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.
Subscribe now to receive emails letting you know about his latest work.
After blowing out the GOP this past November, Orange County Democrats now face a really tough election challenge as they move to pick a new chairperson for the local Democratic Party next month.
The big question rumbling around office hallways and all the holiday parties is whether the face of the party now needs to better match the base?
In the wake of last month’s blue wave, many party activists noticed that candidates like Harley Rouda, Mike Levin, Katie Porter, Cottie Petrie-Norris, Tom Umberg and Doug Chaffee don’t exactly match the faces of the boots on the ground that canvassed to get them into office.
The issue came into focus after Fran Sdao, who led a historic victory for Democrats in Orange County this year as party chair, announced shortly after Election Day that her family is moving to Washington, D.C.
Soon after, former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom – who was gearing up for a run at the Third District County Supervisors seat opened up by Todd Spitzer’s win for DA – announced a switch for the Democratic Party chair job.
Krom told me she agreed to step aside to help former Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez have an easier path to victory in the upcoming supervisors race.
Indeed, just this week, Sanchez issued a public endorsement of Krom for party chair.
Yet despite the support from Sanchez, Krom has drawn a strong challenge from a Latino labor leader, Ada Briceño, whose leadership role in the successful ballot drive in Anaheim against Disney, has highlighted her ability to mobilize the Democratic Party base.
It’s a base that Briceño, co-president of the local hotel workers union, Unite Here, Local 11, can speak to directly…in their own language.
She sees it not only as a clear difference between her and Krom but one that should be focused on.
“It very much matters,” Briceño told me. “Because the electorate…people are watching. They’re asking, is this my party? Does it speak my language?
We saw where the votes came from, Briceño said. “People who run campaigns on the ground understand our vote is crucial.
“It’s time for a person of color.
I don’t think we should be apologetic or feel uncomfortable about that.”
Briceño, who also took over leadership of the progressive public policy advocacy and research group known as OCCORD (Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development) in recent years, said her election brings a clear message about inclusion.
“Latinos belong in this party,” she says. We represent what they’re about. We’re the people’s party. I know I can do that. I’ve done it in my union.
“I’m ready to lend those things I’ve learned to my party.
I recruit leaders every day, Briceño says. “That’ s my job. That’s what I know how to do.
We need an army of people to do the work we need to do,” Briceño said noting the boots on the ground, get-out-the-vote approach that won the ballot measure Measure L in Anaheim and propelled many other Democrats to victory last month.
“That’s what I want to bring to the party. I know I have the potential to inspire people to believe this is their party. You want to know it’s an organization with a plan, with a vision. You want to make sure your time (as a volunteer) is worthwhile.
“I have the skills to do that.
I run a union.”
Yet that’s where some Democratic insiders and elected officials privately balk.
Some question, only quietly at this point, whether Briceño can reasonably make a clear distinction between party vs. union interests on issues like minimum wages or environmental issues where special interests inside the party could collide.
Krom argues this is her best strength, being able to corral all the different elements of the Democratic Party together – calling on more than two decades in public office, having served with most Democratic party elected leaders on regional boards and commissions.
Krom said Orange County’s Democratic Party is headed into an exciting period but a period that needs a strong vision, rooted in strong collaborations between very different communities of interest.
“I’m a big tent person,” Krom said. “I’m collaborative.”
The Democratic Party, for years used to losing elections, has to think like a winning organization now, Krom said.
She also expects Republicans to moderate and look for fresh more diverse faces as candidates. Krom said Democrats “can’t take anything for granted.”
There’s a whole new community of people who have been awakened through activism, Krom said, and the local party needs strong leadership and fundraising to keep them all involved.
Krom, as well as Briceño, said the focus now for Democrats shifts to local elections – such as the upcoming race to fill a vacant county supervisors seat in the Third District.
Cities such as Fullerton and Orange also potentially face special elections to fill vacancies triggered by November Election Day wins for higher office for local elected officials.
Krom wants the party to do more for local candidates, reflecting that when she ran for Congress being a Democrat in Orange County “was like being part of a secret society.”
Krom, who spent nearly two decades as an elected official, said she can help candidates on fundamentals.
“I know about running, winning and holding a seat,” Krom said. “I understand the obstacles.”
Krom also directly takes on the issue of diversity in being compared to Briceño, saying she can effectively reach out to diverse communities.
“I just stepped aside for a race in the board of supervisors for the highest profile Latina in Orange County,” Krom said.
“I served on the city council in Irvine, during it’s greatest growth in diversity. I don’t think there’s a council member in history that did more to engage diverse communities,” Krom said, adding that she played a prominent role in campaigns for Suhkee Kang, who served on city council and as mayor as well as Farrah Khan, who this past month won a city council seat.
“I’ve got a great track record of identifying talent, regardless of the profile,” Krom said.
Krom, who points out she’s won major Democratic Party awards such as the Truman award, said she argued to Briceño that she should take the vice-chair position instead.
Yet Krom also has a past as an elected leader, one that hasn’t always been celebrated.
Krom acknowledges that in her time on the Irvine City Council, she’s made enemies over policy and politics from the dais on issues such as the veterans’ cemetery – which she said she supports.
Many also question how the management of Irvine’s Great Park was handled, with a series of lucrative no-bid contracts awarded during Krom’s tenure on council, juxtaposed alongside the ultimate failure of the original project’s vision.
Krom disputes that kind of view, arguing that the end of redevelopment agencies in California really killed the Great Park vision, along with ensuing Republican city council majorities that leaned too heavily toward developers’ interests.
“I’m not running for chair of Great Park, or the Irvine City Council,” she said. “I’m running for Democratic Party Chair.
“I have better credentials to do it that than anyone else and I’ll stand on my record.”