In a dramatic power play, UNITE-HERE Local 11, the militant hotel workers union currently waging a disruptive yet ineffective series of hotel strikes in Los Angeles and Orange County, has decided to mount a recall campaign against Anaheim Councilmember Natalie Rubalcava, who was elected less than nine months ago.

It has been rumored for several weeks that UNITE-HERE might attempt to recall Rubalcava, a Democrat who has charted a moderate, pro-business course on the council.

The recall petition has a slapdash quality and draws from weakly researched sections of the error-riddle JL Group report commissioned by the city last year.

The recall proponents need to gather 5,191 valid signatures in order to qualify it for the ballot. They cannot begin collecting signatures until 1) Rubalcava files her response to the recall 2) publication of the recall notice in a newspaper of general circulation and 3) the city clerk certifies the formatting of the petition complies with the Election Code. Once these requirements are satisfied, proponents will have 90 days to collect the necessary signatures.

Sour Grapes From UNITE-HERE?

UNITE-HERE spent heavily in support of Rubalcava’s 2022 opponent Al Jabbar, pouring nearly $60,000 of their members’ dues money into a vain attempt to elect Jabbar, a left-wing school board member. District 3 voters went for Rubalcava over Jabbar by a margin of 58% to 42%.

Now, the aggressive union wants a second bite at the apple in hopes of bringing them closer to control of the Anaheim City Council.

Local 11 spent more than $177,000 in support of Ashleigh Aitken’s campaign for mayor and more than $112,000 in support of Carlos Leon in District 2 – both of whom won their races.

According to the Voice of OC, Local 11 co-president Ada Briceno – who is also the chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County – “referred questions to [Martin] Lopez,” one of 60 District 3 voters who signed the notice of intent to recall.

Lopez is also a full-time, paid officer of Local 11; he has been the union’s secretary for years. Lopez all but publicly announced a run for Anaheim City Council in 2016 before pulling back for unknown reasons.

Martin Lopez (L) speaking at an OCCORD press conference in 2015. Standing behind him in the blue sweater is Ryan Ruelas, a member of Mayor Aitken’s “Advisory Committee” and almost certain candidate for District 5 in 2024.

Earlier this year, UNITE-HERE qualified a ballot initiative that would impose a $25 an hour minimum wage and crushing set of work rules on all Anaheim hotels and event centers, regardless of their size.

In June, the union asked the city council to bypass a vote of the people and adopt it as an ordinance. Both Aitken and Leon supported Local 11’s request and voted to take a leap in the dark and adopt the measure without even studying how it would impact the economic sector that generates the tax revenues that fund city government.

Studies subsequently showed the initiative – now christened Measure A – would have a devastating impact on the hundreds of Anaheim businesses and city tax revenues.

UNITE-HERE pitched Measure A as a “worker safety measure” because it includes a requirement that hotels equip housekeepers with “panic buttons” enabling them to quickly summon assistance in case they’re being harassed or assaulted while on the job. This provision served to mask Measure A’s true impacts.

Hotels were already moving in that direction, but Rubalcava brought forward a stand-alone ordinance requiring Anaheim hotels to equip staff with panic buttons.

This infuriated Briceno, since it took away their chief sales pitch to voters. Briceno went as far as demanding the city council “vote no on the Hotel Worker Safety Ordinance.”

Questions Swirl As To The Hows-and-Whys Of The Recall

Can UNITE-HERE pull it off?

Recalls are expensive. The Santa Ana Police Officers Association spent $357,000 qualifying the recall against Councilmember Jessie Lopez in a district of similar size. Qualification required 5,274 valid signatures – only slightly more than the threshold in Rubalcava’s District 3.

Working in UNITE-HERE’s favor is they have been identifying voters in District 3 for more than a year, building a voter list they can go to for petition signatures. They will also likely use the canvassing efforts for Measure A to also ID voters who will sign the recall petition.

Even if the recall qualifies, winning it is an entirely different matter. Rubalcava won her election decisively in November 2022. Her detractors like to ascribe her win to substantial independent expenditures, but that ignores the reality that Rubalcava is a hard-working candidate who will go out and knock on doors. Lots of doors.

Also, voters innate sense of fairness will make them especially open to the message that it is unjust and unfair to recall someone who has been in office less than a year.

Plus, what is Ada Briceno’s endgame? Assuming the recall qualifies and Rubalcava is recalled – then what? Briceno’s fellow Democrats enacted several laws to make it harder to win recall elections. One of those laws got rid of the replacement election. Prior to this year, there were two questions in a recall election: A) shall so-and-so be recalled? B) For which of these candidates do you vote as a replacement? The replacement ballot was abolished on the theory that with no candidates urging their supporters to vote, fewer people would support a recall.

Instead, a successful recall is treated like a council vacancy: the city council would have a certain window in which to appoint a replacement before forcing a special election. Briceno has two reliable allies on the city council – Mayor Aitken and Councilman Leon.  It takes the votes of four council members to fill a vacancy. The current council is unlikely to deadlock and throw filling the vacancy to a special election (something that has never happened in Anaheim).

According to several Democrat insiders, this recall is another example of Briceno’s impulsive leadership and failure to think things through.