A summer meeting of the Democratic Club of West Orange County has just kicked off at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley when Ada Briceño walks in, unnoticed. It is quite the feat. She wears a neon-pink T-shirt, stands nearly six feet tall, and is possibly the only Latina in an audience of about 40.
Not exactly a reception befitting the chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. But this is how Briceño wants it. She has come to give a speech, but she wants to read the room first, from the back. It’s a few days after a shooter killed seven people during a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois—and the West O.C. Dems are angry and motivated.
After about 20 minutes of letting the crowd vent, Briceño approaches the synagogue’s podium.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
“I have too many mixed emotions after this holiday,” she says, reading from a cell phone. “Independence Day 2022 will always represent a dark time in our history for me.”
She lists some of the calamities that the United States has weathered: A radicalized Supreme Court. Mass shootings. Joe Biden’s declining popularity. But as she sees the pained faces of the Dems before her, Briceño ditches the script.
“As an organizer, I’ve been taught ‘Don’t mourn, but organize,’ ” the Nicaraguan immigrant says as people nod their heads.
Her hands begin to move, her smile becomes wider, her delivery becomes more rhythmic. Her points—a defense of progressive principles, attacks on the GOP, a call to action—become sharper. The audience applause becomes louder.
The room is hers.
Briceño is a multipronged force in Southern California politics. The 49-year-old mother sits on the board of the Community Action Fund of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties and serves as a Democratic National Committee member. She’s copresident of UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents hospitality and food workers in Southern California and Arizona and has earned worldwide attention for protests that have called out everyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for crossing the picket line at Chateau Marmont, to Disney, for allegedly overworking maids.
But it’s as chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, a position she has now held for nearly four years, that Briceño wants to make history. My native O.C. made national headlines in 2016 and 2018 when the place Ronald Reagan once described as where “all the good Republicans go to die” voted for Hillary Clinton and then went on to elect an all-Democratic congressional delegation.
Under Briceño, Orange County once again went blue in the 2020 presidential election. Registered Democrats in O.C. now outnumber Republicans by more than 75,000. Gains by Briceño’s slate of candidates in the 2022 elections, when Democrats are expected to lose the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate, would represent a powerful blow to the GOP in one of its traditional strongholds and provide hope for Democrats nationwide.
“She’s the right leader at the right time,” says Rusty Hicks, the California Democratic Party chair. “She can bring the work that has to be done in a place like O.C. to get the wins not just in front of you, but to secure the wins in the years and hopefully decades to come.”
“Ada has not been afraid of taking on a different narrative,” says Norberto Santana Jr., publisher of the Voice of OC, a nonprofit news agency that has covered Briceño for nearly a decade. “Whether you like her or don’t like her, she’s fearless.”
In a sign of the political climate, Briceño’s biggest critics today aren’t conservatives; they’re former colleagues. “Ada used to be a progressive whose ambitions to become the most powerful woman Democrat in Orange County made her throw people around her under the bus while aligning herself with people she used to despise,” says a former ally who requested anonymity.
There are no haters at the Democratic Club of West Orange County meeting. The people there want to hear from a leader, and they do—mostly. Near the end of her remarks, she throws a challenge back at the faithful: “We’re always waiting for someone to do something,” Briceño concludes. “You’re the ones to do it.”
FAITH, HOPE, AND HARD WORK
About a week before her speech, I visit Briceño at the Democratic Party of Orange County headquarters in Anaheim. It’s in a nondescript office park, its only signpost a small orange sticker on the outside window, and maybe the padlock on the front door that requires a code to access the key that lets people in.
Briceño and I sit in her barren office—a room with just a couple of posters and a stand-up desk. Subdued volunteers huddle in a nearby conference room. It is the week after Roe v. Wade was overturned. The GOP is bragging that a million voters have joined its party nationally. I ask Briceño how she’s feeling.
She uses terms like “heart-wrenching” and “big cloud” at first, but then ceases her self-pity. “I never lose hope or faith,” Briceño says. “And while it does impact me to hear others feel so down, my ‘Sí se puede’ attitude that I learned from housekeepers and dishwashers remains at the soul of my leadership.”
The philosophy has governed her life, one marked by good times frequently followed by crashes.
She was born in Nicaragua to a family whose patriarch worked as a banker under the Somoza regime. Briceño remembers “lavish” birthday parties at a well-kept home staffed with a cook, a nanny, and a chauffeur who’d take her to private school. Vacations were mostly in Costa Rica, with occasional trips to Disneyland.
“My father would just give me whatever I wanted,” she says. “But that came to a halt” after her family fled Nicaragua’s civil war in 1980 for Miami, when she was six.
Briceño’s family eventually settled in San Pedro, California. She began to work at 13 as a dishwasher and cashier and dropped out of high school her senior year. Eventually, she landed a job at the front desk of a hotel within walking distance of her apartment. One day, a manager asked Briceño to clean a guest room.
“I was drenched in sweat and did it half-assed,” she says. “It shook my foundation.”
She soon got a job with the hotel’s union, then known as Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. One promotion led to another, until Briceño, just 26 years old, found herself president of the organization. It was the early 2000s, and Southern California labor was at a crossroads. Membership was changing from multicultural to mostly Latino. In Los Angeles, a new generation of leaders leveraged this change via street marches to win better contracts and more political power.
Briceño sought to replicate that protest strategy in Orange County. But about two years into her tenure, her reputation was nearly destroyed.
In 2003, four former HERE employees sued the union for discrimination, alleging that they’d lost their jobs in part because they were older white women. One claimed that Briceño “was intent on finding a way to get rid of her because [Briceño] wanted to bring in younger Hispanic employees.”
A jury awarded them more than $750,000 in damages. The trial “was just crushing,” Briceño says, and she was ready to resign when she went to hear Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú at an event to get her mind off things.
“I just remember her talking about her colleagues trying to organize just for basic necessities and getting killed in front of her eyes,” she says of the Guatemalan Indigenous rights activist. “And I thought to myself, What the fuck am I crying about?”
MICKEY MOUSE IN HANDCUFFS
In 2008, approximately 1,000 people flooded the intersection of Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim—just down the street from Disneyland—to protest the lack of a contract between the theme park and its hotel workers. Police eventually arrested 28 people; photos of demonstrators cuffed while dressed as Mickey Mouse, Tinker Bell, and other Disney characters went worldwide.
Among the arrested? Briceño, who says she’s been detained by police at least six times while participating in such rallies. “It was one small proof that we weren’t leading [workers] in the wrong direction,” she says of that day. “So it’s validation.”
By then, Briceño was also on the board of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development. The nonprofit is modeled on similar efforts in Los Angeles and elsewhere that marry union power and grassroots activism to change local politics. Anaheim was OCCORD’s case study: a Republican-majority council kept granting hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to developers as the city became more Latino and less affordable.
In 2016, OCCORD helped push Anaheim to switch from at-large elections to a by-district system, which gives voice to smaller groups of voters. The organization became a training ground for young progressives who remain involved in politics to this day.
But critics whispered that Briceño was pushing UNITE HERE issues onto OCCORD. It came to a head in fall 2019, when she found herself chairing the nonprofit while her union was fighting Anaheim over the sale of the city’s Angel Stadium to a company owned by Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno. Briceño and local labor sought community benefits that would guarantee affordable housing and union jobs to guard against what government watchdogs said was a grossly unfair deal; OCCORD began to hold town halls on the subject to educate the public.
“We felt that that was a perfect convening for what OCCORD was born to do,” Briceño says. “And they refused.”
The town halls were sparsely attended. Briceño claims that staff and other board members ignored the stadium issue. Frustrated, she left OCCORD in the summer of 2020. In a statement, the nonprofit said feedback from community members demonstrated “that Ada’s focus, then and now, is on what Local 11 wanted from OCCORD, not on the needs of the broader community or the progressive movement as a whole.”
But her position was vindicated last year, when the FBI announced a massive investigation into a “cabal” that ruled Anaheim and had orchestrated a stadium deal heavily in favor of Moreno. The city canceled the deal in May.
“The rank and file of OCCORD didn’t understand” the severity of the situation, says Voice of OC publisher Santana. “Ultimately, by standing up to the thuggish approach to the stadium deal, Ada was correct.”
“OCCORD was 15 years of my life,” Briceño says. “I think that my work in OCCORD speaks for itself, and so I don’t need validation, you know? But I wonder what could have happened and what would have happened.”
Before Briceño, community activists clashed with Democratic leaders over how strident liberal politics could become in moderate O.C. Yet by the time she left OCCORD, Briceño was already the chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. She explains that she had never felt “much of a connection” with local politics, but Trump’s election inspired her to get further involved.
Her biggest headaches as chair have been intraparty battles. In 2020, just before the national election, DPOC vice chair Jeff LeTourneau praised Ho Chi Minh—political kryptonite in Orange County, which has the largest Vietnamese population in the world outside of Vietnam. Briceño quickly held a press conference along with other elected officials to denounce LeTourneau, which angered progressive Democrats who had long supported him. Meanwhile, the moderate wing grew angry at Briceño for endorsing a progressive candidate, Buena Park mayor Sunny Park, to take on Orange County Board of Supervisors chair Doug Chafee, another Democrat.
“I don’t know if it’s my values changing [or] my experience,” Briceño replies when I ask about her critics. She brings up a progressive candidate who sought the party’s endorsement during this year’s primaries in his run against Representative Lou Correa, a moderate. “When I talked to him, he said, ‘I’m an immigrant rights activist. I’m a labor activist.’ What? I never have seen him in my life.”
He didn’t get the party’s endorsement.
O.C. THE BELLWETHER
My two hours with Briceño are almost up. The DPOC offices hum with more volunteers. Briceño’s phone keeps buzzing. There are elections to win, canvassing to do, lawn signs to distribute. I’m reminded that while all politics is local—so local, in my case, that some of Briceño’s opponents are my friends who’ll text me their disappointment after reading this profile—what happens here can influence the national conversation, this fall’s midterm elections, and even the 2024 presidential race. For Briceño and O.C., the stakes are both small and large.
I ask her a final question, one that is more like the challenge Briceño offered her fellow Democrats at the Fountain Valley synagogue. ¿Se puede? Can it be done?
I expect her to respond with a pro forma “Sí se puede,” but she doesn’t.
Instead, Briceño answers without hesitation. “Claro que sí.”•