When Anaheim residents filled the rows of seats in their city council chambers to capacity last week, we expected some semblance of accountability and transparency from our elected officials and an earnest commitment to restore public faith in the very institutions at the epicenter of an FBI probe into corruption that forced (now former) Mayor Harry Sidhu to resign.
Instead, we were met with another in a long series of disappointments that have become the pathetic standard for this current generation of subpar city leadership.
With the council’s failure to finally pass robust campaign finance reform, one thing remains clear: the majority of our council remains shamelessly beholden to the corporations, lobbyists, and other wealthy special interests that form Anaheim’s campaign donor class–a “cadre” opposed to everything that is good for the communities this council majority claims to serve.
The Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance, also known as the Clean Up Anaheim Act, sought to finally end the corrupt culture of pay-to-play politics that’s exacerbated by the unfettered influence of corporate PACs, independent expenditures, and the unlimited time to pay off campaign debt through year-round fundraising. Its failure to pass unanimously is not a reflection of our community’s disengagement, but rather the affinity our council has toward big money interests and their own personal gain–even when it comes at the cost of their own constituents.
Our growing frustration is only amplified by the insulting truth that the Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance as presented on the agenda was an amended version of the original ordinance proposed by Councilmember Dr. Jose Moreno. As residents addressed this brazen watering-down, the expressions on the dais hardly shifted beyond the despondent, apathetic, empty gazes that have become all too familiar to the people who have raised the alarms about political corruption in our city for years. With the exception of Dr. Moreno, who humbly accepted the gratitude almost every speaker made sure to address him with for being the sole champion of this reform, the majority could barely sustain a feigned attempt at eye contact even when we challenged them to do so.
Undeterred by the indifference, countless community leaders, organizers, activists, students, educators, parents, and lifelong residents demanded the reinstatement of what was removed by calling on the council to restore the key elements of the original ordinance, including the recusal of members from voting on items that align with the financial interests of PACs and donors, the initial six month recusal period, limiting fundraising to the election year only, and an individual’s private right of action to enforce these provisions.
Councilmember Gloria Ma’ae referenced a handful of papers in front of her when she addressed her colleagues and inquired, “It’s an area of which we have no control, right? We have no control.” In the dialogue that followed, her sentiments were ultimately echoed by Councilmember Jose Diaz and Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil who consistently joined her in failing to support even the most basic reforms of the proposed ordinance. Citing a concern of “burdening city staff with oversight,” and neglecting to consider the burden on the working-class residents of her district, Councilmember Ma’ae concluded, “There’s already rules and restrictions at the local, state, and federal levels that prohibit quid pro quo or pay for play.”
To assume that our current council majority is immune to the influence of the hundreds of thousands that have been invested into their campaigns by PACS like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Anaheim Police Association, and SOAR (a resort industry PAC used as Disney’s primary financial funnel into Anaheim elections) is absurd. The SOAR PAC alone spent $2,179,115.00 in aggregate campaign contributions and independent expenditures over the past several election cycles since 2016. Evidence of that influence, despite Councilmember Avelino Valencia’s continued insistence that it holds “no sway” over his votes and those of his colleagues, is present in the rubber-stamping of the (now forfeited) Angels Stadium deal, which continues to be one of the most cited sources of eroding public trust at our municipal government’s blatant lack of ethics.
With the failure of last night’s 2% gate tax proposal agenda item, which failed to receive a second motion from anyone on council despite overwhelming support from Anaheim residents, it is clear this trust will only continue to erode. Regardless of how the council chooses to fail us next, Anaheim residents stand united in the recognition of our collective power and understanding that now is not the time for despair but for action.
It’s beyond time that Anaheim coalesces around true champions for our people, and not those only engaging with our communities after ballots drop who are the first to abandon us once they realize there’s a fast-track to climbing the political ladder.
It’s time we find our leadership in the outsiders boldly speaking out against corruption, not the insiders directly benefiting from it. We deserve leaders who are willing to demonstrate unwavering political courage in the face of reckless corporate greed by refusing to sell out.
With the eyes of the nation upon us, it’s time that Anaheim residents stand up and tell those outside Orange County what we’ve known to be true for decades: While spineless candidates and weak-willed politicians may be bought, our community is not for sale.
Carolina Mendez is a twenty-three year old community organizer and Chispa member born and raised in Anaheim. A proud product of Anaheim public schools, she is also an alumna of Cal State Fullerton, where she obtained her Bachelor’s in Political Science.
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