OCCORD: Turning the Orange Tide

December 20, 2008 -- OCCORD

By Eric Altman, OCCORD Executive Director

2008 was an exciting period of growth for Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD).  We reached several important milestones in our comprehensive campaign for responsible development in Anaheim’s upscale Platinum Triangle district and launched our new Immigrant and Workplace Rights program with a nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization campaign for the November 2008 elections.

Rally in the Rain

We kicked off the year with what became known as our “Rally in the Rain,” in which 300 residents, workers, and churchgoers marched to Anaheim City Hall through wind, rain, and cold to call for responsible development in the Platinum Triangle.  The march was organized by the Community Benefits Coalition, which includes some two dozen community organizations, unions, public policy advocates, and faith-based groups brought together by OCCORD.  Two days after the march, the coalition delivered 2,000 postcards to the Mayor and City Council Members demanding a community benefits agreement for development on 50 acres of publicly-owned land in the district.

Strategic Litigation Victory

To win a community benefits agreement for development in the Platinum Triangle, OCCORD concluded that we needed to change the City’s fast-track, pro-developer approach to urban planning.  Our analysis of the City’s environmental review found serious violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for a proposed expansion of the Platinum Triangle.  We also found that the City had violated its own municipal code by holding a City Council vote on the expansion just one day after it was heard by the Planning Commission.  Although litigation is not a core strategy for OCCORD, we saw these violations as part of a systemic set of policies and practices to diminish the role of public participation.  We filed suit under CEQA.  Based on our information, an allied group also sued the City over its municipal code violations.  In the end, the City rescinded its approvals and sent the Platinum Triangle back to the drawing board, a significant victory for public participation, responsible planning, and accountable development.

Building a Broader Base

OCCORD knew that a legal victory would mean little if we did not also strengthen our grassroots connections and build political power to support our agenda.  To that end, we set an ambitious goal of surveying 500 Anaheim families to find neighborhood leaders, assess community needs, and identify residents’ concerns about jobs, housing, and community health.  The response was overwhelming: We trained several dozen volunteers to conduct door-to-door surveys; we collected 524 surveys from families in three poor, densely-populated neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by economic development in the Anaheim Resort and Platinum Triangle.  We convened a committee of rank-and-file neighborhood leaders who want to find solutions for the problems they face in their community.  Preliminary survey results reveal a downward spiral in the proliferation of low-wage, no-benefit jobs that undermine community health and safety and mires families in poverty across multiple generations.  OCCORD will release its complete survey results in early 2009.

With the release of our survey report, OCCORD will embark on a series of briefings for residents, workers, policymakers, and service providers – to be highlighted by a community forum on February 12, 2009.  The forum will bring together members and constituents from many of the groups that participate in our Community Benefits Coalition.  In preparation for this event, the coalition is organizing a sequence of joint leadership trainings to develop the capacity of rank-and-file leaders to facilitate and mobilize for it.  This training sequence represents a promising, nuts-and-bolts collaboration among groups that usually practice very different models of organizing and leadership development.  Moving into 2009, our coalition is stronger, deeper, and readier than ever to press our labor-community agenda as the City moves forward with its development plans for the Platinum Triangle.

Nonpartisan Voter Registration and Mobilization

In the Summer of 2008, OCCORD launched our new Immigrant and Workplace Rights Program.  In addition to assistance with citizenship and voter registration, this nonpartisan program is designed to provide training and leadership development enabling immigrant workers and residents to become full participants in the democratic process.  Focusing on neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches with a significant presence of Latino immigrants, OCCORD registered more than 2,000 voters over the summer.  For the November elections, we ran a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign targeting roughly 1,000 Latino voters in Anaheim.  By the time polls closed on Election Day, 53% of the voters we targeted confirmed that they had voted and an additional 19% had given us a verbal commitment that they would vote – a projected turnout of 72% from our base.  If we eliminate bad addresses and phone numbers, the projected turnout rises to 87% of voters targeted.  By comparison, turnout was 65.4% among the entire Anaheim electorate.  For 2009, to complement our nonpartisan voter registration and citizenship assistance activities, OCCORD is developing a leadership academy that will integrate trainings on civic participation, grassroots organizing, participatory research, and immigrant and workplace rights.  We will also host our inaugural citizenship fair on February 28, 2009.

In the November elections, OCCORD’s nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization coincided with an unprecedented array of partisan and nonpartisan efforts conducted by others to get out the vote in Anaheim and other parts of Orange County.  In addition to the high-profile presidential campaign, the local election season was dominated by an attempt by the Walt Disney Company, the largest employer in Orange County, to oust an incumbent Anaheim City Councilmember, Lorri Galloway, who had drawn Disney’s ire by defending the standard of living for Disneyland’s hotel workers and by advocating affordable housing for working families in the Anaheim Resort.  On Election Day, Councilmember Galloway was reelected with a 3.2% margin in perhaps the highest turnout election in Anaheim’s history, and for the first time in memory, the Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of votes in Anaheim.  Based on historical voting patterns, Orange County had been called the most Republican county in America, but three days after the election, a headline in the rightward-leaning Orange County Register read “Orange County to Surrender ‘Most Republican’ Crown.”

For decades, Orange County’s policymakers, opinion-makers, and kingmakers never expected to hear a progressive voice from working families in their own backyard.  Until recently, they were seldom challenged by organized constituencies or coalitions.  Certainly, no one in Washington or Sacramento expects to hear a progressive voice from Orange County’s working families either.  But OCCORD, our strategic partners, and our allies are starting to turn the tide.

For more information on the work of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), contact ealtman@occord.org.