FOOTNOTES February 2001
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2001 Annual Meeting

Orange County: What Better Place to Go to Study Social Change?

by Fred Smoller and Roberta Lessor, Chapman University

Come August many of you will fly into “John Wayne Airport” and be met by a thirty-foot bronze statue of The Duke. County leaders named the airport after John Wayne because they felt he epitomized the county’s core values: rugged individualism, disdain for government, and love of the rural life.

The statute of a swaggering white, male cowboy situated in the middle of a decidedly modern airline terminal symbolizes how a traditional value system is being challenged by a new economic and social reality, one which is being brought on by sweeping changes in population, economics, and demographics.

To understand Orange County’s present and future, one must understand its past. Orange County is a collection of 33 cities, the oldest and largest of which were founded by individual entrepreneurs. They became Orange County’s social and political leaders and cities were named for them. Farmer George Hansen founded Anaheim. Entrepreneurs Andrew Glassell and Alfred Chapman founded Orange. Carriage maker Columbus Tustin founded Tustin, and fruit ranchers George and Edward Amerige were the co-founders of the city of Fullerton.

Orange County’s entrepreneurial and rural past and contempt for government influenced its development. Orange County in the later half of the 20th century became best known for its orange groves, Disneyland, and white suburbs. It was also the Republican party stronghold that sent Richard Nixon and reactionary political leaders such as former Congressmen “B-1” Bob Dornan to Washington. Televangelists such as Robert Schuller, and Paul and Jan Crouch bolstered its reputation as a conservative heartland. Its “get rich quick ethos” triggered the Savings and Loan scandal, assorted boiler-room operations, and the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.


Orange County’s population has grown astronomically—from 220,000 people in 1950 to 2.8 million today. (OC’s population is estimated to increase to 3.3 million by the year 2020.) The amount of land hasn’t increased since the county was incorporated in 1889. The result has been some of the highest home prices in the nation. The median price of a home in Orange County hit $289,000 in the last quarter of 2000. The American dream of owning one’s home remains a dream for all but the most affluent residents. Rents have also increased—to about $900 for a two-bedroom apartment. The lack of affordable housing—there is no public housing here at all—is a tremendous hardship for Orange County’s working poor (those making less than $10 an hour) who frequently pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. Many working people are forced to share quarters or live in garages or motels. Many middle class residents resign themselves to renting, or purchase homes in cheaper surrounding suburbs, which contributes to traffic congestion.

Orange County’s freeways were built to accommodate the traffic levels of thirty years ago. This results in time-consuming and exhausting commutes. Nevertheless, the county has not built the mass transit systems—light rail in particular—that are frequently found in similarly busy places such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento.


Orange County’s economy has also changed dramatically. World War II brought the defense industry to Orange County, ending the agricultural era. Large Defense Contractors such as McDonald Douglas, Northrop, Lockheed, and Hughes setup shop and dominated the economy until the recession of 1994. Ironically, while the political leadership complained about Big Government spending, it was huge defense contracts during the Vietnam War and later during the Reagan years that powered much of the economy. These industries have been eclipsed by the high tech, bio tech, and entertainment, and other service related industries in the 1990s.

Orange County’s economy is truly extraordinary. Its gross county product (104 billion per year, 1999) ranks it 32nd in the world—ahead of nations such as Portugal, Israel, and the Philippines. Nevertheless, there is a growing gap between the “have” and “have nots.” For instance, between 1967 and 1999 real wages for males in California grew 13% for those in the top 90th percentile, and fell 40% for those in the bottom 25th percentile.

Racially Diverse

Orange County is becoming far more racially diverse. In 1999, 56% of the county’s population was white. Sometime between now and 2005 the county will join the sate by becoming “majority-minority.”

The impact of changing demographics can be seen everywhere—from campaigns to “save our state” and other forms of immigrant bashing, declining support for public schools (the voucher campaign), opposition to bilingual signage in John Wayne Airport, to opposition to discount retail stores such as WalMart (which are said to cater to “the wrong type of people”), strong support for Proposition #209, which ended affirmative action programs in the state, and Proposition #187, which threatened to cut off public services to those who were in the state illegally, as well as the attempt to deny the county’s first Hispanic Congresswoman, Loretta Sanchez, her seat in Congress.

These changes in population, the economy, and demographics have contributed to the Greening (to quote Charles Reich) of Orange County. Evidence that Orange County is becoming more politically moderate can be found in a recent survey of Orange County residents by the University of California at Irvine. The Annual Survey of Orange County residents for the year 2000 found that 63% of county residents think there should be more gun control laws, 62% believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces, and 65% of them were pro-choice. The same poll found that 62% felt we needed stricter environmental laws and 58% felt that immigration benefited the state.

Such “mellowing” poses a significant challenge to the local Republican party, which for the past 16 years has been dominated by religious conservatives. Republicans hold five of Orange County’s six congressional seats, six of seven of the Assembly seats, three of four state Senate seats, five of five seats on the Board of Supervisors, and the bulk of city council and school board seats. In Orange County there are over 200,000 more registered Republicans than there are registered Democrats.

Nevertheless, there has been a steady erosion of party support. Republican registration in the county dropped by 5.3 percent in the 1990s—from 55.2 to 49.9%. (That’s right, Republicans are no longer the majority party in Orange County!) The percentage of Democrats has also declined, but only by 2%. Of the $137,102 new voters who registered in the county from 1990 through June of 2000, twice as many registered as Democrats (13%) than as Republicans (6%). A whopping 80% registered independent—suggesting that neither party has much appeal to new voters.

To win races in the increasingly heterogeneous Orange County, candidates will need to attract voters from beyond their core supporters. Party reformers argue that the Republican party is too ideologically rigid. They want a more inclusive party, one that is responsive to Orange County’s changing demographics. They want to attract Latinos and working people and do not want to alienate gays. They decry the so-called litmus test on abortion that is applied to prospective candidates and the demonizing of those who simply disagree.

In a similar vein, Democrats have made some important gains recently. They now occupy one congressional seat (Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove), one Assembly seat (Lou Correa of Anaheim), and one state Senate seat (Joe Dunn, of Santa Ana). Current trends and local issues are also breaking well for Democrats. The Democratic Party has been the beneficiary of Orange County’s increasing diversity. Latinos—the fastest growing ethnic group—are registering Democrat 9 to 1, and the once solidly Republican Vietnamese community is increasingly voting Democratic. Latinos have not yet forgotten that the local Republican party hired poll guards in 1988 to harass Latino voters or the attempt to deny Sanchez her seat in Congress.

Democrats believe that government can be a constructive force in society. So do an increasing number of Orange County voters who look to government to build necessary and repair crumbling infrastructure, curtail development, provide health care to the poor, protect our air, water, and preserve open space.

Democrats have been less enthusiastic about deregulation and privatization, ideas championed by the Republicans. Orange County’s negative experience with HMO’s, privately owned toll roads that continue to lose money, polluted beaches, and the deregulation of the electrical power industry has caused many residents to question free market solutions to complex public policy questions.

Orange County is a quintessential “city” of the future. Tracking the changes that are taking place here can provide important information for policy makers for the rest of the nation.