Santana: The Happiest Place on Earth Hosts Orange County’s Shadiest Election

When an FBI corruption probe surfaced earlier this year at Anaheim City Hall, many wondered if Disneyland resort interests and the chamber of commerce – which FBI agents say had undue influence on city policymaking – might sit out this year’s election.

While these special interests may be shadowy, they certainly aren’t shy. 

Disneyland resort interests continue playing big this month in the race to control Anaheim City Hall, steering big money into nasty mailers with the brazen aim of confusing voters about the FBI probe and getting a fresh batch of compliant politicians elected. 

Follow the Money 

The resort district’s main political spending group, known by the acronym, SOAR (Support Our Anaheim Resort), has been busy spending roughly $1.2 million as of Oct. 26 to support the campaigns of Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae and candidates Natalie Rubalcava and Natalie Meeks.

Disney gave SOAR $1.3 million this election cycle to spend on behalf of supportive candidates. 

And after sitting on the sidelines for much of the election, Anaheim’s Chamber of Commerce jumped into the race this month, donating roughly $50,000 to Orange County’s Lincoln Club on Oct. 12. 

The Club – usually known for supporting conservative candidates – came out hard this cycle against Democrat Ashleigh Aitken, spending over a whopping $224,000 against her current campaign for mayor, according to the last disclosures filed. 

One of the most recent Lincoln Club PAC attacks against Aitken, which tries to make it look like her campaign manager was the focus of an FBI probe, cost about $50,000 and has already drawn a slander suit threat from Aitken.

Aitken – who’s father, Wylie, is chair of Voice of OC’s board of directors – came within 500 votes of being elected mayor back in 2018, eventually losing to Republican Harry Sidhu, who himself was supported by the Lincoln Club that year. 

Sidhu stepped down earlier this year to mount a legal defense after an FBI affidavit publicly called him out for corrupt practices in the rushed sale of Angel Stadium. 

After Sidhu’s reelection campaign blew up amidst the FBI probe, insiders reportedly recruited City Councilman Trevor O’Neill  – a Sidhu ally also called out in the FBI affidavit – to abandon his city council seat and run for mayor against Aitken, who is running a second time. 

Over the course of this election, the Lincoln Club’s been able to fundraise over $1.1 million – with more than half coming in over the last month. 

Landlord and homeowner associations have been contributing to the PAC, along with hoteliers and building trades who usually support hotel proposals.

Hotelier Bill O’Connell’s company – which received a massive tax subsidy for a four-star hotel in Anaheim – gave the club $25,000. 

A Spoiler? 

While the conservative group is playing at the county supervisors level and in other city races, like Irvine and Huntington Beach, it has a particular focus on Anaheim this election cycle pitting two Democrats against each other.

In one of the stranger twists to the election, the biggest threat to Aiken’s bid for mayor may come from what many call a “spoiler” within her own party ranks.  

Just like 2018, there’s a challenge to the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate coming from a local Democrat with name recognition – two-term City Councilwoman Lorri Galloway, who runs a local nonprofit, Eli’s Home, working with abused children and got just over 15% of the vote when she last ran in 2018 

In an odd twist, even though the conservative Lincoln Club has endorsed O’Neil, they have spent over $103,000 to fund mailers calling on Anaheim residents to support Galloway.

That left Orange County Democratic leaders and Aitken fuming – along with the Orange County Register’s editorial board – who have all loudly called Galloway out as a spoiler, a shadow candidate.

Galloway strongly denies she’s a spoiler, telling me she felt “betrayed” by her party because they didn’t offer her a chance to vie for endorsement despite having a long record of two terms on the city council. 

Yet when I relayed that sentiment to Orange County’s Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño, I could hear her bristling over the phone and she wasted no time in firing back, not mincing any words.

“Lorri Galloway delivered former disgraced Mayor Harry Sidhu by acting as a spoiler candidate in the last election. Now, she’s at it again,” Briceño said. “Her and I were very tight. But she changed her colors. And so did I after that.”

Briceño said Galloway knows exactly what she’s doing in the race. 

“I know what she’s about,” she said. “She’s not what Anaheim needs.”

“She’s a willing accomplice.”

I checked Galloway’s campaign finances to see if they looked like a viable campaign and they did not.

Our Civic Editor, Spencer Custodio, stopped by the address listed on Galloway’s campaign website, but it turned out to be an UPS store in Anaheim Hills. 

Other than fundraising about $36,000, including a $10,000 loan from her husband, there’s virtually no expenses that you would see in a citywide campaign in a place as large as Anaheim: office expenses, food for volunteers, printing, social media, campaign consultants, polling.

For example, O’Neill has raised about $182,000 and spent $195,000 on his campaign. Meanwhile, Aitken has raised about $260,000 and spent $367,000. 

Galloway told me in an interview that she’s actually got as much as $300,000 in donated services from campaign and social media consultants who have just decided to support her campaign.

Yet because these professionals are all donating their personal time, it doesn’t have to be disclosed, she said

“I have gotten so much professional, donated, in-kind support, it’s incredible,” Galloway said.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars…donated in kind stuff…”

A campaign team, a social media team, she said was “all donated.” 

Food? Events?

“Uh-huh.”

Galloway insisted to me that this kind of support didn’t have to be disclosed, something she turned out to be right about after I checked with the state’s fair political practices commission and the City of Anaheim. 

As long as no money is exchanged, services don’t have to be reported or disclosed. 

“It’s grassroots,” Galloway said. “That’s what grassroots is … people donate.”

It’s an interesting way to operate a campaign, something that Bob Stern – who helped co-author the state’s Political Reform Act of 1974 – said he had never heard of before. 

Now, Galloway insisted to me that “I don’t have anything to hide.”

But hiding your support is just that. 

Where’s Labor Money?

Now there’s also some labor spending to support the candidates that are vying against resort district-backed candidates, but it’s tiny in comparison.

The Anaheim Resort Workers for an Honest City Council has spent just over $16,000 to support Al Jabbar, who is up against Rubalcava.

The Helping Working Families Get Ahead PAC – another labor union-funded committee – has spent nearly $58,000 supporting Carlos Leon’s campaign, which is running against Ma’ae. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers – a union representing grocery and pharmacy employees – contributed $125,000 to Working Families in September.

UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and other hospitality employees, contributed $100,000 to the PAC.

Working Families has also spent $73,000 bolstering Aitken’s campaign for mayor. 

Who Does Public Safety Back?

Yet another one of the strangest twists to this Anaheim election season comes from tracking the public safety unions and how they’re spending their campaign money.

The Anaheim Police Association is supporting Aitken and has spent over $90,000 on her campaign. 

Yet they also bolstered Rubalcava’s city council campaign by spending over $50,000 to support her.

The police union is also backing Ma’ae, spending $37,000, and Meeks, spending close to $60,000 on her campaign in October.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Firefighters Association laid their bets out in similar fashion with the same three candidates.

They’ve spent over $35,000 on Aitken, running as a reformist mayor, and on the resort district-friendly candidates, investing over $16,000 on Rubalcava and close to $14,000 on Ma’ae. 

Casting Shadows

Forget Russian disinformation campaigns, these kinds of shadow tactics – corrosive attack mail, spoiler candidates, spending to trigger council stalemates –  erode trust in our democracy. 

It’s clear that many of these campaigns know that the state regulatory agencies looking over election campaigns are overwhelmed and underfunded. 

Media – especially in Orange County – has largely collapsed. 

Special interests are betting no one is watching. 

And while these tactics might make it easy to win, they also make it increasingly tough to govern. 

Spencer Custodio and Hosam Elattar contributed to this story.

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