Orange County residents will soon find themselves caught up in the middle of an intense fight for control of Congress.
It’s become a recurring theme across in recent years as the county’s once dominant Republican voting base turns increasingly purple with changing demographics and voter registration rates cutting against the GOP brand.
Orange County is in play like never before.
President Joe Biden is expected to visit on Friday.
Last month, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniels also came out to rally GOP candidates.
Democrats won the last two presidential elections in OC – Biden in 2020 and Hillary in 2016.
And for the first time in decades, Orange County Democrats are a factor in county level races.
With three different county supervisor seats up for election this November – each one featuring strong Democratic incumbents and challengers – the party could be poised to elect a majority of members onto the future board of supervisors for the first time in decades.
Anaheim residents also will likely see some of the most expensive city campaigns with Disneyland resort interests backing a slate of candidates looking to divert attention from the public release earlier this year of a disturbing FBI affidavit shining an ugly light on how city hall insiders conduct public business.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
In nearby Santa Ana, the local police union has increasingly become one of the deepest pockets of political spending – putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into local elections this year.
It could shape the future police policy direction that, so far this year, has moved to rewrite the police manual and toward a highly-anticipated police oversight commission.
Ballots were mailed out on Monday to approximately 1.8 million registered voters across Orange County, just over half the county’s 3.2 million residents.
Democrats have a roughly 80,000-person edge in voter registration after pulling ahead of Republicans a couple years ago, sitting at nearly 38% of registered voters – compared to 33% for the GOP.
Nearly 24% of Orange County’s registered voters are no party preference – a group many local observers considered the wildcard in the 2018 elections.
Over the course of the next few weeks, residents should expect their mailboxes, YouTube videos and Facebook pages to be hammered with the wildest of political ads.
In order to help residents navigate the political spin coming at them hard this cycle, Voice of OC has fashioned a unique approach to coverage this year.
Our newsroom has been working hard to empower Orange County residents with tools to combat the divisive direct mail campaigns and a flurry of online advertising that have come to dominate our politics and in many ways destroy any possibility at governance.
County Reporter Nick Gerda and our municipal reporters Brandon Pho, Hosam Elattar and Noah Biesiada, have all been working for weeks to get questionnaires out to candidates seeking elected office so their opinions can be judged alongside their competitors.
Like a simple car show.
We’ll be running their responses in the coming days.
Instead of the usual political bullshit these candidates typically sling, our questionnaires force these elected officials-in-waiting to answer questions about real, quality of life issues.
And you don’t have to drive to an event to compare them or watch them dance around answers.
You can judge each one, side-by-side and assess how they answer critical questions about local quality of life issues.
In addition to forcing candidates to answer real questions, our reporters this cycle will also focus on which donors and special interests are financing and supporting candidates’ election campaigns.
Our goal is to wrap it all together in a couple weeks with the release of our online voter guide, which will connect all this information together.
Anaheim’s Political Machine
Nowhere is the political bullshit in Orange County piled up deeper than in the City of Anaheim.
Here, an array of Disneyland resort area interests were called out publicly by the FBI for influencing policy making at city hall.
The probe killed off the Angel Stadium sale supported by the city council majority – out of pure shame for the stark manner in which FBI agents called them out publicly on their approach to doing business in Anaheim.
Yet that shame seems to have quickly dissipated as resorts interests have since refocused on keeping control at city hall.
And marketed their candidates as reformers in direct mail to voters.
Disneyland resort interests are already spending big bucks to help their preferred candidates and incumbents – backing Councilman Trevor O’Neil for mayor and Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae.
But the resort political action committees are largely sitting out of the mayor’s race so far, with O’Neil instead having to rely on direct campaign contributions from hoteliers, landlord groups and resort interests.
Those same interests are also backing city Planning Commissioner Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava from the OC Fair Board – she’s also COO of the OC Business Council.
Meanwhile, Ashleigh Aitken has so far out fundraised the O’Neil in the mayor’s race and has the backing of various labor unions. Aiken’s father, Wylie, is the chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors.
City Council candidates Carlos Leon and Al Jabbar are both competing against resort-friendly candidates in their respective district. Both have some backing from labor unions.
Hari Shankar Lal, running against Meeks in the Anaheim Hills district, has largely been on his own with no political action committees showing any spending going his way.
[Read: Anaheim’s Resort Interests Spend Big on Election Campaigns Following FBI Corruption Probe]
But for the first time in recent history, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce looks like it’s sitting this election out following revelations of the FBI corruption probe and the organization’s former CEO Todd Ament pleading guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.
Recent filings show the chamber’s political action committee has yet to spend any money and candidates have returned donations from the business group since the affidavits were made public in May.
Santa Ana’s Police Union Influence
Similar to Anaheim, Santa Ana’s elections are often nasty affairs, hard fought through intense mail campaigns.
This year looks no different.
There’s a mayor’s race as well as three council seats up for election, in Wards 2, 4, and 6.
In the race for mayor, there’s local school board member Valerie Amezcua, endorsed by council members like Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza; former councilman Sal Tinajero with endorsements from the current mayor’s progressive camp; former councilman Jose Solorio; and Jesse Nestor, a 19-year-old libertarian up against Democrat opponents.
On top of policing, the results of this election could either propel or undo the current council’s major housing and renter policies of the last several years, marked by a citywide rent control ordinance, increased developer fees and a newly-approved rental unit registry.
It could also shape the fate of the Willowick Golf Course in the west side of town, a parcel of land in flux between two towns with – currently – two opposing visions between commercial development and open space.
In Ward 2, there’s Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza, a former US Army Signal Corps sergeant who was first elected to replace the recalled Ceci Iglesias in a campaign funded by the police union, and Benjamin Vasquez, a teacher and community volunteer at El Centro Cultural de México, a local cultural center.
In Ward 4, there’s two candidates with backgrounds in urban planning: Councilman Phil Bacerra, who’s backed by police union mailers this election cycle. Challenging him is Amalia Mejia, a progressive candidate pursuing an urban planning and public policy Ph.D. at UCI, where she touts experience researching the OC Streetcar’s impacts and gentrification in Santa Ana.
In Ward 6, there’s current councilmember David Penaloza, a police union-backed official who with Bacerra has stuck to the center on issues like rent control and police compared to the progressive council faction elected in 2020. Running against him is Manny Escamilla, a former city staffer, local historian and past council candidate aligned with progressives.
While national polling earlier this year indicated that Democrats could take a beating during the mid-term elections, recent polling following the U.S. Supreme Court decision impacting access to abortions seems to indicate things have narrowed.
Republicans are on the hunt for five seats to flip Congress in November.
And they see several solid prospects in the OC.
In the 49th Congressional District, San Juan Capistrano Councilman Brian Maryott is competing as a Republican against Democratic incumbent Congressman Mike Levin.
In the 47th Congressional District, Former OC GOP Chairman Scott Baugh is vying against incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Katie Porter.
While both those seats currently lean Democratic, according to election experts, recent changes in voter makeup from redistricting has made them more competitive.
Incumbent Republican Congresswoman Michelle Steel in the 45th Congressional District is taking on Democrat Jay Chen in a district that election observers consider leaning Republican.
Another Republican incumbent, Young Kim also faces a challenge from Democrat Asif Mahmood in the 40th Congressional district, which election handicappers have pegged as likely Republican.
Orange County Board of Supervisors
There are three key seats open on the county board of supervisors this year after redistricting changed election borders all over the county.
In North Orange County, Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Doug Chafee is up for re-election, running as a stable incumbent who can do business with the opposing party.
In stark contrast stands Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, a Democrat who criticizes Chafee’s cozy relationship with the supervisors’ current Republican majority and actually got more votes than Chafee in the June primary.
In Central County, Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento is running against Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Nguyen – both Democrats.
Sarmiento has major financial support from plaintiff’s attorneys, while Nguyen has the support of the county’s influential sheriff’s deputies union.
In South County, Democratic incumbent County Supervisor Katrina Foley is running against State Senator and former supervisor Pat Bates, a longtime Republican.
It’s the south county race that will determine whether Democrats or Republicans have the majority atop OC’s county government.
Why Does It Matter?
Too often, our elections are increasingly driven by shadowy interests using direct mail or online ads to fool voters with a one-way conversation.
Special interests certainly have the right to send us a mountain of sleazy attacks timed to trigger a vote rather than a thoughtful response – much less civic engagement.
But it’s up to us as free people to fight back against that kind of cheap politics and insist on an ongoing debate, one where residents can really discuss issues, maybe even gain consensus.
On the local level, we all have a special chance to assemble around a different kind of engagement.
And here at Voice of OC, our election coverage – fueled by questionnaires, campaign finance coverage and a voter guide – is aimed at helping residents push for that kind of conversation.
People in far away places like Ukraine, Iran, Burma and Cuba keep showing us all what happens if we lose our voice.
Yet more and more, we all see civic groups across Orange County struggle to get city council, county, congress and state legislative candidates to engage each other in public, especially before any election.
Our politicians have made a sport out of avoiding frank debates.
Without even having to roll out tanks or a secret police.
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