Anaheim this week swore-in two resort-backed city council members and two reformers – a dynamic not seen since the city was headed up by former Mayor Tom Tait in 2016. 

Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony marked the first time a woman has been elected mayor of Orange County’s largest city.

“I stand before you as the first woman and 48th mayor of my hometown – the great City of Anaheim,” said Asheigh Aitken, who lost a narrow race in 2018 by just under 500 votes to former Mayor Harry Sidhu, who later resigned after the announcement of an FBI corruption probe into stadium dealings.

All of Tuesday night’s speeches at the River Arena across from Anaheim City Hall centered around putting residents first and working together.

Aitken and Councilman Carlos Leon – who both ran their campaigns on reform agendas – will be stepping into a city hall that’s been plagued by an FBI corruption investigation

“We can correct the loopholes that allowed corruption to seep into our city – through open and transparent governance, listening to residents and keeping their needs at the forefront and enacting common sense election reform,” Aitken said. 

Aitken, whose father Wylie is chair of the Voice of OC board of directors, called for a return to kindness in OC’s largest city, gave her condolences to the people who died during the pandemic, recognized frontline workers and reflected on her Jesuit education at Boston college.

Leon and newly inaugurated Councilwomen Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava all said they expect to have productive policy debates on the city council. 

“I look forward to robust conversations and discussions about policy as much as I look forward to collaborating with you for the betterment of our city and for the betterment of the lives of our constituents,” said Leon to his new colleagues.

Leon recognized his local roots and Mexican culture, noting his parents were immigrants, memorializing the example of his mother, who was in the audience and his deceased father.

“My dad was a welder and later became a deputy building inspector. And although he’s no longer with us, he taught me the value of hard work and to never give up on your dreams. My mom, who had studied medicine in Mexico, decided that raising me was more important than her career,” he said, celebrating the fact he went through Anaheim’s public school system.

“And it’s because of her sacrifices and perseverance that I’m here today.”

Rubalcava, who heads up the OC Business Council and serves on the OC Fair Board, said she wants to spearhead an initiative to get women more involved in government and asked staff to come back with a proposal at a later meeting.

“It should not take 48 mayors to have a female mayor,” Rubalcava said. 

Recognizing she’s a fourth generation resident of Anaheim, Rubalcava highlighted that the city’s public pool was once segregated and that the city’s founders probably couldn’t have fathomed a Mexican American woman like herself ever being elected to the city council.

“In my grandparents’ lifetime, they could only swim in the public pool once a week because they were Mexican,” Rubalcava said. “And then they would drain the pool so that other people could swim in a clean pool.”

As one of her first priorities, Rubalcava said she would focus on quality of life issues like traffic. She asked staff for an overview of traffic issues in her district – like stop lights and speed bumps. 

Meeks, a former Anaheim public works director who also served on the city’s planning commission, proposed a new strategic plan for the new city council. 

“I believe that it’s important to know where we’re headed,” Meeks said Tuesday. “Once you have that document in hand it would be a lot easier for us to rally around, to move that vision forward.” 

Meeks and Rubalcava did not respond to the Voice of OC candidate questionnaire sent out prior to the election.

Both Aitken and Leon identified homelessness as one of the key issues in Anaheim in Voice of OC’s 2022 candidate questionnaire.

Both Aitken and Leon were elected with strong support from organized resort area labor. 

Aitken received over $138,000 in support from the Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC – a labor union funded political action committee while Leon got over $87,000 from the same group.

Meanwhile, Disney pumped $1.3 million into the city elections, giving the money to its chief campaign spending vehicle, Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR). 

[Read: Disney’s PAC Continues Spending Big To Sway Voters in Anaheim]

The inauguration of Meeks and Rubalcava gives resort-backed council members a 4-2 majority.

Rubalcava said at Tuesday’s ceremony she’s going to push for more representation in her district. 

“This is for the City of Anaheim and the people of District 3 who’ve been overlooked for too long. We’re here to make sure that we are going to make a difference,” Rubalcava said.

“We’re going to serve the people who are living in the city with integrity, and compassion, and always be responsive to the needs of our community,” she said. 

Meeks also said she will prioritize public safety and opportunities that allow people to gather and connect in positive ways.

“As an example, concerts in the park is one of the many events that Anaheim offers. It’s much more than an evening of good music. It connects neighbors,” she said.

Anaheim’s resort interests, through their political action committee called SOAR poured over $546,000 into Meeks’ campaign and over $379,000 into Rubalcava’s campaign.

Anaheim will soon get a 5th new council member because Councilman Avelino Valencia was elected to the State Assembly. 

Council members will have to choose whether to appoint someone or hold a special election to fill the two years left on his term.  

“I’m figuring those council members are going to give SOAR a freebie with Valencia’s victory to the Assembly – it’s more likely you’re going to get a SOAR supported candidate given the outcome,” said Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor and local elections expert. 

The last time the council had to appoint a new member was in 2021 when the majority selected Gloria Ma’ae – who sat on SOAR’s advisory board. The decision triggered public criticism by two council members and residents who called the pick politicized and rushed.

Ma’e lost her bid in the November election to continue serving on the District 2 seat she was appointed to. 

At the council meeting before the inauguration, she said she would remain involved in the West Anaheim community.

At the same meeting, Councilman Trevor O’Neil who lost his mayoral bid against Aitken, played a video featuring music detailing his accomplishments while in office, adding that while he was leaving office he would also remain involved in city affairs .

The new councilmembers take their offices in a city where there’s renewed debates about who the city primarily serves: the Disneyland resort area or the residents? 

“This is indicative of American politics and in most major cities, medium sized cities and large cities in the United States, those industries that are the largest economic drivers tend to have the most sway with elected officials,” said Mike Moodian, a Chapman University professor and local politics expert. 

The new mayor and council members will also step into a city hall dealing with the fallout of the FBI corruption probe and as the city is conducting its own internal probe through contracted investigators

The city hired investigators have already publicly claimed to have found great stuff in their probe – the results of which are expected to be released in the Spring.

The federal probe eventually killed the Angel Stadium land sale, which was spearheaded by former Mayor Harry Sidhu. 

FBI agents alleged Sidhu tried ramming the deal through for $1 million in campaign spending from the Angels. The former mayor has not been charged with a crime and has denied all wrongdoing but resigned in May.

The new council is expected to follow through with the recent request for proposals on a property condition assessment on Angel Stadium. Under their lease, the Angels are required to maintain the property at a first class professional standard.

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. 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 helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.