Obama in the O.C.

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It might have come as a surprise when Orange County, with its reputation for white-bread, affluent stodginess, suddenly became the spot for TV melodrama, with “The O.C.,” “Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County” and “The Real Housewives of ...” -- well, you get the picture. But that was nothing compared with the public amazement when it was announced that Barack Obama would be holding a fundraiser Sunday at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee gathering $2,300-a-ticket support at the once-Republican bastion where Barry Goldwater and family spent their summers? The African American candidate coming to a city where decades ago the police were known for their “NIN” stops, an acronym that referred to stopping black motorists for questioning simply because they were black and in Newport Beach?

Some observers wondered whether Obama is aware of the territory he’s treading. But perhaps the candidate perceives a truth about Orange County that its outdated stereotype has obscured. To be sure, the county has a higher percentage of registered Republicans than many of its neighbors, and it has given rise to more than a proportionate share of anti-immigrant groups. But it’s time for the county’s image as a monolithically white, rich, conservative place to ride off into the sunset, like the late resident John Wayne.


When the 2000 census revealed the ethnic diversity of the county, pundits gasped at how its demographics had been transformed. In truth, they simply hadn’t noticed changes long familiar to locals. Back in 1992, a minority of the county’s public school students were white. For a decade, the most ethnically homogeneous school district, Santa Ana Unified, has enrolled mostly Latinos -- 92%, according to the state’s most recent data. The University Park Library in master-planned Irvine stocks materials in Spanish, Chinese, Persian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. And though there is wealth -- enough to attract any candidate’s fundraiser -- nearly 40% of the county’s children quality for a break on the price of a school lunch.

Oversimplifying the changes in Orange County would be as much of a mistake as ignoring them. The county has never attracted many African Americans, who make up about 2% of the population. The local Democratic Party doesn’t even dream of seeing its registration pull alongside that of the GOP in the near future; the stated goal on its website is to build to 500,000 (the Republican Party has more than 700,000). Stereotypes usually have an edge of truth but overlook richer realities -- in this case, a county of people with widely divergent views and backgrounds. Those who recognize the county’s complexity, as the Obama campaign appears to have done, stand to gain.