Is Tony Bushala OC's Newest Kingmaker?

The founder of Friends for Fullerton's Future blog says his war on bad government didn't start with the Kelly Thomas beating, and it's not over yet

"The blog is just a beacon to shine a light on people," he says. "The message is clear: We elected to you to represent the city of Fullerton. Not the police union, not the fire union. Unfortunately, it took the death of an unarmed man to wake people up."

* * *

Bushala is leaning forward over a long, picnic-style table in the rear of Stubrik's Steak House & Bar in downtown Fullerton, just a block from where the Thomas beating took place. The bar is filled with customers, and Bushala, who's drinking beer and eating steak, has to cup his hand over his ear to hear above the din. His cherubic face is sprinkled with salt-and-pepper whiskers. Dressed in a Dickie's-style worker's jacket and a plaid flannel shirt, he doesn't resemble someone whose net worth, which he refuses to divulge, is seven figures.

Manuel Ramos
Manuel Ramos
Friends for Fullerton's Future blogger Travis Kiger
John Gilhooley
Friends for Fullerton's Future blogger Travis Kiger

Born in Fullerton in 1958, Bushala attended Troy High School, where he excelled in sports, notably football, setting a record for most yards rushed in a season his senior year. He also played for Fullerton College; there, he was an all-conference running back in 1979. "I'd never go down by an arm tackle," he boasts.

Despite his family's fortune, Bushala spent countless hours washing dishes and busing tables in his father's restaurant, Orangefair, now a Tony Roma's, and provided minimum-wage grunt work—everything from cleaning toilets to painting walls—at his father's various properties.

After graduating from Cal State Fullerton, he went into teaching and coached the track team at Sunny Hills High School. Bushala married in 1993, and he and his wife moved into a modern, two-story house in a nice suburban neighborhood near Coyote Hills, where they raised three sons, who are now in their teens and early 20s. After separating from his wife in 2009, Bushala moved into a small Spanish Revival home in a working-class area claimed by the city's oldest gang, Fullerton Tokers Town. The house boasts a large back yard, complete with citrus trees and a chicken coop.

Until last year, Bushala also owned a sprawling swath of vacant land that he had purchased years earlier from the Union Pacific Railway. Using eminent domain, the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) seized the 8-acre property to make way for an extension of the Orange Line; Bushala walked away with $3.5 million from the deal. He also owns a two-story brick building just south of Commonwealth Avenue that he uses for his office; it is full of memorabilia from his father's restaurant, including a giant fiberglass fish, filing cabinets, computers and drafting tables.

Another building Bushala owns houses the Maverick Theater, an Art Deco-style venue for offbeat stage productions such as Night of the Living Dead and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. After dinner at Stubrik's, Bushala steps inside and walks past the ticket booth, eliciting nods and smiles from passing crew members. From backstage, he gently parts a curtain to reveal a cast of actors in medieval garb who are running through a dress rehearsal of The Legend of Robin Hood.

Given Bushala's extensive landholdings in Fullerton, it's no surprise that, over the years, he sought to build alliances with local politicians who might be able to help him cut through red tape at City Hall. "I was the guy who used to show up at cocktail parties with a $1,000 check," Bushala says.

He soon learned that money can't buy you love. Bushala became convinced the City Council was dominated by bureaucrats with no vision, such as Dick Jones, the council member who was mayor when Thomas died.

In 2007, a developer friend seeking to adapt a vacant mustard factory into residential housing had gone before the council with a set of plans. "The architect hired was a well-known architect for adaptive reuse projects," Bushala says. "Dick Jones looked at it and didn't like the design. Because he's a plastic surgeon, he said he knows what looks good. After that, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, there's no way in hell I'm going to sit and watch this guy get re-elected.'"

Instead, Bushala started Friends for Fullerton's Future, allowing him and his friends to post their concerns about city government, typically under pseudonyms, often about the most arcane topics: traffic cameras, water taxes, redevelopment policies. One of the first posts that went live on Oct. 24, 2008, featured a six-minute YouTube video showing Jones speaking at various meetings over the span of a year. In the first part of the clip, titled "Dr. Jones and His Monster," the councilman is blasting downtown club owners for their unruly clientele. By the end of the video, the flip-flopping Jones is urging the council to subsidize the same businesses with taxpayer money.

Blogger Travis Kiger, 32, a friend of Bushala who later became instrumental in Friends for Fullerton's Future's exposé of the Thomas beating, remembers seeing Bushala at a council meeting in 2008. "I saw him go up to the front, and he was calling something a boondoggle," Kiger says. "I said to myself, 'I like this guy.'"

Besides Jones, one of the blog's early targets was Dick Ackerman, a former Fullerton mayor and California state legislator who left office in 2008. Ackerman found himself caught in Bushala's cross-hairs in 2009 when his wife, Linda, unsuccessfully ran for state Assembly. The blog accused Ackerman, who lived in Irvine, of falsely claiming to rent a Fullerton home and subsequently changed their surname to "Hackerman."

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