Special interests: The term’s routinely cited in enough campaign material that it’s become synonymous with elections.
“It’s a term used for interests that have a lot of money, more than anything,” said Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Election Commission in a Friday phone interview. “That’s the qualifier.”
The term can thus be applied broadly, Ravel said, beyond corporate interests to public sector organizations like police and teacher unions.
So which ones warrant real concern over their influence on local elections? For that, Ravel said there’s another throughline:
“They’re giving money not because they’re concerned about democracy or the most intelligent candidate — they’re concerned about particular issues in legislation – about how it will or will not be to their detriment.”
But they’re a recurring feature in Orange County news headlines, for political controversies like an FBI wiretapping of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, or elected officials in Santa Ana publicly comparing their police union to an organized crime syndicate.
Such groups have earned formidable reputations in the county for their heavy political spending and past favorable returns, like the now-dead controversial $150 million cash sale of Angel Stadium to baseball team owner Arte Moreno, or a $6.5 million pandemic bailout for resort businesses.
And yet, the most recent election year seemingly challenged how often special interests get their desired results.
Ely Flores, executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), said if candidates refuse to take special interest dollars, they have to have a strong organizing campaign on the ground to win an election.
“The problem we have with our elections now that it becomes a battle of who has the most dollars versus who has the better ideology or the better solutions,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview
He said campaign finance reform is needed to balance the competing interests of special interest groups and residents.
“A lot of our cities need to really take a strong look at campaign finance reform as a way to ensure that elections are transparent, are ethically run and at the end of the day, that voters don’t get shortchanged by electing folks who, because of the dollars that are behind them, get more airtime than the candidates that actually might be fighting for their interests,” Flores said.
The question of special interest influence on politics and elections most recently surfaced in Santa Ana this month, where the local police union has mounted recall campaigns against two council members this week after an unsuccessful bid for a council majority in November.
[Read: Santa Ana Council Members Denounce Police Union Recall Campaign Against Them]
The union under president Gerry Serrano spent $1 million on election races countywide. Still, the organization representing the city’s police officers didn’t score more than three council seats in its own city.
Specifically, the election saw a sitting police union-backed council member unseated by a challenger from the left, a schoolteacher named Benjamin Vazquez, despite spending nearly $100,000 on text messages and mail supporting the former council member, Nelida Mendoza.
It’s a city where three years ago, the police union could win a controversial labor contract for $25 million in officer raises over three years.
This year, however, most council members wouldn’t sign anything lasting more than one – and imposed their ‘Last, Best and Final’ offer on the union of a 3% salary increase falling far below the union’s proposals over the preceding year of contract bargaining.
Serrano also lost his controversial arrangement for a full-time release from police work for union leadership duties.
Landlord and real estate interests lost along the same vein two years earlier, when they attempted a voter referendum to overturn citywide rent control approved in 2021, following the election of a pro-rent control council majority the previous year.
[Read: Efforts to Repeal Santa Ana’s New Rent Control Law Fall Short]
Instead, the anti-rent control campaign fell short on the needed signatures to pass the rent control question to voters.
The police union’s recall campaigns, targeting council members Jessie Lopez and Thai Viet Phan, are now an effort to recoup such losses, according to one its organizers.
“If we can get two new council members, we can get to four and get some change,” said the chair of the police union’s recall committees, a Santa Ana resident named Tim Rush, in a previous interview.
Among his reasons for supporting the recall, Rush cited the council members’ support for rent control.
In Anaheim, Disney’s political spending vehicle the Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) poured over a million dollars into the campaigns of three different candidates – all of whom didn’t respond to Voice of OC’s candidate questionnaire.
Resort interests had a mixed bag this past election: they won two out of three council races and their chief ally on the council lost in the Mayor’s race.
This is despite residents calling on Disney and other resort businesses to stay out of local elections and for campaign finance reform after the FBI revealed their corruption probe into city hall and its dealings that touched entities like SOAR and the Chamber of Commerce.
[Read: What Made Anaheim’s Chamber Tick?]
Flores said OCCORD is still fighting for campaign finance reform in Anaheim – a city he said was in desperate need of it.
In a sworn affidavit, federal agents accused former Mayor Harry Sidhu of trying to secure $1 million in campaign support from Angels Baseball executives for rushing through the Angel Stadium Land Sale.
The sale was canned and Sidhu resigned while maintaining his innocence.
Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, who was also called out by the FBI, pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges. His sentencing is scheduled for March 24.
The chamber, which heavily backed Sidhu in 2018, largely stayed out of the election this year.
But the FBI probe did not stop SOAR from spending in the 2022 election.
SOAR used the money to support candidates Natalie Meeks in District 6, Natalie Rubalcava in District 3 and Gloria Ma’ae in District 2.
Meeks, who received over half a million dollars from SOAR, beat out her opponent Hari Shankar Lal, who campaigned as a reformist and criticized the previous council, by over 8,000 votes.
Rubalcava, who received over $379,000 from SOAR, beat out her opponent Al Jabbar, another candidate promising reform, by almost 1,500 votes.
But not all the SOAR back candidates beat out their reform promising opponents.
Gloria Ma’ae, who had been appointed to the council in 2021, narrowly lost her election bid to her opponent, Carlos Leon, by 78 votes.
Prior to her appointment, Ma’ae sat on SOAR’s advisory board. She received the least support from SOAR in Anaheim with about $300,000 in the last election.
And in the race for Mayor, Aitken beat out former Councilman Trevor O’Neil becoming the first woman elected Mayor in OC’s largest city.
[Read: Anaheim Inaugurates Two Reformist, Two Resort-Backed City Councilmembers Following FBI Corruption Probe]
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
SOAR did not spend money in the mayor’s race, but has supported O’Neil’s campaigns in Anaheim in the past.
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.
The newly elected council members, last month, all voted to fill the last empty seat on the dais to Norma Campos Kurtz, who has ties to both SOAR and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
The district 4 seat was left vacant after former councilman Avelino Valencia – backed by resort interests in the 2020 election – was elected to the State Assembly in November.
In Irvine, most of the spending came from the Lincoln Club, a conservative donor group based in Orange County.
Altogether, the group spent $289,000 split between Councilman Anthony Kuo and finance commissioner John Park.
Kuo lost his reelection bid by over 2,000 votes to UC Irvine Professor Kathleen Treseder, placing third overall, while Park placed fourth, over 4,500 votes away from winning the election.
[Read: Major OC Republican Group Lost on 96% of its Big Local Bets in Latest Election]
But for land developers, the election in Irvine was more of a mixed bag.
The biggest spending from developers including the Irvine Company and FivePoint was against Councilman Larry Agran’s reelection bid, with $100,000 being spent on ads directly opposing his campaign.
Despite the opposition, Agran sailed to reelection as the top vote getter last year, as the only candidate to bring in over 30,000 votes this year.
Using the same chain of political action committees, the developers also spent $50,000 in support of Mayor Farrah Khan’s reelection campaign, who fended off several candidates to win a second term in the mayor’s office, which under the city’s current term limit rules would be her last.
[Read: Orange County and Los Angeles Democrat Parties Clash in Irvine City Council Race]
Developers also spent $15,000 to support Khan’s transportation commissioner Scott Hansen’s city council campaign, but he finished second to last overall.
“There was a lot of money spent on both sides,” said Chapman University political professor Mike Moodian. “It tends to be a pendulum, sometimes we see a developer-friendly faction prevail and sometimes we don’t.”
Brandon Pho 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 @photherecord.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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.
Start each day informed with our free email newsletter.
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, with no paywalls and no popups. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But this work not free. 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.