Disney-backed candidates could be on track to hold onto the majority of the Anaheim City Council, despite revelations of an FBI corruption probe that touches on the resort interests. 

Meanwhile, the mayor’s race could be won by someone not funded by the Disneyland-area resort interests – putting them on an island among six resort-backed council members. 

It comes after public outrage from residents – some who have consistently shown up to city council meetings demanding change as well as calling out the alleged corruption in Anaheim and their city leaders.

But is that enough to spur change in a city home to “the happiest place on earth,” Disneyland – the largest employer in Orange County?

“The resort is still a big part of the city that’s true in terms of money, but it’s also true in terms of where people work, and it’s true of the impact on the communities,” said Stephen Stambough, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor in a Wednesday phone interview. 

“Everything that makes the resort a big part of the city and a big political force still exist,” he said. 

Disney, who spent over $1 million over each of the last two elections, poured $1.3 million this election into the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee.

The PAC used the money to back candidates Gloria Ma’ae, Natalie Rubalcava and Natalie Meeks – despite calls from residents for resort interests to stay out of local politics. 

All the SOAR-backed candidates maintained election leads as of Wednesday.

Here’s where the candidates stand as of Wednesday’s 5 p.m. election update from the OC Registrar of Voters:

  • Ashleigh Aitken had a roughly 2,000-vote lead over Councilman Trevor O’Neil in the mayoral race. Aitken is also the daughter of Wylie Aitken, chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors.  
  • Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae had a nearly 400-vote lead over opponent Carlos Leon in district two
  • Natalie Rubalcava had an over 1,000-vote lead ahead of opponent Al Jabbar in District 3
  • Natalie Meeks, who received over $546,000 in support from SOAR – the most out of the three candidates, had an over 5,500-vote lead over her opponent Hari Shankar Lal.

But the results may change as ballots continue to be counted, which are expected to be released 5 p.m. Thursday.

Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor and local elections expert, said SOAR made sure Aitken wouldn’t have a friendly council if she gets elected. 

“So even if [Aitken] is able to win,” she said. “It will be hard for her to get reform measures passed.”

The election comes roughly six months after FBI agents revealed in public court filings that they’ve been leading a corruption investigation into city hall, the now-nixed Angel Stadium land sale and former Mayor Harry Sidhu

In sworn affidavits, federal agents painted a picture of a shadowy group of powerful resort interests with influence over city hall that included evidence gathered through wiretapped phone calls and a confidential witness.

Read the FBI affidavits here and here.

And three leading city council candidates refused to answer Voice of OC election questionnaires about major issues in the city like the corruption probe.

Another seat may become vacant on the dais with Current councilman Avelino Valencia leading by 7,477 votes in the 68th district state Assembly race against Republican Mike Tardif.

If Valencia’s seat becomes vacant, the council would have an opportunity to appoint someone to replace him or call a special election.

Resort Money vs Labor Money 

The closest race is in District 2, where Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae was ahead of her opponent, political newcomer Carlos Leon by 386 votes after the Wednesday ballot count update.

Leon has received over $87,000 in support from labor union-funded The Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC while SOAR has spent over $302,000 to bolster Ma’ae’s campaign.

Ma’ae – appointed to the council after Jordan Brandman resigned in 2021 – was also supported by the Anaheim Police Association and the Anaheim Firefighters Association.

[Read: Anaheim Council’s Appointment of a Resort Ally Stirs Calls of Rushed, Politicized Process]

She used to serve on the SOAR’s advisory committee, was a key figure in the Chamber of Commerce-created Anaheim First advisory group and voted against campaign reforms early this year. 

In District 3, SOAR spent over $379,000 into Rubalcava’s campaign, while the Anaheim Police Association bolstered her city council campaign by spending over $51,000 to support the resort-backed candidate.

Rubalcava is the chief operating officer for the Orange County Business Council and sits on the OC Fair Board. Jabbar is a trustee on the Anaheim Union High School Board and chief of staff for OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee.

The Anaheim Resort Workers for an Honest City Council has spent over $36,000 to support Jabbar. The PAC was largely funded by UNITE HERE, a union representing hotel workers.

While the races are close in District 2 and 3, it is not as close in District 6 which encompasses Anaheim Hills.

Meeks, a current planning commissioner and former public works director, with over half million from SOAR has maintained a lead of over 5,000 votes after every ballot count update so far.

Her opponent, Lal, did not receive any independent expenditures.

Meanwhile, SOAR stayed out of the Mayor’s race, where Aitken – who ran on a platform of reform in light of the FBI probe – started election night about 3,000 votes ahead of current resort friendly Councilman O’Neil.

Aitken and O’Neil were trailed by Democrat Lorri Galloway, whose campaign was bolstered with over $134,000 from the conservative political action committee, The Lincoln Club.

The Club also spent more than $271,000 opposing Aitken.

Yet the group’s officially endorsed candidate is O’Neil, who they spent $10,000 on.

Aitken has been bolstered with $138,000 from The Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC, a labor union-funded committee. She’s also been backed with over $91,000 from the Anaheim Police Association and over $72,000 from the Firefighters Association.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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