For the first time since Gerald Ford was president, an election has turned control of the Orange County Board of Supervisors over to the Democratic Party.
It marks the latest shift in a county so famously conservative that former President Reagan once described it as “where the good Republicans go before they die.”
Since 2018’s “blue wave” sweep, Democrats have held onto a majority of congressional seats in Orange County. Now, they are staking claim to county government. Democratic leaders are vowing change.
“With a Democratic majority, we can help improve public health in areas that have been neglected,” said Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. “We can address the unhoused in a better, more compassionate way.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Republican supervisors often tangled with the Democrat-dominated state government over public health measures, from mask mandates to beach closures. The county also faced lawsuits in recent years on how it had approached homelessness, shelters and anti-camping bans.
The balance of power on the five-member board hinged on the closely contested race between Democrat Supervisor Katrina Foley and Republican state Sen. Pat Bates in District 5, which encompasses coastal and south county cities.
With three supervisor seats up for election, Foley was the sole Democrat to face a Republican — and in a district that favored registered Republicans by roughly 3%.
She declared victory Wednesday night with a steady 2% lead over her opponent.
Bates called Foley to concede the race Thursday afternoon.
Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor, said a more liberal board would almost certainly have a better working relationship with Sacramento compared to one with a Republican majority, which publicly quarreled with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“There’s going to be more willingness for our state representatives to work collaboratively with the county when they know that funding will be shepherded the correct way,” she said.
With Foley’s victory, Democrats have the opportunity to steer the county’s $8.8-billion budget on a host of key issues, including climate change, which has already suspended Metrolink and Amtrak services through O.C. on account of severe coastal erosion near tracks in San Clemente.
“My office began the county’s first Climate Action plan,” Foley said. “But now there will be strong support for moving forward in a more aggressive and comprehensive way. We’re one of the few counties of our size and of our connection to the coast that has not done enough work in this area.”
Democrats first took control of the board in 1972. As part of a concerted effort to break a Republican monopoly on county politics, two Democrat supervisor candidates scored upset victories that year.
That Democratic board majority carried on until a scandal surrounding Dr. Louis Cella, a power broker who was convicted of conspiracy, tax evasion and Medicare fraud, began to fracture it. Two of the Democratic supervisors he helped bankroll were later found guilty of political corruption. The wave of indictments dealt a blow to county Democrats at a time when they briefly bested Republicans in party registration.
By 1980, Republicans regained control and dominated the board for four decades.
That began to change as Orange County’s demographics did.
Orange County is now 34% Latino and 23% Asian, two groups that more often vote Democrat. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans across the county by more than 80,000 voters.
For the first time in 16 years, voters will also seat a Latino supervisor on the board.
Following the 2020 census, District 2 was redrawn to comprise a Latino voter majority for the first time in county politics. The race pitted Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, a Bolivian American, against Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese and Mexican descent.
Sarmiento maintains a growing lead over Nguyen in the race between fellow Democrats.
In District 4, Supervisor Doug Chaffee cruised to reelection by defeating Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park.
In rare move, the Democratic Party of Orange County had endorsed Park over the incumbent. Some party members expressed frustration with Chaffee for siding with Republican supervisors on a ballot measure that would have extended supervisor term limits and on blocking public health officials from participating in Foley’s COVID-19 town hall meetings.
“When it comes down to the question of what does a Democratic majority do, the first question is what is Chaffee going to do?” Balma said. “He becomes almost like [retired Justice] Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court. You’re going to have two sides, and Chafee is the kingmaker of where the county goes.”