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In election spending, Disneyland puts its thumb on the scale in Anaheim, its company town

In election spending, Disneyland puts its thumb on the scale in Anaheim, its company town
Disneyland previewed its "Star Wars" makeover in November 2015 by opening Launch Bay, located in the heart of Tomorrowland, to hawk "Star Wars" memorabilia and other items. (Los Angeles Times)

Woe betide the civic leader in a company town who threatens to buck the company's interests. Case in point: Disneyland's home town of Anaheim, which is often treated by the Walt Disney Co. as a wholly owned subsidiary.

Four candidates for the Anaheim City Council have won the endorsement of Mayor Tom Tait, a fierce critic of Disney. They're facing $203,000 in campaign spending opposing their election from a network of 10 local groups that have received financial support from the company. Meanwhile, four candidates reportedly backed by Disney, including two incumbents, have benefited from $865,000 in spending on mailers and other campaign support by the same network of groups.

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The figures were compiled from public disclosures by Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative reporting organization based in Santa Ana. I asked Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown if the company disputed the figures; she hasn't gotten back to me as of this writing. By Voice of OC's reckoning, the $904,000 spent by the company thus far in this election cycle will easily outstrip the $700,000 it spent on the 2014 council races.

We believe it is important to Anaheim’s future to support organizations and candidates who support...the continued development of the resort district.


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Voice of OC reports that most of the spending flowed through a committee called Moving Orange County Forward, which it says has received $475,000 directly from Disney; my own review of campaign disclosures actually places the figure at $600,000 since Aug. 30. Another $414,000 in spending, Voice says, came from eight PACs that received contributions from Disney and then made contributions to Moving Orange County Forward.

One difference this year is that the city is electing council members by district rather than at large. That's the result of the settlement of a lawsuit that alleged the at-large system disenfranchised the city's growing Latino population.

Tait, as mayor, is still elected at large. But he needs a majority on the council to support his fight against municipal giveaways to the Walt Disney Co.

As we reported, Tait was outvoted by the council in July when he opposed a huge tax break for a Disney luxury hotel at the park, along with two other luxury projects. At issue was a 20-year city room tax rebate — Tait called it "a bizarre giveaway program to the influential and powerful." The deal would return 70% of the city's transient occupancy tax, which is 15% of room charges, to the hotels. Over 20 years, the city estimated, it would be writing checks to Disney totaling $267 million.

The council waived the rebate through, even though experts felt that with or without the subsidy the hotels would be built in Anaheim to meet demand for luxury lodgings near the expanding and upgrading park.

Disney's campaign contributions in Anaheim flowed through a complex of local political committees, according to this graphic from Voice of OC.
Disney's campaign contributions in Anaheim flowed through a complex of local political committees, according to this graphic from Voice of OC. (Voice of OC)

Another giveaway came in 2015, when the council voted to exempt Disneyland from any city ticket tax for 30 years, in return for the company's investing at least $1 billion in the park through 2024. That was a pretty good return on the $700,000 the company had spent on election contributions the year before. The exemption actually extended a long-term ban on a city ticket tax that had been enacted 20 years earlier and was scheduled to expire in 2015. Tait objected then that the deal would tie the hands of voters who might want to raise revenue with a ticket levy sometime in the next three decades.

"Down the road, people will rue this day," he said. "Other people will look at us and say that we gave away the people's right to vote."

To Disney, these campaign contributions are all made in the name of civic responsibility. "We believe it is important to Anaheim's future to support organizations and candidates who support business growth and the continued development of the resort district, which helps to ensure a strong local economy and vibrant community," Disneyland spokeswoman Brown told Voice of OC in a statement she reiterated to me.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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