It also stated James Vanderbilt doesn’t have a web site. His web site is votevanderbilt.com
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