Slingshot: A Progressive Redemption in Buena Park!
Back in 2016, Susan Sonne ran a long-shot campaign for Buena Park city council. An activist who co-founded Buena Park United, a community engagement group, Sonne got vastly outspent by Fred Smith, a longtime Republican fixture on council. Smith easily sailed to victory with a comfortable 30 percent margin against Sonne.
This year provided a rematch of sorts. Sonne vied for the District 3 seat once more, which includes the Buena Park Mall and Knott's Berry Farm; only this time she ran against Sharon Smith, Fred's wife. But much had changed since 2016. The council boasted a rare Democratic majority in Orange County with the election of Connor Traut and Sunny Youngsun Park.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Buena Park quietly charted a progressive path to meet its historic challenges. The council adopted a mask mandate before face-coverings became a culture war elsewhere in the county. The city also moved to provide early eviction protections for renters and a lottery for small business loans.
Sonne, a staunch progressive, believes Buena Park can do better still. She ran on a platform calling for the city to provide rent assistance to residents through state funds allocated for such. As a candidate, Sonne made her case to establish a Public Health Commission as well as expanding food distribution programs.
Recognizing the pandemic as a critical issue, Sonne earned 51 percent of the vote in reversing her electoral misfortunes. The Democratic majority on council is set to increase after Election Day and Sonne is anxious to get going.
"I'm ready," she says, with a Southernly drawl. "I'm ready to work for my community."
But first, Sonne spoke with The Slingshot! about her plans to better Buena Park not just with regards to the pandemic, but in boosting transparency and responsible development, too.
What was the main difference between your two runs in 2016 and 2020?
Sonne: To put it mildly, I wasn't really prepared to run in 2016. There were issues that I wanted to address in the city and I thought there were important enough to throw my hat in the ring. As I went further along in the campaign, I realized that I really did want to win. I began strategizing and preparing for this run the day after the election in 2016. I got to know my community better. Those relationships was what made it possible for me to win this time.
How do you see the city's role in responding to the pandemic as it heads into 2021 and is expected to worsen before it gets better?
That is a huge concern and it actually shifted my platform to focus on public health. The city needs to take a more active role. I'm hoping to have a public health commission created with people who have the expertise to be able to guide us and make recommendations to keep our residents healthy. And it's not just the pandemic. There are other public health issues to be addressed, including environmental impacts and racism.
You've always been a proponent of greater transparency. What would that look like at Buena Park City Hall where even election campaign contribution forms aren't readily available online?
It's interesting you say that, because making those reports available on our website is actually on the current council's agenda for the Nov. 10 meeting. I definitely support that. Even more importantly, we need more voices of the community to weigh on the day-to-day business of what the council does. Our 5 p.m. city council meeting time has been an impediment to a lot of the community. I've been looking at web applications that would allow residents to register and then being able to take polls and send out questions to have a digital discussion.
I've found that Zoom has been a very effective way in getting more people involved. I had a town hall on public health back in September for my campaign. One of the comments that I got was, "this needs to happen more often." I intend to hold some frequent town halls to allow residents to join, ask questions and hear what's coming up so that they have a voice.
What does reimagining the Buena Park Mall look like to you?
There's no doubt that we must find a way to get more housing into the city. Because we are built out, that's going to require some higher density housing and we need to plan it very well to make sure that we don't negatively impact much of the community. A housing component on the mall property would be a pretty attractive thing for the community.
One of the things that I want to do there is create a tax increment financing district, which would mean that any additional taxes that come to the city for what we develop there would be focused on improving that area. The neighborhood that's most impacted by the development would see the improvements as a result. We need to create a community workforce agreement for the city's capital improvement project surrounding the mall project as well.
How bad is the local economy hurting on account of Knott's Berry Farm being mostly closed, especially with no Halloween Haunt, and how do you balance that with public health safety concerns?
We have pandemic exhaustion. We're tired of it. We don't want to have to deal with it anymore. We want to go back to life as it was. It's not realistic, unfortunately. In order to improve our economy, we absolutely have to ensure the public health. Knott's has done a wonderful job of holding events where people eat outdoors. They sell out the tickets quickly. All the people here are enjoying that a lot. I know it's not nearly sufficient for the kinds of economic recovery that we need to make, not for them or any other business in Buena Park.
We're going to need help and we're going to need to help each other, for some time. We'll be looking for all the different sources that we can find to help ensure that people remain housed and fed and our businesses remain viable so that once we get a real a handle on a treatment and a vaccine that will allow us to go back to a somewhat more normal life, those businesses will still be standing and will be able to get back to their former levels of success.
- Gabriel San Román
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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
Three election cycles into single-member district reform in Anaheim has brought about a city council whose diversity is only skin deep. When new members are sworn in, the dais will seat four people of color alongside three white guys. A Cuban councilman will join two Mexican Americans colleagues and an Indian American mayor in forming the most diverse council in Anaheim since 2004. Too bad six of the seven are backed by Disney. Why all the ethnic arithmetic? An ACLU lawsuit in 2012 argued that Anaheim's at-large system disenfranchised Latino voters in the city. With the creation of single-member districts, Latinos would finally have their say--and might even elect council members who looked like them! The Walt Disney Co. helped fund a ballot measure campaign in 2014 to redraw Anaheim's political map while settling the ACLU's lawsuit. Two years later, it looked like district elections delivered in its first at-bat. The council counted three Latinos, including newly elected members Denise Barnes and Jose F. Moreno, joining anti-subsidy mayor Tom Tait. A living wage ballot campaign rocked Disney in 2018, forcing it to ask the council to shred its subsidy policies to avoid being legally subject to the minimum wage law destined to pass. That same year, the Mouse roared back into power through district elections in establishing a dominant 5-2 council majority. It followed up by supporting two Latino candidates this year--Jose Diaz and Avelino Valencia--and increased its majority on council by one, knocking off Barnes in West Anaheim along the way. Thanks to the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United ruling in 2010, corporations are people so money is speech. Disney dollars speak loudly in Anaheim elections; much of its $1.5 million dumped into the Support Our Anaheim Resort PAC prior to the pandemic fueled the successful campaigns of Diaz, Valencia and incumbent Steve Faessel.
Disney dominance isn't insurmountable. But a longtime Achilles heel in Anaheim politics remains the absence of Latino grassroots groups that furnish future progressive leaders. Los Amigos de Orange County, where civic issues are discussed and community campaigns find support, has been the only game in town for many years.
Moreno, the president of Los Amigos, has built an alternative pipeline on the city's two school boards, but this election cycle's outcome leaves his project hobbled, especially with the defeat of Annemarie Randle-Trejo, an Anaheim Union High School District Trustee. There's still several board members and educators who may run for office in the future, such as Jose Magcalas, Al Jabbar, Juan Alvarez, Mark Lopez and Ryan Ruelas.
On the other side, Tait's Republican revolution of Anaheim resort critics sputtered out. James Vanderbilt lost in 2018. Barnes converted to being a Democrat before being defeated this month.
Nearly a decade after the Anaheim Riots, Latinos gained next to nothing, not even a community center. District elections boosters seized on that inflection point with the promise of reform with little to show for it now.
The domination of district elections happened because Anaheim is home to the most sophisticated capitalist politics in the county. The Resort Elite boast an AstroTurf group in Anaheim First, a narrative driven by the Anaheim Independent blog and powerful PACs.
Let future candidates run but there are no shortcuts to power. Long-term salvation lies in the Latino community finding their own voice in between election cycles, not just during them.
By the Byline
Three years ago, I stood in a cemetery in a southern New Mexico town founded by my mother's relatives in the 19th century. My tio gave us a history lesson about the entombed, including my grandfather's eldest brother. He died in 1918, a victim of the influenza pandemic that year.
The tale seemed intriguing but far removed. I worked in media during past pandemics, but never expected to live during something on the scale of coronavirus. Now in its clutches, many Latinos have marked this Dia de los Muertos with somber remembrance for relatives lost to the ongoing pandemic.
It changed not just who we remember, but how. Gone are the street festivals that brought our communities together. But Dia de los Muertos lives on. This month, I go "Off the Page" for LibroMobile with Santa Ana artist Rigo Maldonado.
An arts teacher at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Maldonado had his students working on narrative pots when coronavirus brought everything to a screeching halt. He recently repurposed them for an online art installation, "And Still I Rise" that's apart of Self-Help Graphics' Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Lead photo: Susan Sonne ready to lead / Photo courtesy Sonne