Based on voter registration numbers, Irvine should be an easy city for Democrats to win a city council majority.
But recent controversies surrounding Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan’s track record on the council have opened new questions about how solidified the Democratic Party of Orange County is in Irvine.
Khan narrowly won the county party endorsement last week with just over 58% of the total votes cast going in her favor. Yet, she had near unanimous support from the Democratic Party just two years ago.
Democrats took a majority of the city council in 2020, when Farrah Khan defeated Republican incumbent Christina Shea by over 13,000 votes alongside the election of Democratic Councilmembers Tammy Kim and Larry Agran to the dais.
According to data from the county registrar’s office, Democrats are the largest voting bloc in the city with over 40% of registered voters, while 30% have no political party, and just under 25% identify as Republicans.
In 2020, Khan was universally endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County and the Democrats of Greater Irvine, the city’s largest Democratic club, with many in the city viewing her as one of the party’s rising stars and sharing hopes for what the new Democrat majority might accomplish together.
But two years later, the party found itself in a much different conversation when Khan asked for their endorsement again last week at the party’s central committee meeting.
Most of the conversation focused on the outcry surrounding Khan’s relationship with Ergun Kirlikovali, a member of her mayoral advisory committee and denier of the Armenian Genocide.
Khan initially called the complaints over their relationship a political attack in a since-deleted Twitter post on March 22, but pivoted just over 24 hours later to apologize, releasing a video and several letters over the next week promising to cut ties with Kirlikovali and donate $1,500 in campaign funds she received from him to the Genocide Education Project.
That also came just after the Democrats of Greater Irvine overwhelmingly voted not to grant Khan an endorsement, citing a series of issues they have with her voting record in a letter sent to the county’s central committee, which can be viewed here.
The central committee is the governing body of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Last Monday, Khan’s endorsement was pulled up for discussion during the central committee meeting, a panel made up of dozens of party leaders from across Orange County.
The meeting was held online through Zoom.
Kev Abazajian, president of the Irvine club and an Armenian who has frequently clashed with Khan, asked the committee not to endorse Khan, or at the very least wait another month before picking up the discussion again.
“Imagine a Democratic mayor of Irvine attending a meeting hosted by Holocaust deniers, pledging to stand with them no matter what, and then laughed along with them,” Abazjian said. “We wouldn’t endorse such a candidate.”
Denise Penn, another member of the central committee, also brought up concerns over endorsing her so soon after Khan’s public apology.
“My concern is that the optics are bad,” Penn said. “That’s a cynical way to look at it, but this story has legs.”
Khan spoke to defend herself, apologizing again for her comments and saying she was proud to stand there asking for an endorsement.
“There are forces within our party who would like to tear me down,” Khan said to close her speech. “As we continue to elect more women of color, we must continue to be unified.”
Khan was also endorsed by Lauren Johnson-Norris, a past city council candidate and current member of the Irvine Finance Commission appointed by Larry Agran, who’s often a political opponent of Khan’s.
During the discussion, the Zoom chat feature also turned into an argument between central committee members like Melahat Rafiei, who also worked for Khan’s campaign through her consulting business, and Naz Hamid, the party’s outreach chair, defending Khan against some residents’ concerns.
The residents took issue over things like Khan’s support to shorten its agenda notices from 12 days in advance to one week in order to add more detailed reports.
“Mayor Khan and her council colleagues actually strengthened their public agenda noticing requirements and public comment features by ensuring a complete agenda was published 7 day in advance of a meeting and that all public comment on ALL ITEMS was at the beginning of the meeting,” Rafiei wrote.
“It wasn’t gutting. She made it stronger,” Hamid added.
“It was absolutely gutting, that’s insane spin,” wrote Jeremy Ficarola, a former Khan voter who has become an outspoken critic of hers over the past year.
“Strengthening the agenda noticing requirements means going from 12 days to 7 Melahat?” said Joshua Moore, an active Democrat in Irvine politics.
The Zoom chat also focused on other issues brought up by the Democrats of Greater Irvine in a letter to the central committee laying out why they decided against endorsing her – a decision that was made before the controversy of her relationship with Kirlikovali was made public.
One of the primary issues they took issue with was Khan’s decision to regularly side with Republican Councilmembers Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo over Councilman Larry Agran, a fellow Democrat who was also endorsed by the party during the last election.
While Agran has regularly asked for support from his fellow council members to get policy proposals on the agenda, a requirement in the city for all council members besides the mayor, Khan and Democratic Councilwoman Tammy Kim have rarely agreed to those requests, despite the party encouraging their members to work together in a resolution passed last year.
Khan received 35 votes of support, or 58% of the total central committee. The remaining members voted 14 against Khan while 11 abstained from voting altogether.
Of those who voted, Khan picked up just over 71% of the central committee’s votes, when she needed a two-thirds support for the endorsement. Abstention votes don’t count as part of the percentage for determining whether or not a candidate is endorsed.
Khan did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
When asked for her thoughts on endorsing Khan over the local club’s concerns, Ada Briceno, chair of the county Democrats, said it was about more than just one city’s concerns.
“I think it would’ve been tremendous if (Democrats of Greater Irvine) would have been supportive. But the fact is Orange County has 34 cities, and frankly it is very important what happens in one city as it moves through other cities as well,” Briceno said.
When asked about the concerns outlined in their letter, Briceno wouldn’t speak to any of the specific complaints, saying “an elected official never has everybody happy.”
“I thought it was an important decision and one we needed to have,” Briceno said. “Mayor Khan has to hear and weigh where she believes things should go.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the threshold for a Democratic endorsement was 70%. We regret the error.
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