Tom Tait Is Anaheim's Mayor In the Middle
Illustration by Kevin McVeigh
A portrait of Max Strobel hangs in a hall on the seventh floor of Anaheim's City Hall, just outside the mayor's office. The aged black-and-white photograph of the city's first mayor, elected in 1870, is one of dozens of photos of the men who've held the job over the past century and a half. White whiskers recalling Walt Whitman and bushy Nietzschean mustaches from the 19th century fade into the clean-shaven mugs of the 20th; hairstyles and glasses reflect the passing decades. Big, tall, skinny, small, it's a smorgasbord of faces save for one thing: They are all white men.
The last portrait belongs to the current man in charge, Tom Tait. He's the end of this parade in ways both literal and symbolic. Thanks to white flight and a rising immigrant population, Latinos now make up 53 percent of Anaheim's population, while whites now constitute just 28 percent--half of what they were 20 years ago. A city once so reliably Republican that it gave Orange County its only U.S. senators (Thomas Kuchel and former mayor John Seymour) now has more registered Democrats than GOPers. And in a position where each mayor mirrored the establishment-friendly policies of their predecessors, the mild-mannered Tait turned into something no one expected when he was first elected in 2010: a populist.
The 55-year-old Republican has presided over one of the city's most tumultuous eras, one for which Anaheim's voters will offer a referendum in this November's elections as he runs for a second term. Two years ago, summer riots sparked by police shootings made national headlines, as did a lawsuit against the city demanding district elections to remedy the alleged disenfranchisement of Latino voters. A Republican-majority City Council has tried to subsidize projects in the city's downtown and resort area, all while letting the rest of the city rot.
But rather than stand with the status quo, Tait dramatically turned against it. He shocked former supporters in 2012 by voting against a $158 million hotel project subsidy. He supports district elections, favors civilian oversight of police and has engaged in a nasty public spat with billionaire Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim owner Arte Moreno over subsidizing the renovation of Angel Stadium. These stances have put him at odds with the three other Republicans and sole Democrat on the City Council, as well as the very Anaheim establishment that put him in power--and now wants him out.
Tait faces challengers as he seeks re-election this November in former allies-turned-enemies: Republican councilwoman Lucille Kring and Democrat Lorri Galloway, a former councilwoman banking on an evolving Anaheim and split Republicans to help make her the city's first non-white mayor. Bloggers nip at him almost daily; campaign strategists are preparing political mailers and robocalls that will vilify him. Blasted from all sides, though, Tait remains unfazed, even giddy, at his prospects of re-election.
"I love being mayor, above it all," he says. "It's incredible. It's a wonderful job!"
Next to Tait's photo in City Hall is that of his predecessor, Curt Pringle. In 1988, the OC GOP placed uniformed guards at voting booths in Anaheim and Santa Ana during Pringle's successful run for the California Assembly, ostensibly to discourage illegal immigrants from voting. Pringle denied any knowledge of the ruse, but the move drew widespread condemnation; a lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to violate the voting rights of Latinos was settled for $400,000.
After a failed bid for state Treasurer in 1998, Pringle founded Pringle & Associates, an influential public-relations and government-affairs firm. Searching for political reinvention, he ran for Anaheim mayor in 2002 at the encouragement of Tait, a councilman at the time. "I was supportive of him being mayor," Tait says. "We were great friends."
It was a pro forma endorsement that fell in line with Tait's political trajectory back then. He was in the middle of his second term at the time, originally appointed to the Anaheim City Council in 1995 after previously serving as a planning commissioner. He worked for his father's civil-engineering firm, one so enmeshed in OC Republican circles that it employed longtime GOP head Tom Fuentes. With Tait's help, Pringle easily won the election and quickly set about making Anaheim a haven for big business, signing off on sweetheart deals for favored developers and businesses.
Eight years later, a termed-out Pringle returned Tait's favor by backing him for the mayor's seat. The political-action committees (PACs) that dominate Anaheim elections--the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Business Council and Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR)--showered Tait with money and endorsements for the 2010 mayoral election, expecting him to continue where Pringle left off. Cynthia Ward, a longtime fixture in Anaheim politics, quit her position on SOAR's advisory board over the anointment, arguing the move essentially kept Pringle in power.
"The entire world was convinced that Tait was Curt Pringle's puppet," Ward says. She recalls mentioning her unease to then-Anaheim Union High School District Trustee, Pringle protégé and current Democratic councilman Jordan Brandman at her home: "I'll never forget it. [He] said, 'You'll see Tom's lips moving, but it will be Curt's words coming out of his mouth.'"
Right-wing blogger Matthew Cunningham consulted on Tait's 2010 campaign. "As a former council member and proven vote-getter, Tom was the only credible conservative candidate willing to run whom I thought would continue the pro-business, freedom-friendly policies characteristic of Anaheim city governance since 2002," Cunningham told the Weekly via email (he refused an in-person or phone interview).
Tait easily inherited Pringle's position, but also a city hall that, he says, was in fiscal shambles. Just weeks into the job, Tait honed the message for his first State of the City speech at the Grove of Anaheim. "I had to lay out the case why we had to make cuts," Tait says, claiming that Anaheim was losing $56,000 per day when he entered office. "I did it very gently. I was careful to say this is a problem most cities are facing."
Although Tait hailed Pringle as a "dear friend" and "world-class mayor" in his introduction, the speech rankled Pringle. "Tait's decision to focus on the financial situation in our city was deeply offensive to Pringle," says Mishal Montgomery, Tait's policy adviser who previously worked for Pringle. She helped Cunningham and Tait draft the address. "I know that first-hand. Pringle told me he did not like the focus to be on our city being in the red when he left office."
Tiff aside, Tait enjoyed a tranquil first year as mayor; his biggest policy push was a "Hi Neighbor" campaign designed to make City Hall more accessible to Anaheim residents. But all that changed when a proposed $158 million subsidy for a hotel project near the GardenWalk development came before the council in early 2012. Two 400-plus-room hotels were slated to be constructed on an empty plot near the retail plaza, just a couple of blocks from the Disneyland Resort. The terms proposed that Anaheim would forgo collecting 80 percent of the bed taxes--by far the city's greatest revenue source--for the first 15 years of operation.
Pringle and Tait met at the Catch restaurant near Angel Stadium on Dec. 7, 2011, to discuss the deal. The talk took place exactly one year after Tait was sworn in as mayor, meaning it was the first day Pringle could legally lobby his former employer. "He told me that he was going to be working for the GardenWalk [deal] and seeking a full subsidy," Tait says. "I was surprised, but I didn't think it had any chance of passing."
During their meeting, Tait told his friend he wouldn't support him, surprising Anaheim's political establishment, which had lined up behind the project. "I think this is a big thing, this crony capitalism," Tait says in explaining his vote, calling it a "cancer." If the mayor's former allies took his vote as a surprise, he says, they shouldn't have. "We need the money, for one. It belongs to the people of Anaheim. It also isn't fair to the 90 other hoteliers that do have to pay." (Anaheim has a regular 15 percent bed tax rate for hotels and motels.)
The GardenWalk subsidy still passed, enraging community activists and sparking a lawsuit that eventually overturned the vote because of an alleged Brown Act violation. And it quickly split apart Tait and Pringle, sending shockwaves through the GOP establishment.
"Prior to their current estrangement, the Pringles and the Taits were the closest of friends and socialized together very regularly," says Mike Schroeder, former chairman of the California Republican Party. Schroeder has known both men for the past 20 years. "As political couples, [they] were almost inseparable. I would never have anticipated the complete collapse of their relationship. It started spinning downward almost immediately after Tom Tait took office as mayor and really couldn't be more glacial now."
Tait and Pringle have spoken only once since their fallout: a 20-minute meeting at Starbucks last year. "He emailed me, and I got back to him," Tait says, refusing to divulge details. "It doesn't hurt to talk."
Pringle did not return repeated requests for comment on this story. But after the GardenWalk snub, he and others prepared to take Tait down.
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While Tait and Pringle debated the hotel subsidies, the city itself was boiling over with long-simmering racial and economic tensions. Over one weekend in July 2012, police shot and killed Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo, sparking national attention. A previously scheduled council meeting fell on the following Tuesday, July 24, and City Hall became a target for a protest that turned into a riot.
Spurred by the GardenWalk vote and an ACLU lawsuit calling for district elections filed that June, Tait had requested two ballot initiatives be put on the evening's agenda: one required hotel subsidies to go before a vote; the other sought to remedy the lawsuit by putting single-member districts on the ballot. But the door to the crowded council chambers was closed. People who wanted to speak at the meeting couldn't get in because there wasn't any more room. Cops in riot gear formed a skirmish line in front of the building's entrance.
"I knew there was something going on in the lobby," Tait recalls of the meeting. "It was packed. I didn't really know what was going on outside."
Outside, about 1,000 people clashed with police. "At one point, we recessed," Tait says. "Police Chief [John Welter] said he couldn't guarantee safety, and the meeting canceled early."
The mayor accompanied Welter to an emergency operations center before going home to prepare for his daughter's wedding that Friday night. Throughout the weeklong crisis, Tait put in 16-hour days, earning praise from progressive activists and former opponent Ward, who had sided with him soon after his election.
"When I first started to catch on was when Tait noticed that the city manager had that signing authority to [spend] $250,000 [without consulting anyone] and changed it," Ward says. She's now a member of the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility (CATER), which has sued the city on various issues that Tait just happens to oppose, including bonds for an Anaheim Convention Center expansion. "That's not the move of a guy on the take. That's an honest guy closing doors."
After the riots, Tait reread a 1990 Los Angeles Times article about Anna Drive, the crime-plagued neighborhood where an unarmed Diaz was killed. On that day, police attacked residents who gathered near the scene with non-lethal projectiles and an unleashed police dog, all of it broadcast on television stations worldwide. Alongside councilwoman Galloway, Tait decided to visit Anna Drive. "I spent an hour and a half there, listening to folks," Tait says. "They were afraid of the police, and it wasn't faked."
Following that meeting, Tait says, he became more convinced that Anaheim needed a civilian review board to restore trust between the community and the cops. In January 2013, Tait instructed Anaheim's new city manager to propose a review board for the council to adopt, a move that turned the city's police department against him and brought scorn from his colleagues on the council, who accused him of cozying up to gangs and anarchists. A few months later, Pringle recorded a robocall paid for by the Anaheim Police Association that went to 70,000 homes. "When it comes to keeping Anaheim safe, the city of Anaheim is at a crossroads," he said. "Which way will we go? Tell Mayor Tait and these liberal groups to stop hurting our public safety."
For the 2012 elections, Tait threw his support behind two Republican City Council candidates whom he felt would help to build a slate that could block hotel subsidies such as GardenWalk and lead to a "kinder" Anaheim. By then, Cunningham had started a blog devoted to discrediting Tait. The mayor's opposition to a light-rail system that would run from a Pringle-backed high-speed rail depot to Disneyland made him additional enemies. And his colleagues on the council had slashed Tait's budget so he couldn't pay Montgomery as much as before.
Tait's slate didn't have much success. One candidate, John Leos, lost; the other, Kring, got in--but she didn't turn out to be the ally Tait expected.
In May 2013, after a judge overturned the council's previous GardenWalk vote, Kring went along with three other council members to provide the project with the original $158 million subsidy. Kring's loyalties had been clear since February, when the newly elected councilwoman held a birthday bash and fund-raiser at the McCormick and Schmick's at GardenWalk, where she had previously run a wine bar. The list of attendees, which included GardenWalk hotelier Bill O'Connell, read like a roster of Tait's political opponents.
Kring downplays the party. "I happen to like McCormick and Schmick's," she said. "I've never, at a fund-raiser, taken a penny from anybody who says they want me to vote a certain way. I don't play that game."
Following the GardenWalk re-vote, Tait turned the last of his big-business supporters against him by publicly disclosing a proposal to renew an expiring Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lease agreement. The non-binding framework offered a dollar-per-year rent to owner Arte Moreno for 66 years on 155 acres of publicly owned land around the stadium and all of the tax revenue from future development. In exchange, Moreno would handle the costs of stadium renovations.
Tait voted against the proposal, angering the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce; they've now started a group, Keep the Angels, that blames Tait for Moreno's threatening to move the team if negotiations don't go his way.
"Tait just says 'no' to everything," says Kring, who announced her current race against Tait with a November 2013 press conference outside Angel Stadium. "We don't believe Tait really represents the Republican Party."
Around that time, Galloway announced her candidacy. She and Tait held a long political and personal friendship as neighbors in Anaheim Hills--they were the only council members to vote against the original GardenWalk project. But that partnership changed when Galloway invited Tait over to unveil her political ambitions: She planned to run for mayor and wanted him to step down for a council bid. "That's not going to happen," Tait says he told her.
"He thought it was a betrayal, and I felt very badly that's the initial way he saw it because I still don't think it's a betrayal," Galloway says, adding that she feels Tait fails to show leadership by publicly locking horns with council members too often. "I can handle it in a different way that would be better for the city.
"We are opponents," she continues. "Hopefully, afterward, we can be friends again." Tait's remaining supporters are an unlikely coalition of GOP stalwarts (OC Republican Party head Scott Baugh, Flash Report blogger Jon Fleischman), good-government watchdogs and Latino activists such as Jose F. Moreno (an Anaheim City School District board member, Los Amigos of Orange County president and current Anaheim City Council candidate). Moreno was a plaintiff in the ACLU district-elections lawsuit who nevertheless appeared with Tait in rallies. His support has further fueled Tait's conservative critics and has Moreno fighting accusations of being a vendido for not supporting his fellow Democrat, Galloway. But backing Tait comes down to three major issues for Moreno: district elections, corporate subsidies and police oversight.
"It's addition by subtraction," he argues. "If Galloway were to win, we lose someone who has been on the right side of the big issues of the past three years."
On a recent afternoon, Tait reclines in the chair of his office at the Santa Ana headquarters of Tait & Associates, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Despite the efforts of Cunningham and anonymous writers on his blog to paint Tait as a liberal conspirator, the pictures in Tait's office tell another story. Resting on a bookcase shelf are photos of him with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and President George W. Bush. Perched above them is a portrait of Tait with his political hero, the late Ronald Reagan. A plaque proclaiming Tait as local elected official of the year in 2013 by the Republican Party of Orange County rests near sea-green-leather-encased law volumes that line his bookcase.
Atop Tait's desk is a mounted baseball. "I look at my job, and I think of myself as standing on the pitcher's mound at Angel Stadium, ironically," Tait says. "I think of that image of all those people who are looking to me to look out for their best interest, even though they don't know me. Most of them don't know my name, but they know there's a mayor there who is supposed to be doing that."
Tait knows he can't count on the same powerful backers who helped him get elected in 2010 this time around. But the mayor doesn't think it hurts his chances--in fact, he's counting on it. He already scored a victory by successfully fending off a ballot measure that would've reduced an Anaheim mayoral term from four years to two. The OC GOP officially endorsed Tait last month, with Baugh blasting Kring and councilwoman Kris Murray in previous meetings for messing with him. Tait is endorsing Republicans James Vanderbilt and Doug Pettibone in their runs for City Council seats against Murray and fellow Republican Gail Eastman; if elected, Tait would finally have the majority that has escaped him during Anaheim's most trying times.
"I have a much stronger base than I did four years ago," he argues, as the sun begins to set. "It's directly with the people. . . . Hopefully, people will say I stood up for people's rights and did what I thought was right, regardless of politics."
The vote this November will prove him either right or wrong.
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