Tara Campbell has worked behind the scenes as communications director for Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, responding to press requests and advising him on public safety, technology, policy and other topics.
She stepped into the spotlight two years ago when she was elected to the Yorba Linda City Council. Then Campbell made her way to center stage this month when her colleagues named her mayor.
At 25, she’s the youngest female mayor in California. And when she was elected to the council two years ago she became the youngest person to ever help govern the city’s 68,000 residents.
“We’re seeing a lot of firsts for women, especially this year,” Campbell said. “On the congressional level we’re hitting historic numbers, but even on the local level we need more women in government. I’m really proud to see more women are getting involved, but we have a ways to go.”
As of last March, only 21.8% of mayors in cities with more than 30,000 people are women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Numbers are still being tallied as new mayors are sworn in and city councils reorganize following the November election.
The native Yorba Lindan credits her position to the elected women who came before. She remembers being captivated by her U.S. history teacher’s lecture at Rosary Academy about the sacrifices American women endured to earn the vote.
While attending USC, she intended to pursue a career in sports journalism. One summer, she interned in Washington, D.C. for the nonpartisan political group No Labels, which aims to end partisan discord.
After she returned to college, the federal government shut down in October 2013 over Republican efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act. During this same period, Yorba Linda was also in political upheaval with a campaign to recall the mayor and a council member, partly because of their support of unpopular housing developments.
“I came back to my hometown, and its nonpartisan local government, and to see that there was gridlock on that level was really eye-opening to me,” Campbell said. “And that’s really what made me shift gears from journalism to focus on making sure our government is well run.”
Although recalls are historically reserved for elected officials who do something illegal or immoral, there have been eight recall votes or attempted recall petitions of Yorba Linda City Council members or Water District board members in the last 15 elections, Campbell said.
The dysfunction motivated her to throw her name in for city council in 2016.
Campbell grew up in Yorba Linda with a family that wasn’t politically active and didn’t personally know any politicians. She learned the dissatisfaction many Americans feel when watching their elected representatives on TV and wanted to bring fresh leadership to her hometown.
“If we’re not happy with the way things are going with the people representing us, we need to be part of that change,” she said.
Councilwoman Peggy Huang, who just served as Yorba Linda’s mayor, said Campbell’s proven her public service credentials as a commissioner and chairwoman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee — and as a staffer for former state Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar).
“For someone who we consider as young, she is very experienced,” Huang said. “To know her is to see her in action, and you’ll see her knowledge of issues is quite extensive.”
Huang said even when she disagreed with Campbell on how to spend a $500,000 city budget surplus, she still respected her thoughtful perspective. Campbell supported planting new landscaping in some of the city’s medians instead of Huang’s suggestion of paying down unfunded pension liabilities.
Even though Huang thinks veteran politicians haven’t done a good job of recruiting the next generation, she predicts that Campbell will be a great force in California because she’s starting young.
“Women like that need to be encouraged and need to be mentored,” Huang said. “I think she’s going to be a great role model in helping raise up the next generation of leaders.”
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.