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Anaheim Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava defeats recall in low-turnout election

Anaheim City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava poses for a portrait at Little People's Park.
Anaheim City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava poses for a portrait at Little People’s Park. She survived a recall election on Tuesday.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
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Voters rejected a call to remove Natalie Rubalcava from Anaheim City Council less than two years after she first won her seat.

Ahead of Tuesday’s special election, pro-recall banners around town dubbed the councilwoman “Rubal-cabal” in an effort to associate her with a clique of power brokers that the FBI alleged ran Anaheim in a political corruption probe that publicly surfaced in 2022 and has, so far, led to three criminal convictions.

But the message failed to persuade enough Anaheim voters who rejected the recall by a 54% to 46% margin as of Wednesday afternoon with only an estimated 103 votes left to tally, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

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Backed by the Orange County Labor Federation and Anaheim Resort companies, Rubalcava called initial returns “encouraging” on Tuesday night. By Wednesday, she felt confident enough in the results to thank voters for their support in defeating the recall.

“We didn’t ask for this fight, but I am so proud of the campaign that we ran,” Rubalcava said. “We knocked on tens of thousands of doors and had countless conversations with residents about how best to move Anaheim forward.”

Natalie Rubalcava faces a June 4 recall election, just 18 months after winning her seat on the Anaheim City Council. Local activists have dreamed of turning the council into one much like Santa Ana’s, stacked with progressives who put working class and immigrant residents ahead of corporations.

May 29, 2024

Unite Here Local 11, which represents hotel and convention workers in Anaheim, spearheaded the recall effort. The union spent more than $875,000 on the campaign, including work to gather more than 9,000 signatures to qualify the election on the ballot last year.

“The voters of Anaheim have had important conversations during this recall election about what is acceptable conduct for an elected official and who they trust in office,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11. “People are paying attention to the actions of politicians who get support from rich companies.”

Recall opponents spent $655,000 in defeating the effort.

Disney, which spent roughly $380,000 through independent expenditures in helping Rubalcava win election in 2022, directly donated $49,000 to oppose the recall after the councilwoman voted to approve the company’s recent $1.9-billion expansion plan, dubbed DisneylandForward.

Despite a late flurry of political spending, only 22.5% of registered voters in Anaheim’s downtown third district turned out for Tuesday’s recall election.

“The low voter turnout is an indication that the recall, pro or con, didn’t resonate with the voters,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College. “Neither side had a compelling message.”

A father and his son walk pass a historic mural in central Anaheim where voters declined to recall their council rep.
A father and his son walk pass a historic mural in central Anaheim where voters declined to recall their council rep.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)

Rubalcava first won election in 2022 by a wide margin and has since represented Anaheim’s most Latino, working-class district.

But less than a year into her term, she opposed Measure A, a ballot initiative supported by Unite Here Local 11 that sought to raise the minimum wage for hotel and event center workers to $25 an hour.

Rubalcava then championed a law to equip housekeepers with panic buttons, a key component of Measure A. The ballot initiative was soundly defeated by Anaheim voters in a special election last October while council passed panic buttons as a standalone law.

The councilwoman’s name also surfaced in an independent corruption report commissioned by the city in the wake of the FBI probe.

Released in July, investigators with the JL Group accused Rubalcava in the report of using contact information from an Anaheim First binder to make an unsolicited campaign call to a voter in her district. She also allegedly directed city staff to work with her former employer on a small business loan program.

Rubalcava has denied any wrongdoing following the report’s release.

A contract between Disney and the university’s nonprofit gave the company exclusive ownership of the economic impact report, which helped make the case for the DisneylandForward expansion.

May 29, 2024

Recall proponents cited the allegations in making the case for Rubalcava’s removal.

“Natalie Rubalcava sides with the same powerful business interests who have corrupted Anaheim politics, not our residents,” the recall petition read. “Independent investigators have questioned her honesty and accused her of violations of our city’s charter.”

Being the first Latina Democrat elected to Anaheim City Council, the recall caused a rift within the Democratic Party of Orange County.

Progressives critical of Disney’s influence over Anaheim largely backed the recall. Rep. Lou Correa, most of O.C.’s Democratic state senators and Assembly members and a broad cross-section of labor unions opposed it.

With 49% of registered voters in Rubalcava’s district being Democrat, the interparty strife failed to bring an overwhelming number of residents to the polls, even with the convenience of mail-in ballots.

“It doesn’t resonate with voters,” Balma said. “The political message of our polarized society is red versus blue. That is the base shortcut for voters.”

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