Reasons to hope, even in Orange County

Voters wait in line under a giant American flag at City Hall in Irvine on Nov. 7. Conservative Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
Voters wait in line under a giant American flag at City Hall in Irvine on Nov. 7. Conservative Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. The Orange County Register

If there’s a hopeful sign for our nation’s future after this election, I find it at home, here in Orange County, where I’ve lived or worked for 35 years.

For many of those years, this was an often-uncomfortable place to hang out. Not only was it incredibly hard to find espresso in the early years, but any casual conversation about the news would generally end on a sour note after the other person would profess a love of Ronald Reagan or a deep dislike of any endangered animal. The answer to the region’s air pollution, I was told, was for people who didn’t like it to move out. Then the smog would be reduced naturally and by the free market.

But on Nov. 8, a strange thing happened. Orange County turned blue for the first time since the Great Depression, ditching Donald Trump for Hillary Clinton.

If only the whole country voted like Orange County! That’s something I never thought I’d say.

So what happened? Probably a variety of things. The county is less rock-ribbed conservative. The defense industry has faded, and there has been an influx of educated people from other areas of the country who brought their more liberal leanings with them.

But mainly, Orange County has been experiencing the same waves of ethnic change that are on the cusp of transforming many conservative strongholds, flipping to “majority minority” over the past decade or so.

When I first came to the county, a former bastion of the John Birch Society, it was 80 percent white and only 1.3 percent black. The Vietnamese who formed Little Saigon had moved in just ahead of me. At my first newspaper job in the area, readers would call to say things so horrifyingly hateful about them – the dog-eating slander was one common example – that all I could manage without cussing them out was to hang up on them.

But by 1990, the white population had shrunk to 65 percent, with big growth in the Latino and Asian populations. At the turn of the century, whites made up barely a majority, and in the 2010 census, they were in the minority, 44 percent. Latinos were at 33 percent but the African American population always remained low, most recently at 1.5 percent. Still, a recent visit to a library in once-monochromatic Irvine showed big bookcases with titles in three languages other than English; the library also holds both a Persian and a Chinese story time.

With those demographic shifts, the county, once known as the citadel of the ultraconservative “cavemen” in the state Assembly, started electing a few Democrats. Gone were the likes of William Dannemeyer, the former congressman who wanted to quarantine AIDS patients, claiming they gave off “spores” that caused birth defects.

Not that I’d call Orange County a leopard that’s turned in its red spots. For Clinton to win here, it also took a phenomenally loutish, ethically corrupt ruffian like Trump.

But in some ways, the county is more American than ever – a reflection of ongoing transformation of beliefs and demographics that won’t quit because of one bad Election Day.

The other day, a friend and I bemoaned the election results together at a coffeehouse. Then the white-haired, blue-eyed man next to us stood up to leave with his Latina wife and declared: “If they’re coming after people who speak out loudest against this crazy idiot, they’ll be coming for me first.” The Asian woman behind him nodded approvingly at us all.

Orange County, I’m home.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at