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The Anaheim City Council races are a battle between Disneyland resort-backed candidates against underfunded, anti-resort subsidy candidates in an election year that could see the current resort-friendly council majority swing the other way.
So far, Disney has pumped $1.5 million into the races through the Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) political action committee, according to the campaign finance filings. It gave the PAC money last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic hit and shut down Anaheim’s tourism-dependent economy.
In 2018, Disney pumped $1.5 million into the Anaheim City Council races to help get Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmen Jordan Brandman and Trevor O’Neil elected. The entertainment giant also spent some of that money to fight the minimum wage ballot initiative that boosted pay for resort area workers whose employers receive a city subsidy.
Shortly before the 2018 general election, the City Council — at the request of Disney — cancelled two major subsidies, including a $267 million planned luxury hotel subsidy.
Brandman, O’Neil and Sidhu resisted calls earlier this year by some council members and residents for a $1 gate tax on Disneyland, Angel Stadium and the Honda Center.
The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce is also backing some candidates. The chamber constantly pushed its members to support the $150 million Angel Stadium land sale and has received nearly $1 million between two contracts with the city since early last year. Sidhu brought both contracts before the council for approval.
During the final weeks before the Nov. 3 election, a wave of spending by resort interests has picked up — especially against candidates who have criticized resort subsidies.
Three out of the six district elected City Council seats are up for grabs this election. The mayor’s position is elected by a citywide vote and isn’t up for election until 2022.
This race pits Councilwoman Denise Barnes against two challengers, Jose Diaz and Ryan Balius.
Barnes announced late in the election season that she’s going to run for re-election in west Anaheim’s District 1. She fought against the Angel Stadium land sale, which saw the stadium and the roughly 151 acres it sits on sell for $150 million.
She’s been able to raise just over $14,000 for her campaign this year.
Barnes is also fighting off spending against her.
The California Association of Realtors spent nearly $48,000 for mailers and other campaign efforts to oppose Barnes.
And the Anaheim/Orange County Hotel & Lodging Association Political Action Committee spent just over $15,000 opposing Barnes. The PAC helped fund Sidhu’s 2018 campaign for mayor.
It’s unclear who’s funding the realtor and hotel PACs because they haven’t filed any recent contribution reports, with the realtors filing no contribution reports this year on either the city’s website or with the Secretary of State.
Last year, Barnes pushed for rent control to protect mobile home seniors from being evicted. She’s also questioned Chamber of Commerce contracts and the $6.5 million Visit Anaheim bailout, which was spearheaded by Sidhu, using the city’s federal COVID-19 relief money. She’s also criticized the Angel Stadium land sale and voted against it.
The Orange County Register’s editorial board endorsed Barnes. The board has criticized the stadium sale, the Visit Anaheim bailout and a recent Anaheim Chamber of Commerce contract.
Diaz, a manager at a local water district in Orange, has been endorsed by Sidhu and O’Neil. Some of his top issues are focusing on bringing businesses to Beach Boulevard and increasing public safety.
The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce has spent nearly $48,000 supporting Diaz’s campaign through independent expenditures on mailers and other literature, according to campaign finance records.
Support Our Anaheim Resort has also spent over $90,000 on Diaz’s campaign for literature and phone banking, according to recent filings.
The Anaheim/Orange County Hotel & Lodging Association Political Action Committee spent over $16,000 on his campaign.
And, the Anaheim police officers’ union also spent nearly $27,000 bolstering Diaz’s campaign.
Diaz has raised around $20,800 in donations to his campaign, some of which come from former Disney-friendly Councilwoman Kris Murray, former Mayor Curt Pringle, lobbyist Peter Whittingham, and government-media relations firm owner Todd Priest. He is also supported by landlord interests like the California Apartment Association.
Much of his campaign finance — $25,000 of it — comes from loans.
Balius is a current parks and recreation commissioner. According to his campaign website, he wants to revitalize the Beach Boulevard area and address homelessness.
Number one on his website’s list of priorities is homelessness, laying out a plan to “work with local and regional agencies to reduce or eliminate homelessness in Anaheim through the identification of long-term resolution options that effectively serve the needs of the homeless and our community.”
Balius has fundraised around $7,800 — some of which comes from resort subsidy critic and former Councilman James Vanderbilt — and $1,500 in loans.
Councilwoman Lucille Kring is termed out and this race could mean the Sidhu-led majority loses a reliable vote from the district.
Annemarie Randle-Trejo, board of trustees president for the Anaheim Union High School District, this election cycle is campaigning largely on her criticism of the council majority.
“There is no accountability without transparency and I will work to bring issues to light so that deals like the Angel’s Stadium contract that acted as a large tax giveaway to Arte Moreno (owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) at the cost of millions to Anaheim taxpayers doesn’t happen under my watch,” her website reads.
The starting stadium price tag was $320 million — which already took flack from critics who said it was undervalued — and roughly $170 million was shaved off the price tag to subsidize 466 affordable housing units and a seven-acre park.
Randle-Trejo also supports rent control.
She fundraised just over $1,500 for her campaign, with donations coming from progressive activist and past Orange County Board of Education and former 39th Congressional District candidate Andy Thorburn, according to the reports she’s filed.
The Anaheim/Orange County Hotel & Lodging Association Political Action Committee spent over $78,000 opposing Randle-Trejo’s campaign through literature and internet ads.
She’s been endorsed by the OC Register editorial board and former Mayor Tom Tait.
Community activist Jeanine Robbins is vying for a seat on the council, although she’s only been able to fundraise just under $7,000, including $3,000 she loaned herself.
Robbins was a regular at City Council meetings before the pandemic, is looking to ban short-term rentals again and stop giving resort interests public subsidies.
She’s also been a critic of the Angel Stadium land sale, and is part of the resident lawsuit against the city looking to overturn the sale. Robbins has also criticized the $6.5 million Visit Anaheim bailout.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this year and alleges the City Council broke transparency law by secretly negotiating a land sale.
Robbins has also been critical of the Chamber of Commerce created resident group, Anaheim First, which is supposed to recommend where the City Council should spend $250 million over the next decade.
Many of Anaheim First’s initial members have ties to pro-business organizations like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR).
Earlier this year, some Anaheim First members voiced support for a luxury hotel subsidy.
Avelino Valencia, a city budget and technology commissioner and aide to Assemblyman Tom Daly, has fundraised $70,000 this year.
The Disney-funded SOAR PAC has spent nearly $354,000 on Valencia’s campaign for mailers and advertising, according to campaign finance forms.
The spending on Valencia’s campaign is the most in the district.
The Anaheim police union also spent nearly $24,000 bolstering Valencia’s campaign.
Valencia is running on a pro-business platform and many of his campaign contributions came from various construction trade groups. He’s also been endorsed by the OC Democratic Party, a host of Democratic elected officials throughout OC and various unions.
Julie Brunette is also running for the seat, but she hasn’t filed any campaign disclosures or has any active campaign website or social media.
Councilman Steve Faessel is defending his seat against two challengers — Kenneth Batiste and Sabrina Quezada.
If Faessel doesn’t win re-election, Sidhu loses a reliable vote from the district. Sidhu often tees up items for Faessel to give his opinion on at City Council meetings and has at least once told Faessel how to vote on an item, which was picked up by a hot mic last year.
During the Angel Stadium land sale discussions, Faessel didn’t ask many critical questions about the deal and instead praised the land sale since the council first voted on it last December.
He resisted calls for the gate tax and to switch City Council meetings to Zoom or a similar service so residents can see the panelists’ faces and give live public comments.
Faessel started fundraising three years ago and has received direct cash contributions from various building trade groups, hoteliers and Disney.
He’s been able to fundraise nearly $58,000 this year and last year his campaign took in $66,000.
Support Our Anaheim Resort, the Disney-financed political action committee, has spent nearly $385,000 for campaign mailers, literature and internet ads featuring Faessel.
The Anaheim police union has also spent nearly $30,000 bolstering Faessel’s campaign efforts.
Quezada is far behind on fundraising.
According to the latest campaign finance disclosures, she’s only been able to raise roughly $3,500 this year.
Quezada is focused on a universal basic income, free citywide WiFi and affordable housing, according to her website.
Batiste, who’s also part of the lawsuit against the city over the Angel Stadium sale, has raised a little over $9,500.
Like Robbins, Batiste was a regular presence at the Tuesday City Council meetings before the pandemic hit and the council switched to teleconference meetings without public comment.
He’s been a critic of resort subsidies, the $6.5 million Visit Anaheim bailout, the stadium sale, the Chamber of Commerce contracts and advocated for a Disneyland gate tax.
The OC Register’s editorial board also endorsed Batiste for his stance on resort subsidies and criticized Faessel’s record.
“We’ve been disappointed, however, by [Faessel’s] vote for the stadium deal, his belief that pension liabilities will be handled simply by boosting the economy, and his backing of status-quo policies involving the Resort Area and major spending issues,” the board wrote.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.