My first encounter with an Orange County politician came in the mid-1990s, when I met then-U.S. Rep. Bob Dornan during his ill-fated 1996 presidential run. Dornan was speaking to a small group of GOP activists in Des Moines, where I lived at the time, and wanted to chat with the locals. As I recall, there wasn’t much give and take. He launched into a characteristically long-winded talk.

By the time I moved to Fullerton, Dornan was an ex-congressman, the victim perhaps of spending too much time in Des Moines and not enough in Garden Grove. But there’s no question the often-controversial B-1 Bob represented the Old O.C. Yet the county continues to become a more diverse (economically, politically, ethnically) metropolitan region, and the big events of 2016 reinforce the sense of change.

The county’s changing politics

Rapid change has come not only to the revamped central county district Dornan once represented. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, the underdog Democratic candidate who won the seat in 1996, gained a quirky, outspoken reputation of her own. After two decades in Congress, she gave up her seat in 2016 for a kamikaze run for U.S. Senate. Her replacement, Lou Correa, is a Democrat who has vowed to fight Donald Trump on immigration issues. Times have changed.

Most surprisingly, reliably Republican Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, by a substantial 50.9 percent to 42.3 percent margin. That’s less of a Democratic tilt than the state overall, which went for the Democrat 61.7 percent to 31.6 percent, but O.C. contributed to Clinton’s popular-vote totals by giving her a 100,000-plus vote margin.

Furthermore, local voters helped hand California Democrats legislative supermajorities after Democrat Josh Newman eked out a victory over Republican Ling Ling Chang in the 29th Senate District straddling three counties, and after Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva won in the 65th Assembly district in the northern part of the county.

Not the happiest place for Disney

As the Monty Python troupe might put it, the “wafer thin” victory of two Anaheim City Council candidates allied with Republican Mayor Tom Tait has signaled a far-reaching change in and around Disneyland. Tait, a longtime foe of “crony capitalism,” helped progressive Democrat Jose Moreno and Republican Denise Barnes win council seats over the well-financed opposition of Disneyland’s parent company and support from the local business community.

Their platform focused on neighborhood concerns rather than on the tourist industry in the Resort District and around the stadium. A Register headline after their first post-victory council meeting captured the significance: “Anaheim derails luxury hotel subsidies, $300 million streetcar and chamber funding.” Anaheim had always been viewed as something of a company town, but perhaps no more. The changes are likely to stick now that the city — now the 10th largest in the state — has an expanded council and district elections.

Burgeoning battles over growth

The county has gone from a suburban backwater to the sixth-most populous county in the United States, with more than 3.1 million people. It’s still growing. But conservative pro-growth attitudes have given way to NIMBY sentiments more typical in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s obvious with many local development battles.

For instance, the Register reported in September on a packed crowd erupting into cheers after the California Coastal Commission denied the proposed Banning Ranch development on 401 acres in Newport Beach. The battle over that property started around the time I moved to California. (The developer has filed a suit over the denial.)

Last week, I wrote about activists opposed to a privately funded desalination plant proposed on an industrial site in Huntington Beach. The project will help meet the water needs of our growing population, but some critics were clear: they believe there are plenty of people here already.

Are we inflating another housing bubble?

Orange County’s housing prices have soared to record levels, hitting a median price of $660,000 in November. Housing is a supply and demand issue, so the difficulty in building anything here — from infill high rises to suburban subdivisions in South County — drives up the cost of existing inventory.

The Chapman University economic forecast found the county falling behind as it adds low-wage jobs, but is losing high-paid tech jobs. Meanwhile, the unaffordability situation is creating a brain drain as people move to places where they have a better shot at attaining the American Dream. And the county continues to struggle to deal with its homeless problem. Homelessness is the result of many factors, but it’s far more difficult for social-service agencies to find places to house the destitute in a county with soaring values.

One could say these are the problems typical of any growing metropolitan region, which is what — for better or worse — Orange County has become. Much has changed since the 1990s, and not just in the political arena. Expect even more dramatic change in the coming year.

Image by kesterhu

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