Labor leader Ada Briceño became only the second Latina to ever chair the Democratic Party of Orange County this week since Dorianne Garcia first held the position in 1993. After former Irvine mayor Beth Krom withdrew from the race in December, Briceño stood unopposed by the time came for Monday’s vote at a union plumbing hall in Orange. The change in leadership comes at a pivotal point for the party. A “Blue Wave” ushered in a historic sweep of OC congressional races by Democrats–with more Latino representation in the House of Representatives than ever before.
If orange is the new blue, then blue is the new brown.
Leading the Democrats through the 2020 presidential election cycle, the newly elected chairwoman is a Nicaraguan immigrant who fled civil war as a child and later began working as a front desk clerk at a local hotel. It didn’t take long for Briceño to rise through the leadership ranks of Unite Here Local 11, a hotel workers union, before arriving to her current position of co-president. Even with a resurgent labor movement that’s taken on the Disneyland Resort and major hotel chains in Southern California, she saw an opportunity to lead an equally resurgent Democratic Party following former chair Fran Sdao’s decision to step down after the November elections.
“I have been refueled and inspired by the activism that I’ve seen on the ground from diverse groups throughout Orange County,” says Briceño. “That is where I felt that I could effect even more change.”
Briceño, a 46-year-old Stanton resident, has a diverse leadership team to match the activism that motivated her run. After Monday’s elections, Latino Democrats now play more prominent roles in the party. Beatriz “Betty” Valencia, a queer Mexican immigrant, became central vice chair alongside western vice chair Victor Valladares, an Oak View community activist from Huntington Beach. Luis Aleman, a SanTanero, serves as Secretary. The diversity doesn’t end there. Annie Wright is a Vietnamese Democrat and southern vice chair. Jeff LeTourneau, a gay activist, is northern vice chair. Labor attorney Florice Hoffman serves as Treasurer.
But Stanton, Orange and Huntington Beach? Not only is there more Latino representation in party leadership, it’s mostly coming away from the big hubs of SanTana and Anaheim where it takes a little more innovation to make an impact. “We can’t be what we can’t see,” says Valencia. “We have qualified leaders in this community, there’s just not a pathway. This is what’s going to show everyone there’s pathway for you, too.”
A political newcomer, Valencia placed third in the top-two race for Orange city council and still may get appointed by next week to a seat opened up by incumbent councilman Mike Murphy’s mayoral victory. “We’ve worked so hard,” says Valencia. “We have huge support so we feel that we have a very good chance.” Should Valencia earn an appointment to city council, the progressive victory will carry all of the identity politics along with it, too, in making history.
“That’s the kind of campaign that we need to see in order for us to become more successful in Orange County,” says Briceño. “It’s really amazing that she was able to do that in Orange.”
Staying on as Unite Here Local 11 co-president, Briceño brings leadership experience in organizing a largely immigrant working-class in a county historically hostile to unions and brown immigrants. “What gives us victories are numbers,” she says. “Our style of organizing is inspiring people, changing hearts and minds. It’s successful and it just seems natural to bring those talents deeper into the party.” Briceño points to the recent hard-fought win for an Anaheim Resort living wage law. In 2014, the union also helped play a role in gaining an overwhelming electoral victory for a single-member district reform ballot initiative.
But for all the Blue Wave “bluphoria,” Briceño knows there’s much work to be done in a purple county with strong, red undercurrents at the local level.
“We have to invest in our council races, and our school boards,” she says. “With the board of supervisors we have, for the first time, an opportunity to hear different voices that are going to represent half-a-million Democratic constituents in Orange County.”
Former congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is the sole Democrat vying for a third district supervisor seat in a special election slated to happen in just a few weeks. With supervisor Doug Chaffee recently becoming the first Democrat on the board of supervisors in 12 years, Sanchez’s bid to join him will be the first major ballot box test of Briceño’s leadership. In her first act as chair, she convened a special endorsement meeting of the central committee to give Sanchez the party’s official nod.
“We’ve been doing some good work,” says Briceño. “I want help move the party forward to make sure that we maintain our victories.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!