For years, Anaheim’s city council elections have been marked by massive resort interest spending – many of the same interests a recent FBI corruption probe touched on.
This current election cycle has already seen large amounts of money spent on independent expenditures by resort-friendly political action committees – for political mailers and internet ads.
And it’s steadily increasing as the Nov. 8 Election Day draws near.
Support Our Anaheim Resort, Disney’s chief political spending vehicle, has poured nearly $872,000 split among three separate Anaheim City Council races to support resort-friendly candidates.
That marks a considerable increase since Oct. 13, following patterns of sharply increasing late spending in previous city elections.
Despite recent fallout from an FBI corruption investigation at City Hall and resort interests, “SOAR is doubling down in this election,” Fullerton College professor Jodi Balma said in a Monday phone interview.
Balma, who closely observes local politics and elections, said resort interests fund candidates to get policies that favor them – like shielding Disneyland from a gate tax.
“They definitely want control with their supporters on a majority of the council,” Balma said. “Something that I tell my students all the time is that when some of these organizations are spending so heavily, you have to ask what you are getting.”
Disney gave SOAR $1.3 million.
An FBI corruption probe into City Hall was made public earlier this year, with federal agents alleging former Mayor Harry Sidhu tried ramming through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign contributions and investigators detailed the resort industry’s influence on city policymaking.
While Sidhu has denied any wrongdoing, his close ally and former CEO of the powerful Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Todd Ament, pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges earlier this year.
While the Chamber has so far stayed out of the city council races, Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) has been busy outside of the mayoral election.
All the SOAR-backed candidates all refused to answer Voice of OC’s candidate questionnaire.
“It is a city that we’re always watching because Disney, the resort industry and the Angels have so much pull – along with the Chamber of Commerce. They’re so powerful in that city; however, in the past 10 to 15 years there’s been a people’s movement,” Chapman University professor and local politics observer Mike Moodian said, adding that the movement helped usher in district elections and a resort worker minimum wage increase.
Following renewed scrutiny of campaign finances – especially Sidhu’s – SOAR has stayed out of the mayoral race while other PACs are gearing up their spending.
“Maybe the mayor’s race is a little too high profile and too controversial and if Disney were to get behind a candidate too friendly to them, it would generate some negative headlines. But Disney has historically gotten behind a council that benefits them and we’re seeing that in these council races,” Moodian said in a Monday phone interview.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County has spent over $176,000 to oppose Democrat Ashleigh Aitken, while also spending $77,000 to boost one of her opponents, Democrat Lorri Galloway.
Andrea Mew, a spokesperson for the Lincoln Club, provided the following response when asked about how they’re spending money on the race.
“Some say that saving Anaheim requires handing the city over to a radical socialist like Ashleigh Aitken, who is controlled by a slew of special interests. We reject that. We are solely focused on defeating Aitken given the threat she poses to the public safety and quality of life for Anaheim residents,” Mew said in an email Monday.
Aitken fired back in a Tuesday phone interview, saying the Lincoln Club is “trying to deceive Anaheim voters.”
“Why is a ultra conservative PAC spending over $70,000 on a Democrat who does not have any support of Orange County electeds, who doesn’t have the support of public safety, who doesn’t have support of community leaders?” Aitken said. “Their sole focus is to protect their pocket books at the expense of our schools, our working families and our children.”
Galloway shot back at Aitken Tuesday night, saying she’s a serious candidate with broad community support
“It is wrong to think that I am nothing but a spoiler. This isn’t the mayoral race of 2018. I have stronger name recognition than any of the other three candidates, I am a former 2-term councilmember and mayor pro tem, and have served the community for decades sheltering homeless abused children and mothers. Although I am a life-long Democrat, our team has sought and won the support of both Republican and Democrat voters,” Galloway said in a text message.
Balma theorizes that the club’s strategy is to split votes between the two Democrats, opening up a path to victory for O’Neil.
“They’re trying to split the vote, 100% they’re trying to split the vote,” Balma said, adding it’s similar to the 2018 mayoral race.
“There were 8 candidates running for mayor in 2018 and most got less than 10% of the vote, it was clearly a showdown between Harry Sidhu and Ashleigh Aitken – and Lorri Galloway was used as a spoiler and got 15% of the vote because of name recognition, she had run previously for other offices,” she said.
Despite Sidhu’s heavy spending advantage over Aitken, he only beat her by 478 votes in 2018.
Aitken, whose father Wylie Aitken is chairman of the Voice of OC Board of Directors, has fundraised over $225,000 as of Monday
Galloway has fundraised over $33,000 as of Monday, in direct contributions.
The Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC, funded by labor unions, has also spent more than $46,000 to support Aitken’s campaign. The union-backed committee got a $100,000 contribution from UNITE HERE’s PAC in late September..
The Anaheim firefighters’ PAC has spent more than $35,000 to support her campaign, along with the Anaheim Police Association’s $38,000 spending on Aitken’s campaign.
The Lincoln Club donated $2,200 to O’Neil’s campaign last week. He has fundraised more than $137,000 as of Monday.
The Manufactured Housing Educational Trust PAC – an interest group that opposed the push for rent control on senior mobile home parks in the city – has spent nearly $18,000 on slate mailers for O’Neil, who also voted against rent control proposals.
Even though many resort interests are largely sitting out the mayor’s race, they’re heavily investing in the three city council seats up for grab Nov. 8.
Balma said interests like SOAR are strategically targeting the 3 council seats in an effort to keep a majority of the council.
“The reality is that SOAR can accomplish what they want with a majority of the council so they are continuing to spend heavily as they have,” Balma said. “Ashleigh Aitken, if she’s elected mayor, will have a hard time if SOAR candidates control the majority.”
SOAR has spent over $230,000 to bolster Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae’s campaign, as of Oct. 23.
Ma’ae, who used to sit on SOAR’s advisory committee, was heavily criticized for being too cozy with resort interests when she was appointed to the council last year.
She’s also receiving support from the Anaheim Firefighters Association with the firefighters’ PAC spending almost $14,000 on her campaign as of Oct. 15.
The Anaheim Police Association spent close to $23,200 as of Oct. 20 to support Ma’ae’s campaign.
Ma’ae has raised over $68,000 this year while her opponent, Carlos Leon, has raised a little less than $50,000.
Meanwhile, Leon’s seen far less PAC spending on his campaign.
The Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC has spent nearly $20,000 to help his campaign and Planned Parenthood of San Bernardino has spent roughly $2,800.
In District 3, SOAR has spent nearly $280,000 in support of candidate Natalie Rubalcava as of Oct. 23.
Rubalcava, who heads up the OC Business Council and sits on the OC Fair Board, is also being backed by the Anaheim Firefighters Association, who have spent over $16,300 to support her campaign.
And the Anaheim Police Association has spent more than $19,300 as of Oct. 20 to bolster her campaign.
Meanwhile, labor unions are backing her opponent Al Jabbar, chief of staff for OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee. Jabbar is also on the board of trustees for the Anaheim Union High School District.
The Anaheim Resort Workers for an Honest Council PAC has spent more than $11,000 benefitting Jabbar’s campaign. The Anaheim Municipal Employees Association donated $10,000 to the PAC, while UNITE HERE gave $50,000.
Rubalcava fundraised almost $89,200 while Jabbar has fundraised nearly $44,600, as of Monday.
SOAR has heavily spent money in support of candidate Natalie Meeks.
As of Oct. 23, the group spent nearly $362,000 to bolster her campaign – the most out of the three candidates the political action committee is backing in Anaheim this year.
Meeks, a planning commissioner and former public works director for the city, has also received support from the Anaheim Police Association, which spent nearly $23,200 to support her campaign.
She has fundraised close to $60,000 while her opponent, Hari Shankar Lal, has raised close to $69,000, as of Monday.
So far, Lal has had no backing from any political action committees, according to independent expenditure filings.
This story was updated to include a comment from Lorri Galloway about her mayoral campaign.
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.