Why does a place as big and beautiful as Orange County behave in ways so small and ugly?
In recent weeks, county supervisors first voted to oppose state sanctuary laws, thus aligning themselves with President Trump, who has targeted California in a campaign of lies and deportation, and against the county’s own immigrant families.
Then the county abandoned a plan to house hundreds of homeless people in temporary shelters in Huntington Beach, Laguna Niguel, and Irvine, after protests from people in those cities.
Protecting its own immigrants and providing housing for its own people shouldn’t be a heavy lift for a wealthy county with 3.2 million people – more than the populations of 21 states. Orange County is one of the richest jurisdictions on earth, with a bigger economy than Greece or Portugal.
But the recent decisions on immigrants and the homeless weren’t surprising. Orange County has an especially bad case of a California malady: Our local governments can’t meet the challenges of our diverse and globally oriented communities.
“We think of ourselves as Mayberry,” says Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political scientist who studies Orange County, “when we really are closer to Gotham City.”
The decisions on immigrants and the homeless reflect Orange County’s fundamental confusion about itself. County officials often portray themselves as weak, playing the victim. On immigration, they saw themselves as targets of a state bullying them (albeit to protect their own immigrants). On homelessness, one official pretense is that Orange County can’t afford to house a few thousand homeless people.
Logic is often twisted. In opposing the immigrant sanctuary laws, the county supervisors portrayed themselves as honoring federal supremacy – even if it means collaborating with Trump’s mass deportations. But as supervisors dropped the homeless plan, they posed as defenders of local sovereignty against a federal judge demanding action on the homeless.
By clinging to its old image as a collection of NIMBY-ish small towns, Orange County has made itself profoundly vulnerable to sophisticated mismanagement and persistent corruption.
In particular, the county has tolerated corruption in its law enforcement agencies. A long-running scandal has shown that both the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department “secretly operated unconstitutional scams with jail snitches to win convictions, hid exculpatory evidence from defendants and juries, and, when necessary, committed perjury in hopes of masking the cheating,” as the OC Weekly put it. Judges have condemned the misconduct, which has led so far to the dismissal of 18 cases.
But the district attorney and sheriff haven’t lost their jobs. Instead county law enforcement now claims to be defending California from criminals by backing mass deportation that increasingly targets non-criminals. It’s right to be cynical about this. In seeking to curry favor with the federal authorities, are the sheriff and district attorney trying to blunt a federal investigation into their own misconduct?
The county’s Mayberry complex doesn’t just hurt people caught up in the criminal justice system. It has given Orange County a government that’s out-of-step with the desires of the people who live there. In a new Chapman University survey of 706 Orange County residents, 83 percent of respondents said they wanted to find a way for undocumented immigrants to stay. The same poll found that assisting the poor and homeless was the second biggest issue in the county among residents.
California Democrats have fantasies of turning historically Republican Orange County into a politically progressive blue place. That won’t happen, and it shouldn’t. The survey shows that Orange County’s residents are disgusted with both parties, and worried about the cost of living here.
Ideally, Orange County could pursue a middle path true to its people, who are practical California libertarians: skeptical of regulation while championing entrepreneurialism, immigrants, and limits on law enforcement.
But that would take a county with leadership that thinks in ways as big and beautiful as Orange County itself.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.