Standing Up to the Mouse

Photo by Jack GouldIf you're still looking for signs of the growing power of Latino voters in Orange County, consider the political campaign forming around Duane Roberts. An Anglo, a Green Party member and a community activist, Roberts is running for a seat on the Anaheim Union High School District board. If you remember the board at all, it is likely because one of its members, Anaheim cop Harald Martin, once proposed suing the Mexican government for $50 million—the cost, Martin said, of educating the children of undocumented Mexican workers in the city's schools. The mechanics of his proposal—how he planned to identify such children, for example—were never very clear and the plan was quickly shot down by the federal government. But Roberts thought it illustrated the white school board's contempt for Latinos, who are 51 percent of the district's population, along with the whites (29 percent) and speakers of 67 languages in the district's 16 schools.

“The issue was never children of undocumented workers. The issue was that the board has done nothing to tackle the developers,” Roberts said.

Roberts' target is Disneyland, the city's largest employer. He proposes taxing Disneyland to help pay the $100 million it'll cost to fix worn-out buildings in which he says children of the theme park's low-wage workers are educated.

Unlike many Greens and even Democrats, Roberts has money and organized support. Running against conservatives—two incumbents and three other challengers fighting for two open seats—he says he'll spend $5,000 from his savings. It's a midrange sum in this election, in which Anaheim restaurateur Frank G. Cozza Jr. claims the biggest war chest, $8,600.

More important, Roberts has won endorsements from an Anaheim homeowners association and two unions. When they endorsed Roberts, the Orange County Central Labor Council and Local 681 of the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees union (HERE) picked a third-party candidate for the first time in their histories. Labor officials said his party affiliation was irrelevant. “He hit the right chords. He talked about reform, ending corporate welfare and accountability in the educational system,” said John F. Earl, assistant to the president of Local 681, which boasts more than 5,000 mostly Chicano members. “He got a better response than most candidates that come before the members.”

It's possible that the maids and busboys of HERE already knew something of Roberts. Since 1997, Roberts has worked to end police brutality and improve living conditions in Anaheim's impoverished Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood. Neighborhood activist Art Castillo said he initially was wary of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Roberts. But Roberts quickly proved himself through painstaking research into police-brutality cases and planning issues. Castillo said the research forced City Hall to take Jeffrey-Lynne's residents seriously. “He showed us he cared for the neighborhood by standing with us at scenes of police brutality. He risked himself for us,” Castillo said.

In his campaign, Roberts points to Disney's nearly insatiable demand for low-wage workers. When it opens early next year, Disney's $1.4 billion California Adventure theme park and the businesses that serve it may employ more than 14,000 workers, most of them in low-paying jobs. District staff say they expect the high school population to grow by 800 students per year for the next three years. It'll level off after that—to a whopping 500 additional students per year.

Disneyland says Roberts is wrong. Spokesman Ray Gomez said the park employs just 7 percent of Anaheim's workers, and that two-thirds of that figure is seasonal employment of people not supporting families.

Roberts says that's a cop-out —that Disneyland is the engine of Anaheim's economy and is the prime beneficiary of hundreds of millions in public redevelopment dollars. “Disney receives so much in corporate welfare,” Roberts said. “It's about time they gave back.”

Even if he wins, Roberts knows he'll be on a board in a city in which no public official makes demands of Disneyland. So he'll go straight to the people, he says, with a ballot initiative to tax tourism, a move he figures could raise up to $50 million per year. But that could get him into trouble. Always willing to capitulate to the Mouse, Anaheim officials signed off on a 1996 contract with the theme park in which they bound the city to reimburse Disney if voters should elect to tax admissions at the company's parks. Roberts is unapologetic: “Somebody needs to stand up to these developers.”

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