A stream of adults in Mickey ears and sunscreen stopped upon a red hand signal at the crosswalk of Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard on Wednesday morning.
A few feet away stood roughly 50-60 other adults wearing union shirts and crowding the same intersection – or what some might consider the heart of Anaheim’s resort industry. These were hospitality workers, likely employed by the hotels and entertainment venues all around them.
The demonstrators, with signs and megaphones, called on corporate giants in town, like Angels Baseball and Disney, to take their campaign cash out of city politics.
Their resolve to stand and shout under the beating sun came from recent headlines, painting an ugly picture of money’s influence over local politics.
FBI agents this month say they’ve learned how things are really run in Anaheim – writing in an affidavit that the city sits “tightly controlled” beneath a small “cadre” of lobbyists, corporate executives, and elected officials under their influence.
The probe has led to criminal charges against the former Chamber of Commerce CEO, Todd Ament, and the resignation of Mayor Harry Sidhu, a Republican who, until recently, was running for reelection this year.
Those headlines didn’t surprise a host of unionized workers who came out in force at a Wednesday rally organized by UNITE HERE Local 11, which counts more than 32,000 workers in hotels, restaurants, colleges, sports arenas, convention centers, and airports between California and Arizona.
“Until now, the city has taken any opportunity to move forward an agenda of giant developers and corporate interests to fill their pockets over the objection of hard-working people in Anaheim,” said Ada Briceño, UNITE HERE Local 11’s co-president.
Briceño, a Democratic Party of Orange County Chair on top of her union leader duties, also called for a “moratorium” on all city development deals “until they can be fully investigated … We are certain that more dominoes will fall and we support a full investigation of any and all individuals involved.”
“We must put deals on hold until this is cleaned up,” she said.
Meanwhile, the resort industry’s lone critic on the City Council, Jose Moreno, is spearheading a campaign finance reform discussion.
The city council is set to discuss his proposal at their June 7 meeting, which could bar council members from voting on items impacting donors who spent $250 or more on their election campaigns.
[Read: FBI Probe Spurs Questioning of Money in Anaheim Politics, Campaign Finance Reform]
Moreno, a longtime critic of resort subsidies and the industry’s influence, said the FBI corruption probe shows just how powerful special interests have become.
“It took an FBI investigation to uncover years of backroom discussions and promises,” Moreno said during Tuesday’s meeting.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
Through years of wage-raising efforts, union members who work in Anaheim’s main visitor draws say they got an up-close look at what it takes to wield influence in city business.
During the local labor unions’ push for Measure L – a minimum wage increase applying to resort area businesses receiving city subsidies – many of those employer interests spent big on attacking the idea before voters in the political campaigning cycle. Anaheim voters approved the measure in 2018.
In times of crisis, workers in Anaheim watched elected officials prioritize the resort while those most in need, they said, took the back seat. In the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the City Council majority under Sidhu approved dipping into city reserves and allocating nearly $7 million in federal bailout money to an advertising bureau of the resort and convention center, one which is normally funded through a self-imposed bed tax from the resort hotels.
Union-represented workers like Chris Smith say they’re tired of going to city hall without much luck. So they’ve hit the streets over the years — even held them up. In 2019, police arrested Briceño, council member Moreno, and other labor union protesters for blocking traffic during a demonstration that called for higher hotel worker wages.
Smith is 53 and lives in Corona. Speaking off to the side of the rally, he said he lost his job as a bartender at the Anaheim Convention Center in 2013.
He also said he was forced to move out of Orange County due to wages that slipped behind the area’s high cost of living.
“They put it out there that, ‘You can talk to us elected officials. And you can come to talk to us on Tuesdays or at City Hall – we have an open door, where you can come in, say whatever you have a problem with and we’ll look into it,’” he said.
“I feel like I was tricked into talking to the wrong people.”
Behind him, while he spoke, Anaheim mayoral candidate Ashleigh Aitken – whose father Wylie Aitken is the Voice of OC board chair – stepped out of the crowd to speak through the megaphone.
In fact, there were a number of local Democrats – some holding office, some seeking it – also in attendance at the crosswalk rally.
There was Sunny Park, a Buena Park City Councilmember running to add another Democrat-backed seatholder to Orange County’s mostly Republican Board of Supervisors, in District 4.
And there was Pete Hardin, a progressive military veteran challenging Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, a Republican, and promising reforms to a top prosecutor’s office hit by racism and sexual harassment scandals.
The rally – and the Anaheim corruption scandal as a whole – seemed to be not only a rallying point for Democrats, but a nexus for different political themes across the county.
It also brought out longtime residents like Carlos Leon.
“I’m not surprised at the allegations that have come forward,” he told crowd members as passing cars honked in support. “Bring back honesty and transparency to City Hall.”
And while individual Republicans like former mayor Tom Tait have over the years historically stood against the local interests now being associated with corruption in Anaheim, the Republican Party of Orange County hasn’t said much about the scandal. Fred Whitaker, the county GOP chair and legal counsel for Anaheim Resort Transportation, the resort district’s private shuttle service, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Lincoln Club of Orange County, a prominent conservative fundraising group, quietly deleted its endorsement of Sidhu from Facebook this month.
But county Democrats haven’t escaped controversy either.
It turned out that a key witness in the FBI’s Anaheim investigation was Melahat Rafiei, who federal authorities say they arrested on attempted bribery relating to cannabis laws in Irvine.
Rafiei, a long time county Democrat leader who’s insisted the FBI is wrong in saying she was arrested, resigned from her position as secretary of the California Democratic Party and state representative to the Democratic National Committee following news coverage of the FBI affidavits.
And in a news release publicizing the scandal, the Democratic Party of Orange County featured prominently statements denouncing corruption from Anaheim City Councilman Avelino Valencia.
Valencia’s been quite outspoken since the federal probe came to light. During a City Council meeting on May 17, which convened one day after the probe was revealed to the public, Valencia was one of the first that night to call on Sidhu to resign.
He’s also running for state assembly this year.
But on May 23, Valencia’s opponent in 69th state Assembly District race — Santa Ana activist Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente — challenged Valencia on campaign contributions he received from the same resort and tourism interests under the microscope now.
On Wednesday, Vicente watched the crosswalk rally at the edge of the crowd under a face mask.
“I cannot ignore the fact that my opponent, Councilmember Avelino Valencia, received contributions from the same entities that funded Sidhu’s campaign and are the subject of the FBI’s investigation,” reads a statement Vicente’s campaign released on May 23.
He also called on Valencia to “suspend his campaign for CA 68th State Assembly and to return political donations from those included in the FBI investigation including SOAR, and FSB Public Affairs (a lobbying firm mentioned in the federal investigation affidavits).”
Vicente then requested the Democratic Party of Orange County to “withhold endorsements from all candidates receiving contributions from the special interests at the center of the FBI’s investigation.”
Requests for comment to Valencia directly and through his campaign went unreturned.
Briceño leads the party. But she alone doesn’t decide endorsements. That’s up to all the group’s voting members.
So what was it like for her, to watch her party endorse corporate-backed candidates as a union leader who regularly stood against those same interests?
She wasn’t the party leader when the DPOC voted in 2018 to endorse former council majority member Jordan Brandman, who resigned after misogynistic statements he made about a rival council member, Denise Barnes, were made public.
“I was distraught,” Briceño said of the party’s decision then.
But not so much when the party voted to endorse Valencia in 2020.
“If his name were to come up again, I would absolutely be supportive of him,” she said in a phone interview, as the party has not made an endorsement in that assembly race.
Asked about some Anaheim locals’ criticism of Valencia and his resort-backing, Briceño said “I have expectations that everybody will have people who don’t necessarily agree, and they shouldn’t necessarily agree with everything he does. It’s democracy and that’s what keeps us moving forward.”
Who will Anaheim’s elected leaders listen to in town after City Hall’s upheaval?
UNITE HERE spokesperson Maria Hernandez said it should be the workers.
They’re the ones “speaking out,” Hernandez said, speaking to a reporter toward the tail-end of the demonstration. “They’re trying to make ends meet, provide for their families. They’re trying to stay in a city that they love.”
“We came together from all parts of the city,” said Aitken to the crowd after taking the megaphone on Wednesday. “Working families. Parents.”
“We had everybody trying to explain to the voters of Anaheim why this was so important,” Aitken went on, flanked by Briceño.
“And the events of the last week have shown us why it matters so much.”
At the intersection, a steady flow of people kept stopping at the crosswalk’s red hand signal on their way to Disneyland, watching the rally while traffic passed.
Some nodded their heads.
Others didn’t react.
When the signal changed, they continued on toward the park, still termed “the Happiest Place on Earth.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
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