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Labor leader Ada Briceño guides O.C. Democrats’ quest to revamp county politics

Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Ada Briceno, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. The labor leader, originally from Nicaragua, is guiding Democrats in an effort to defeat the gubernatorial recall as well as transform county politics heading into the 2022 elections.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Backed by a “Stop the Republican Recall” banner hanging from a kiosk at the Garden Grove offices of Unite Here Local 11, Ada Briceño rallied her base.

Five out of Orange County’s 10 Democratic mayors stood behind her alongside other elected officials during the Aug. 25 press conference in a display of political might as she urged voters to reject the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom with only a few weeks to go before the Sept. 14 election.

“To see so many elected officials here shows that Orange County Democrats are speaking with one united strong voice,” said Briceño. “It’s clear that the energy keeps growing to stop this recall. Democrats are speaking with voters every single day and we won’t stop until the recall is defeated.”

As chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, Briceño is hoping the momentum she hyped will turn O.C. into a seemingly unlikely outpost against Newsom’s ouster.

In 2003, county voters overwhelmingly backed the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, by 73.4 percent, with 63.5 percent choosing Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as his replacement.

But the times have changed as well as O.C.'s demographics and once reliably Republican politics along with it.

Briceño, a seasoned labor leader and Nicaraguan immigrant, is reflective of that in her second term of chair. She inherited a party that made a historic sweep of O.C. congressional seats in 2018. Since then, as chair, she deepened Democratic gains in local elections last year.

Still, between headline-grabbing anti-mask rallies, Republican supervisors tangling publicly with Newsom over pandemic policies and Capitol Riot arrests of local residents, “Orange Curtain” clichés die hard.

“It implies that this is a red county, and that’s far from the truth,” said Briceño from her home in Stanton. “In every nook of O.C., our activists are working hard against the recall. Hundreds of people are knocking on doors, phone banking, text banking and putting yard signs up.”

A privileged past

Briceño’s upbringing in Nicaragua served as a far cry from her future life as co-president of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing 32,000 hotel and food service workers in California and Arizona.

Adopted by a father who worked as a middle-class banker, Briceño had elegant birthday parties featured in local newspapers and even visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. on vacation.

“I was chauffeured to a private school,” she added. “But one day, I came back home and I couldn’t leave the house anymore.”

Sandinista rebels battled government troops for Nicaragua’s future outside her home. After the dictatorship fell and the U.S.-backed Contra war began, Briceño, 6 years old at the time, boarded a plane to Miami in 1980.

Arriving as immigrants, the comfy life the family once knew ended.

Her father worked as a jeweler until being offered a better-paying job across the country as a longshoreman in San Pedro. As the family traveled west, a drunk driver in Texas slammed into her mother’s car.

After the accident, members of the family had to spend time recuperating in a hospital, and Briceño’s father lost out on being a longshoreman. With the family still struggling financially, Briceño started working in her early teens vending ice cream at Ports O’Call Village in San Pedro with a friend, where she says they faced sexual harassment.

Once her friend’s dad found out, he took the girls and confronted the owner with the reason why they quit.

“That was one of the first times that I saw someone stand up for my rights,” said Briceño.

Ada Briceño addresses the media at an Aug. 25 press conference against the recall of Gov. Newsom.
Ada Briceño addresses the media during an Aug. 25 press conference against the recall of Gov. Newsom.
(Courtesy of Lyndsey Lefebvre)

Love of Labor

Unsure of her place in the world, Briceño got hired as a front desk clerk at an Anaheim hotel across the street from Disneyland. She bonded with the Spanish-speaking immigrants that worked as room attendants but could do little to better their conditions as she saw them.

That opportunity arose at the Sheraton Hotel in San Pedro where Briceño worked next. She made $2 more per hour and could finally afford glasses. She credited Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 681, the union that represented her, for those upgrades.

“I found my passion there through my collective bargaining agreement,” said Briceño. “I started talking to room attendants. They started coming to me and I started defending their rights. That’s when it clicked for me.”

Seeing a future leader emerging from the rank-and-file, the union offered an 18-year-old Briceño an organizing job. She took it and became Here Local 681’s first Latina president within eight years.

In 2004, the union merged to become Unite Here Local 11. Organizing campaigns led Briceño into battle against the Disneyland Resort and other hoteliers around O.C.

“Ada is seen in the labor movement as a strategic thinker,” said Barbara Lewis, Southern California hospital division director for the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “She goes beyond the boundaries of what others believe may not be possible. She’s changed the lives of hotel and hospitality workers in Southern California.”

Even though Briceño shied away from Democratic Party politics for years, as she believed there wasn’t a place for someone like her, union campaigns always crossed paths with elected officials.

“Everything that I cared about, it always landed in a politician’s hand,” she said. “When I became president of the union, after much tribulation, moving our members into politics was very front-and-center.”

Over the past decade, Briceño and her union fought for district elections in Anaheim and a minimum-wage law in the city’s resort area.

When Fran Sdao stepped down as chair of the Democratic Party in 2018, Briceño called trusted friends about her intentions to run. Unopposed, she became the first immigrant and second Latina to chair the party in 2019 with a critical general election on the horizon for O.C. and the nation.

Briceño hopes to translate an edge in voter registration into electoral victories for Democrats.
With an edge in voter registration, Ada Briceño is hoping to translate that advantage into electoral victories for Democrats.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A blue bastion?

In a county once so steadfastly Republican, President Ronald Reagan chose to kick off his 1984 reelection bid at Miles Square Park in Fountain Valley. But former President Donald Trump lost the county in 2016 and 2020, a first for a Republican candidate since 1936.

It wasn’t all awash down ticket for Democrats in either election.

In 2016, Republicans maintained a grip on local seats and the Democrats’ so-called “Blue Wave” receded last year with close losses suffered by incumbents Harley Rouda and Gil Cisneros in the 48th and 39th congressional districts, respectively. At the same time, Briceño points to 20 seats flipped in the party’s favor that year in local city council and school board races, including in traditionally conservative cities like Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and San Clemente.

Councils with Democrat majorities — like Buena Park, Irvine and Santa Ana — have passed temporary pandemic laws like “hero pay” for grocery workers that once seemed unthinkable in O.C.

“Orange County, until recently, was considered a homogenous bastion for extreme conservative values and right-wing politicians,” said Vicente Sarmiento, Santa Ana’s mayor. “Ada has helped diversify the county’s congressional, state, and local legislative delegations where Democrats with progressive public policies are emerging and prevailing.”

Increasing the party’s share of registered voters in the county — now standing at a 65,000 edge over Republicans — has been a key objective during her tenure. Briceño hopes the margin will prove pivotal in the recall, even as Latinos statewide, a vital voting bloc, have polled majority in favor of it.

“We can always do a better job in reaching out to Latinos,” said Briceño. “But I also know that we are in such better hands with Gavin Newsom than we’ll ever be with any of the other candidates.”

Whatever the recall’s outcome, the focus will shift towards the 2022 midterm elections right away. It’s a county-changing agenda stuffed with winning back lost congressional races as well as making more inroads in local races, including high-profile contests for supervisor seats and O.C. district attorney.

“I understand more about the party and what’s at stake than I did when I first decided to run,” said Briceño. “I’m even more driven this time around.”

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