He is the first black councilor of a former “sunset town” in Orange County


Rodney “Blair” Stewart listened intently during a recent City Council meeting and took notes as residents described their concerns — park upgrades, traffic issues, city-sponsored downtown events.

Photographs of previous mayors – all white males until 1982 – hung on the walls around Stewart, who was elected Brea’s first black councilor last November.

Only 1.2% of the city’s 47,500 residents are black. A perfect fit for the Republican establishment, Stewart enjoys the support of influential insiders and calls for strong relationships with small businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.

But for an Orange County town that was once a “sunset town” and has recently seen heated debates about its Ku Klux Klan past, Stewart’s milestone is significant.

At some point during his four-year tenure, he could be named mayor by his peers, and his image would join those of his predecessors in the council chambers.

“We are moving towards an inclusive environment,” said Gabriel Dima-Smith, 31, a Brea resident and political adviser who is black. “This is definitely a symbol that can build confidence and inspire the city’s black youth that they can do great things here. How strong the symbol is depends on what he is doing on the podium.”

Brea City Council has yet to catch up with the diversity of the upper-middle-class suburb it represents. Three of Stewart’s fellow councilors are White and one is Latino, in a city that is 40% White, 30% Latino, and 25% Asian American.

Stewart, 51, a Torrance firefighter, downplayed his race during his campaign – ‘When I start talking about being the first black councilman in Brea, everything else I’ve done in my life takes a backseat “, he said.

But his victory shows how far his hometown has come. He placed second with 8,880 votes in a contest where the top three won one spot.

“I probably wouldn’t have won in the 1980s,” he said. “Fast forward to now to get second most votes as a political newcomer – a black newcomer – yes, there is something to be said about that.”

Brea’s demographics roughly mirror those of Orange County as a whole, which is 2.2% Black. Rhonda Bolton, a Democrat, became Huntington Beach’s first black councilor in 2021.

Racial taunting of black students, particularly at sporting events, continues to occur with alarming regularity in Orange County. At a basketball game at Laguna Hills High last year, someone in the stands called a black player “monkeys” and other insults.

The Stewart family moved to Brea in 1982 when Blair was 11 years old. That same year, Norma Arias Hicks became the first woman and first Latino to become mayor.

Stewart’s mother, an immigrant who was Japanese and Dutch, raised him and his two brothers alone and worked in local grocery stores.

Sometimes Stewart’s shoes had holes in them and classmates would tease him, he recalled.

He was a standout basketball player at Brea Olinda High School, but some white parents didn’t want their daughters to date him, he said. A few times strangers called him the N-word as he walked down the street.

“My mom always taught us that people are going to hate,” he said. “People will make racist remarks. You can let that define you or move on and focus on your goals.”

Stewart also found mentors in Brea, particularly among his high school coaches, including Chris Emeterio, now assistant city manager. Anonymous donors left trainers on his doorstep because they knew he couldn’t afford them.

“It was good that my mother brought us here,” he said. “Brea has been very good to me and my family.”

After graduating from high school, Stewart joined the Marines where he graduated from boot camp as a top recruit and served for eight years.

Stewart returned to Brea in the late 1990s and majored in criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton.

In 2000 he joined the Torrance Fire Department. There were a “handful” of other black firefighters, Stewart said, but they’ve since retired or been transferred, and he’s the only one now.

Racial bullying has been a problem in some fire departments, but Stewart said he hasn’t had any problems.

After living in Corona, Stewart once again returned to Brea in 2018 while the town was in the midst of a racial reckoning.

There was a fight going on over the renaming of Fanning Elementary. Educational pioneer William E. Fanning’s name had appeared on a list of members of the OC Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

School board meetings grew tense, and the Fanning family questioned the accuracy of the Klan list. A study by the Brea Museum and Historical Society questioned Fanning’s clan membership, emphasizing that there was no city ordinance codifying the “sunset” rules.

In early 2019, the school board voted to keep the Fanning name. But the following year, after nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd swept downtown Brea, the Fanning family asked the board to rename the school.

The Brea History Society has since joined the Unvarnished Project, which published a history of the town detailing its origins as an oil town that made agreements banning people of African, Chinese and Japanese descent from living there.

The Sundown town’s practices “helped sustain Brea’s predominantly white population,” the story said, citing one resident, Alice Thompson, who said in 1982 that there used to be no black people in the town and that the Ku Klux Klan was prevalent in the 1920s.

“An official ordinance was unnecessary as residents clearly understood that black people are not welcome overnight,” reads the “candid” story.

Stewart said he stayed out of the Fanning Elementary controversy. But he doesn’t gloss over the city’s past.

“If you have a ‘sunset city,’ you’re likely to have members of the KKK in leadership positions,” Stewart said. “I’m always one of those people who say history shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Stewart remembers watching the movie Back to the Future as a boy. In a scene set in the 1950s, a diner owner scoffed, “A colored mayor? That will be the day.”

Stewart’s mother explained to him what a mayor’s job is, saying, “You can be whatever you want if you make the right decisions and work hard.”

The lesson stuck in his mind, but he didn’t seriously consider running for office until recently as he neared retirement as a firefighter.

Serving on the council comes with a salary of about $680 per month, but is essentially a volunteer position.

“I definitely want to be a good custodian of what Brea has already accomplished, whether it’s financially or keeping Brea’s crime rate down,” he said. “I just want to invest my time in Brea and serve the city that I love and that has given me so many opportunities.”

After taking his oath of office in December, Stewart addressed the audience and his fellow councillors. He spoke about being raised in poverty by a single immigrant mother. He did not mention the racial milestone.

Brea Councilman Steve Vargas, a Republican, supported Stewart’s candidacy. Voters wanted a fresh face on a council dominated by longtime incumbents, Vargas said.

“Our city was incredibly diverse,” Vargas said. “We need to make some positive changes going forward. We chose someone who shows that people want a change.”

Stewart won’t be the only black officer in Brea — the district attorney, community development director and city clerk are all black.

“Is it a surprise that my brother was chosen? No,” said Stewart’s twin brother Ed. “But my brother must be relieved that we’ve come a long way. Brea too.”

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