Column: The Democratic civil war behind an Anaheim recall election

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Anaheim Councilmember Natalie Rubalcava wanted to show me two things as we walked toward a picnic table at Little People’s Park.

“How do you like the playground?” she asked about her latest municipal project. The one-acre green space, site of an infamous 1978 police beatdown of Chicano residents, shone like I had never seen before. Kids played on swings, a seesaw and even a small climbing wall. Adults relaxed in the shade. A vibrant mural on a south wall was a welcome contrast to the historic, faded one on the side of a liquor store a stone’s throw away.

This is the Natalie I’ve known since she was a grade ahead of me at Sycamore Junior High and Anaheim High in the mid-1990s, where she organized the homecoming dance as senior class vice president. A go-getter committed to a city where her family has lived for five generations. Kind, self-effacing, with a big smile.

That’s not the Rubalcava popping up on my social media accounts, though. She showed me a video on her cellphone of protesters who crashed a meet-and-greet to chant that she was corrupt while holding a banner that read “Natalie Rubal-cabal.”

Dressed in jeans, fashionable sandals and a white T-shirt emblazoned with Andy Anaheim, the city’s cheery mascot, Rubalcava offered me an aw shucks grin. “OK, that banner was funny.”

The first-time politician — whose working-class district is where my dad and a bunch of cousins live — faces a June 4 recall election just 18 months after winning her seat. Critics claim she is a puppet of the corporate interests behind the self-identified “cabal” that a 2022 FBI affidavit alleged runs Anaheim. The federal investigation led to the resignation of former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu, who pleaded guilty last year to corruption charges stemming from his role in trying to sell Angel Stadium at a bargain rate to a company controlled by Halos owner Arte Moreno.

Rubalcava has done herself no favors with her opponents. Recently, she joined the rest of her fellow council members in approving the largest expansion of the Disneyland Resort in a generation, despite Disney offering little insight into its plans.

“She represents the central question of Anaheim: of corporations dominating the city,” said Austin Lynch. He’s the Orange County organizing director for Unite Here Local 11, the hotel and hospitality workers union that’s spearheading Rubalcava’s recall. She beat their favored candidate in 2022 and successfully campaigned against a ballot measure last year that would have increased the minimum wage for Anaheim’s hotel and event center workers to $25 an hour.

Nevertheless, Lynch and Unite Here recording secretary Martin Lopez insisted to me during a Zoom chat that those past battles have little to do with their current campaign. Instead, what sparked their ire was a city-funded corruption report released last year that concluded Rubalcava “was less than candid and forthcoming” to investigators about her role in a couple of ethical no-nos: an unsolicited phone call to a voter whose info Rubalcava got without their permission, and directing a city worker to reach out to the Orange County Business Council, her former employer, about small-business loan opportunities. The latter incident violated the city charter but didn’t amount to anything criminal, the report concluded.

I pointed out to Lynch and Lopez that Anaheim has had politicians far worse than Rubalcava, yet Unite Here never bothered to try and recall them. So what makes her different?

“We definitely disagreed with a lot of [previous politicians]” Lopez replied. “But when [the report] alleged she crossed the line, that’s when we decided to recall her.”

If his answer came off as weak salsa, it’s because it is. The Rubalcava recall is really the latest front in a long-running civil war among Democrats in Orange County.

Ever since a 2012 lawsuit forced O.C.’s largest city to switch to district instead of at-large elections, local activists have dreamed of turning the Anaheim city council into one much like Santa Ana’s, stacked with progressive Latinos who put working class and immigrant residents ahead of big business.

Problem is, Anaheim isn’t Santa Ana. I’ve long told my activist amigos — who never listen to me — that the historical dominance in my hometown of people with roots in rancho libertarian Mexican states like Zacatecas and Jalisco has created a more moderate electorate. That’s why, even though the city council is majority Latino, it’s about as wokoso as Winnie the Pooh.

Rubalcava, a Democrat, agrees.

Latinos in Anaheim “want public safety,” she said. “They don’t hate Disney. They hate Arte Moreno but love the team. Everyone I talk to barely talks about the recall.”

She has the backing of unions, Rep. Lou Correa, nearly all of O.C.’s Democratic Assembly members and state senators, and the Orange County Labor Federation. Unite Here, meanwhile, has spent $845,000 on the recall since last year, yet finds itself mostly alone.

The 46-year-old admitted to thinking about resigning, to avoid seeing her name being “dragged through the mud.”

“But I also have to be a good example for my kids. Like, I have bullies coming in here pushing me around and trying to make me look bad in the city that I grew up in. Or questioning whether I’m corrupt or not.”

Her voice was calm but cutting. Another Natalie I remembered — a self-admitted “troublemaker” who nearly got kicked out of Anaheim High — emerged before my eyes. “I know I’m not corrupt.”

Rubalcava said she never paid much attention to local politics beyond having televised City Council meetings on in the background during dinner. That changed in 2022, when Jose F. Moreno, the lead plaintiff in the 2012 district election lawsuit, announced he was backing Anaheim Union High School District trustee Al Jabbar to replace him on the City Council.

“Trees weren’t getting trimmed because [Moreno’s] focus was activism and not, you know, serving the residents,” Rubalcava said. “[Progressives] were lining up their candidate to bring in, and nothing would change. That’s when I decided I was going to run.”

A political action committee tied to Disney spent $380,000 to support Rubalcava’s campaign as she destroyed Jabbar. I asked if she had any issues with that, considering the House of Mouse has long treated Anaheim City Hall as its personal sandbox.

“I wasn’t really paying attention to that, because I was fundraising myself.”

Media outlets and good-government observers blasted the connection, I replied. Why did she think Disney spent the money that it did?

“Honestly, I don’t know.”

Evasive Natalie? Never knew her until now.

“It does bother me when people talk about the independent expenditures, because ultimately, I worked my ass off,” she continued, removing her sunglasses. “I knocked on doors. I made phone calls. I still see people now who are like, ‘You knocked on my door in 2022, and that’s why I voted for you.’”

She said the beef with Unite Here really started after a meeting about the minimum-wage ballot measure. Among the attendees: Unite Here co-president Ada Briceño, who also happens to be chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. Rubalcava refused the union’s request to push her colleagues to adopt the entire initiative.

Instead, they approved an ordinance that requires hotels to provide panic buttons to workers — something that the union had sought, but not everything it wanted.

Shortly after, Rubalcava’s then-boss, Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, told her something Briceño had allegedly said to him: “Natalie is public enemy No. 1, and I will stop at nothing until she’s recalled and politically ruined forever.”

A few months later, Valencia’s chief of staff fired Rubalcava as district director, offering no specific reason.

“I worked my ass off for that guy,” Rubalcava said, referring to Valencia. She shook her head, then spoke about Briceño.

“I’ve always thought she was well-spoken, smart, passionate about the work that she does. The thing that’s the most hurtful about this is that it’s a Latina pushing to recall me. I mean, I try not to talk negatively about women. But I just think that we tear each other down far too often.”

Valencia said in a statement that he has “a standing policy of not commenting on matters regarding human resources, or current or former employees.” Briceño, meanwhile, declined to comment even after I read to her what she had supposedly said to Valencia about Rubalcava.

As our chat wrapped up, I asked the council member whether she thought she’d be recalled. She had no clue.

“I mean, it’s not life or death. So I have to put things in perspective. I still have a beautiful family — a husband, two daughters — and I have a law degree. I’m not destitute. If I lose, I have to move on and just move forward.”

Then, the fighting Natalie I know came out one more time.

“Like, I got jumped at Sycamore, you know what I mean? Like, I’m not really afraid of [critics]. So I think that bothers them, too. I can’t be bullied by anybody.”

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