Anaheim city council members almost exclusively finance their campaigns through donations from special interests, not their residents.

A Voice of OC review of their campaign disclosures shows most of them are financed by the very interests detailed in a scathing corruption report released late last month.

For every elected city council member examined outside of the mayor, less than 5% of their campaign funds came from Anaheim residents not looking to do business with the city. 

Of all the city council members, Councilwoman Natalie Meeks received the most support from special interests, which accounted for around 87% of her campaign support. 

Councilman Stephen Faessel isn’t far behind, with just over 80% of the total funding spent on behalf of his campaign coming from a single political action committee representing the resort community.

Around 77% of the total spending on Councilman Jose Diaz’s campaign came from special interests, who contributed both directly to his campaign and through a variety of independent political action committees. 

Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava had around 75% of her campaign spending coming from special interests such as the resort district businesses, firefighters and police officers.  

Just over 70% of the campaign spending in Councilman Carlos Leon’s race was from special interests, this time from various labor unions rather than resort area business interests. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken is the only member of the city council who generated nearly half her campaign funds on her own, with 52% of the total spending in her race coming from labor unions and the city’s police and fire union. 

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors. 

Those figures come from a combination of a candidate’s fundraising accounts and from political action committees, or PACs, which are spending vehicles created by various special interests such as businesses and unions to spend additional funds supporting or opposing a candidate. 

In Anaheim, political action committees have made up a bulk of campaign spending in recent elections.

“Anaheim is a city with a number of large special interests that have shown a willingness to become actively engaged in the political process when an issue affects them,” wrote city-hired investigators in a recent report commissioned by the city. 

“This is perfectly legal,” investigators wrote, noting “where it becomes problematic, and potentially unlawful, is when there is coordination between a campaign and the PAC or if undue political influence is involved.” 

Council members publicly insist they’re not swayed by their campaign donors on how they vote and that they have not coordinated with PACs amidst a host of swirling corruption probes but keep resisting any sort of campaign finance reform efforts.

The discussion comes after former Mayor Harry Sidhu signed a plea agreement admitting to public corruption charges, saying he lied to federal agents about feeding insider information to an Angels consultant during their attempt to buy Angel Stadium from the city in exchange for a $1 million campaign support. 

[Read: Ex-Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Agrees to Plead Guilty to Corruption Charges

The city’s own independent investigation alleges a systemic pay-to-play system throughout Anaheim city hall that rewarded politicians for taking millions of taxpayer dollars and funneling them back to the Chamber of Commerce and resort interests. 

In their 353-page report on alleged corruption at Anaheim City Hall, investigators say Disneyland resort area interests heavily influence policy making with their outsized influence on elected officials and city employees. 

[Read: State Auditors to Probe Anaheim’s Rerouting of Federal Funds to Chamber of Commerce

One of the loudest voices pushing back against any restrictions on campaign donations is Councilman Jose Diaz, who said former Mayor Harry Sidhu was a bad actor and that no one on the dais would ever be swayed by the promise of money. 

“I reject the idea that council members are owned by campaign finance interests,” Diaz said at the council’s Aug. 15 meeting. 

Councilmembers Carlos Leon and Natalie Meeks agreed with Diaz in statements to Voice of OC, saying they weren’t swayed by who donated to their campaigns. 

“I’m not influenced by any donations directly to my campaign or to any PAC,” Meeks said. “My vote will always represent what I truly feel is in the best interest of Anaheim and its residents.” 

Leon agreed with Meeks on the issue. 

“Influence-wise, my decisions are based on what I think is right for the residents that I represent and our city as a whole,” Leon said. 

Leon and Meeks also said that they have no coordination with political action committees financing the lion’s share of their campaigns. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken thanked the “diverse group of Anaheim residents,” who contributed to her campaign in a statement to Voice of OC, noting she received funds from “residents, community leaders, businesses, unions and other organizations.”

She also criticized Sidhu, saying the city had failed to enforce its campaign finance rules during his tenure and that any violations of the law were “only recently uncovered.” 

“Going forward, we must examine reform to restore honesty to City Hall and prevent residents’ votes from being diluted,” Aitken said.

Diaz, Faessel, Meeks and Rubalcava did not respond to requests for comment. 

Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, said the city council’s recent actions, along with Sidhu’s signed guilty plea agreement, show campaign contributions heavily influence the dais.

She pointed to a “mock,” city council meeting hosted by Sidhu and a representative from the Angels that came out in Sidhu’s plea agreement, which gave multiple council members talking points to support the deal to sell Angel Stadium and defend the deal.

The mock meeting referenced in the plea agreement came after Sidhu was included on an email with two other city council members, an Angels consultant, Angels President Jon Carpino, and others that laid out an agenda for a meeting where council members would act out their roles supporting the Angel Stadium sale. 

“They’re not acting independently,” Balma said. “Whether a mock city council meeting happened or not, they read the email with their parts outlined, and they got their marching orders from the people who got them elected.”

The city’s independent investigation also found that lobbyists were improperly managing the city’s political action committees to coordinate spending for or against certain candidates, in which they specifically called out Sidhu’s alleged coordination with the PACs. 

“It appears that there was no firewall between the Sidhu campaign and some of the PACs in 2018,” investigators wrote. “While there seemed to be a full effort in 2018 to coordinate the Sidhu campaign with the PACs in Anaheim, this activity may have occurred before this election cycle and potentially continued thereafter.” 

During a June 2022 council meeting, when some council members suggested instituting new rules that would block a council member from voting on anything involving one of their donors, Diaz said it would destroy his ability to fundraise. 

“How else am I going to advertise to 65,000 residents in District 1 what I want to do?” Diaz said. “If we enforce this today, we approve this today, all we’re going to do is prohibit people like me from running. The money coming to the campaign is still going to be coming … it’ll be coming from outside city interests.”

And he’s not wrong. 

According to Diaz’s campaign finance disclosures from 2019 and 2020, only around 1.3% of his campaign warchest came in the form of small-dollar donations from Anaheim residents. 

The rest came from a mixture of special interests, including Disney, hoteliers, lobbyists, local businesses and others, most of which didn’t have an Anaheim address on their disclosure. 

“I am sympathetic to the idea that it’s ridiculously expensive to run for office for positions that are part time and poorly paid,” Balma said. “But the flip side of that is, who are you serving when the people that got you elected spent $500,000?” 

Diaz isn’t the only city council member to face that question.

Councilman Stephen Faessel, who was included in the mock city council meeting email according to the plea agreement, received around 1% of his campaign funds from Anaheim residents. 

Just over 80% of his entire campaign’s support came from a single place, the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee, or SOAR, which is primarily funded by Disney to produce ads showcasing their favored candidates. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, state Senator Tom Umberg and Congressman Lou Correa, are asking all those implicated in Sidhu’s plea agreement to resign.

While they haven’t specifically stated who should resign, Faessel was mentioned in the plea agreement as the councilman from District 5 and mayor pro tem, and was included in the email about the “mock” city council meeting. 

City spokesman Mike Lyster was also alleged to be part of that email chain, with federal investigators identifying him by title – the city’s chief communications officer. 

Councilmembers Natalie Rubalcava and Meeks, who both opposed or watered down many of Aitken’s recommended reforms put forward to address the report’s findings, also got a big chunk of their funding from resort area interests via SOAR, with 87% of Meek’s entire campaign spending coming from that one committee. 

Overall, just under 2% of Rubalcava’s campaign funding consisted of small dollar donations from Anaheim residents, with small donors making up just over 1% of Meeks’ funding. 

Balma pointed out that while candidates aren’t able to legally coordinate with groups like SOAR, knowing that they’re present in an election and can provide funds drives down the need for candidates to look for more donations. 

“If you’re getting a million dollars in expenditure support from Disneyland, you don’t feel the same urgency to fundraise grassroots,” Balma said. “If you have somebody writing massive checks, even if they’re independent, it frees you up.”

While Aitken and Councilman Carlos Leon didn’t get any money from SOAR, they got support from various unions. 

According to his campaign finance disclosures, around 3% of Leon’s funding came from Anaheim residents giving small dollar donations, with his largest backer coming from Unite Here Local 11, the union representing hospitality workers in Orange County. 

According to their disclosures, Unite Here spent $112,000 on mailers, text messaging and other advertising for Leon through the Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC. 

On his own, Leon only raised just under $60,000. 

Mayor Ashleigh Aitken had the largest amount of small dollar donors in the city, with just over 5% of her total campaign fund coming from a variety of other local doctors, lawyers and other Anaheim residents who gave over $30,000 to her election efforts. 

She’s also the only member of the council who didn’t see most of her campaign support coming from a single source.

The majority of Aitken’s colleagues were heavily backed by the Disney-funded SOAR political action committee. 

Altogether, Aitken reported raising $327,000 from her main campaign account. 

Unite Here invested $177,000 on her campaign through independent expenditures, while the city’s police and fire unions spent $164,000 combined to support her campaign. 

Balma also pointed out former Councilman Jose Moreno, who left office at the end of 2022, as someone who raised largely from residents with support from the unions to get elected. 

“Within that (Moreno) would ask people to donate because he’s fighting for workers. He’s fighting for people who’ve never had representation on the city council in that 1st district election,” Balma said. 

It remains unclear what, if any, reforms to the city’s campaign finance system lie in the future. 

Meeks said publicly she feels the current system works fine, while Leon and Aitken said that they’re still studying what the possible responses could be. 

The city council is set to discuss campaign finance reform at their Oct. 24 meeting.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


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