Anaheim Mayor 2018: Ashleigh Aitken Makes It Official

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait is termed out in 2018, and the first person to officially step into the race to succeed him is 41-year old Ashleigh Aitken, a Democrat and attorney from the wealthy Peralta Hills section of Anaheim Hills. On May 25, Aitken officially filed statement of organization paperwork with the city clerk to form a mayoral campaign committee.

Aitken’s candidacy had been a topic of political insider discussion for months, centering on whether she would run for mayor or jump into the District Attorney race against incumbent Tony Rackauckas and all-but-announced DA candidate Todd Spitzer.

The day before filing her paperwork, “Inside OC” host Rick Reiff posted on the Voice of OC that Aitken’s father Wylie – a long-time Democratic power player – had let it drop that his daughter had decided to run for Anaheim Mayor, telling Reiff:

“She’s a proud citizen of Anaheim, she has been very involved in Anaheim city issues, and she’ll be shortly opening up a committee to run for mayor.”

Aitken is a former U.S. Attorney, has been of counsel in the family law firm of Aitken, Aitken and Cohn since 2010, is a past president of the Orange County Bar Association and currently serves on the Orange County Fair Board. Her father, Wylie, represents the City of Anaheim in its negotiations with the Angles over the stadium lease. He co-founded the Democratic Foundation of Orange County and served as its president for many years.

Former Anaheim City Councilman Harry Sidhu is actively exploring a mayoral run, and District 3 Councilman Jose F. Moreno floated the possibility in an January interview with the OC Register (although he would have to choose between running for mayor and running for re-election to city council).

Mayor Tom Tait has not endorsed a successor.

Aitken will make a formidable candidate in many respects. Given her family’s wealth and uber-connectedness in Orange County and Democratic politics, fundraising will not be an issue.  Since this is her first run for office, she lacks a voting record (other than OC Fair Board) to attack, although she has weighed in on local political issues.

Some critics say her past level of involvement in Anaheim civic affairs isn’t commensurate with making her maiden candidate voyage a run for mayor of Orange County’s biggest city.  Supporters can point to a six-year stint on the Anaheim Community Services Board from 2006 to 2012, and her fundraising support for the District 3 council campaigns of Jose F. Moreno.

As a panelist on Reiff’s Inside OC” program on September 19, 2016, along with libertarian Will Swaim and conservative Republican Clare Venegas, Aitken opinionized on critical issues such as the pension liability crisis facing local governments.

For example, when asked if there’s “any way out of unfunded pensions?,” Aikten replied:

“I don’t think there should be any way out of it. You are talking about public servants who have not decided to go to Deliotte but have decided to go and work for the County. I am a former prosecutor. I left a very lucrative position to then go and spend several years serving my country for nickels on the dollar of what I was making in the private sector. And this is just the same pension busters that try and pit private employees against middle income public employees and I think it is just a really terrible thing. We want to protect people into retirement and people have a right to retire with dignity. And what never gets discussed is what pension busters always say is these hundred thousand dollar club, and that Orange County is filled with them, and that’s just not true. I believe on that list there was just one person, and that was the former City Manager for Santa Ana, that was on that list. Most people’s pension are making less than $50k a year.”

Swaim vigorously disagreed and a spirited back-and-forth ensued that ultimately led to a factually-confused conflation of pension reform and TOT rebates to incentivize luxury hotel construction in the Anaheim Resort:

Aitken: “A perfect example is Anaheim. Anaheim went through the same thing. Where my argument would be don’t go after people who are public employees, go after those who are sitting on the dais and ask why are you giving Disneyland and all these corporations tax breaks when you are basically now trying to take away all of the benefits from your firefighters. There is a pie it just needs to be reallocated and we need to treat firefighters and cops and public employees as well as we treat corporations like Disneyland.”

Swaim: “Yes, I agree and I am glad you brought this up. We need to start treating them as well as corporations. In fact, what happened in Anaheim was Disneyland cut a deal with the Anaheim City Council as well as the Anaheim Public Employee Unions to give all the public employee unions raises in exchange for not protesting Disney’s subsidy. So, it was totally a crony capitalist deal. We had employee unions, public officials and Disneyland working together to make sure that everyone got their place at the trough. Who got screwed? The taxpayers, totally. And this is about poor people, this is about social justice, this is about who can afford to live in California now. “

The exchange illustrates how when it comes even to issues that receive relatively exhaustive coverage, politically-attuned, high-information voters can get their facts wrong. Contrary to Aitken’s assertion, no one has been trying to take away all the benefits from Anaheim firefighters. The subsidy Swaim mentions was a TOT rebate incentive for the GardenWalk hotels project – which is not a Disney project. The alleged “deal” to which Swaim referred is an oft-repeated but unsubstantiated claim, and which has been unequivocally, publicly denied by one of its alleged participants.

You can watch Aitken and her fellow panelists discuss taxes and other issues by clicking here.

Although the council is now elected by-district, the mayor is voted on citywide, and at-large elections in Anaheim have traditionally favored centrist and conservative candidates – not least due to the impact of heavily-Republican Anaheim Hills. Indeed, that’s a major reason a coalition of labor and progressive advocacy groups spent about $2 million to shift Anaheim to by-district elections: to negate the influence of conservative Anaheim Hills voters by packing them into a single council district. While Anaheim voter registration has been trending Democratic, that historic dynamic remains.

Although she has no voting record as an elected official for potential opponents to attack, she’ll still present a target profile. Things that weren’t political liabilities can become just that. Take, for example, this Facebook post promoting an Aitken, Aitken and Cohn courtroom victory on behalf of a client:

Aitken’s law firm did its job and succeeded on behalf of its client. That’s why it is one of the top litigation firms around. Packaged in an attack mailer, however, diverting $10 million from the budget of their hard-pressed school district it would be seen less positively by Anaheim Hills activists who spent years organizing and volunteering to pass OUSD’s first-ever school facilities bond. Anaheim Hills is Republican, vote-rich and wields outsize influence on the outcome of city-wide races.

It is by no means clear what the mayoral candidate field will look like, or what the partisan, gender or ethnic mix of the candidates will be. Those factors aside, perhaps the main challenge Aitken will be running city-wide as a liberal Democrat in a non-presidential year when Democratic turn-out is lower and the electorate more conservative. The only certainty is this will be a hard-fought, high-spending race.

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