Orange County Progressives Gather, Embrace Being 'Agitators'

Writer and radio commentator Jim Hightower speaks at the Orange County Progressive Summit | Photo by Shirin Parsavand
Writer and radio commentator Jim Hightower speaks at the Orange County Progressive Summit | Photo by Shirin Parsavand

A cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama stood, smiling but mostly ignored, on Saturday in the main conference room at the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana. Some of the 200 progressives gathered there for a day of speeches, workshops and networking weren't talking much about the real Obama, either. Many at the second annual Orange County Progressive Summit were more focused on local and state issues. Others took the long view.

A similar gathering never would have happened a few decades ago behind the Orange Curtain, they said. Obama's election in 2008 especially emboldened local progressives, and that feeling has lasted even as many now feel the president they worked to elect has moved too far to the right.

Kate Nikolenko of Irvine remembers calling people a few years ago as a local organizer for the progressive group MoveOn.org. Some told her they were afraid to tell anyone at work they were Democrats.

Nikolenko had trouble bringing meetings to order at first because of the buzz in the room. "They were so excited to find other progressives to talk to," she said.

The GOP is still the dominant force in Orange County electoral politics, although Republican registration has fallen as a share of the electorate there. Republicans now make up just 43 percent of the 1.6 million registered voters in Orange County. Another 32 percent are Democrats, 21 percent don't state a party preference and the rest are enrolled in third parties.

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The keynote speakers at Saturday's conference were Christine Chavez, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and farm worker coordinator at the USDA, and Jim Hightower, a writer and radio commentator. Workshops focused on issues such as inequities in schools, the fight for universal health care and a lack of community influence in city planning decisions.

Residents often learn about development projects too late in the game, said Robert Nothoff, a policy analyst for Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development.

Campaign donations from developers and related businesses have an impact too, he told those at the workshop on OCCORD's recent report, "The Rubber Stamp Process," which focused on Anaheim and Santa Ana.

One person who attended Nothoff's workshop said it's simply a reality that most residents aren't going to give to political campaigns. Greg Diamond, a member of the county Democratic Party executive board, said he thinks the way to stop overdevelopment is to educate residents about the stresses development puts on traffic and city services.

Diamond said the conference let him learn about different groups and make connections. The groups had a range of views, and so did the individual attendees. But regardless of their ideas and priorities, it seemed everyone could agree with Hightower when he called them agitators, and told them to wear the label as a badge of honor.

"When they say you're just an agitator, you can say `Yeah, that's the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out,' " Hightower told them in his Texas twang, to loud applause.

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