Yorba Linda Mayor Tara Campbell believes local government can offer an uplifting alternative to the current divisive nature of national politics.
Photo: Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG

Alumna is California’s youngest ever female mayor

Tara Campbell was elected mayor of her hometown, Yorba Linda, California, at the age of 25, just two years after graduating with a dual degree in broadcast and digital journalism and political science.

Alumna Tara Campbell often finds herself compared with Leslie Knope, the enthusiastic fictional small-town politician played by Amy Poehler on the popular sitcom Parks and Recreation.

Campbell, who was elected mayor of Yorba Linda, California, in December 2018, is the youngest female mayor in United States history of a town with a population of more than 30,000 — and the youngest ever female mayor of a California town.

Like Knope, Campbell launched her career in government by serving in her local parks and recreation department.

“Before I was mayor, a lot of friends asked, ‘What’s city council?’” Campbell said. “And I would say, ‘Have you seen Parks and Rec? Yeah, Leslie Knope.’ And then they got it.”

Campbell says she’s just as passionate about local government and Yorba Linda as Knope is about the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana.

“And sure, I like waffles, too,” Campbell laughs, referencing Knope’s oft-avowed love for the sugary breakfast treat.

Change of career via C-SPAN

Campbell didn’t start out aiming for a career in local government. Instead, she wanted to become a sports journalist.

She was majoring in broadcast journalism when a desire to broaden her perspective and experience drove her to apply to intern at C-SPAN. Her bags were packed for Washington, D.C., when the internship fell through. Instead, Campbell ended up interning for the D.C.-based nonprofit No Labels, which combats partisan dysfunction in government.

Shortly after her internship ended in 2013, the government shut down over disagreements about national health-care coverage. Back home in Yorba Linda, she witnessed a number of recall elections for local officials and realized that same government gridlock could happen on a local level.

Rather than feeling dispirited, Campbell found the experience highly motivating.

“I realized if you want to see a change, you’ve got to be part of that change, and so I started getting involved,” she said.

Campbell added political science to her major, and in 2014, she was appointed to Yorba Linda’s Parks and Recreation Commission. Then, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from USC Annenberg and political science from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and an MPA in public administration from USC Price School of Public Policy the following year, she ran successfully for Yorba Linda City Council in 2016. She was 23.

Two years later, Campbell’s four colleagues on the council unanimously voted her mayor, a title she holds in conjunction with her job as communications director for County of Orange Supervisor Andrew Do.

Savvy use of technology

A Republican, Campbell emphasizes fiscal responsibility, public safety and communication and has spearheaded improvements including redesigning the city’s website and launching Yorba Linda on social media.

Campbell also created a citizen request tracker. “Say there’s a broken swing in the park, you can take a picture of it, upload it from your phone, and our public work staff will be out within the week to fix that,” she said. “It’s government efficiency at its finest.”

Another innovation she brought to the city is the ability to pay items like business licenses online — something she says has improved efficiency at City Hall tenfold.

This savvy use of technology is something important that young people can bring to the table, Campbell believes.

Puncturing stereotypes

The daughter of a realtor and a corrugated box salesman, Campbell relishes puncturing the stereotype that to be young and successful in politics it’s necessary to grow up in a political family.

“My family wasn’t political at all,” Campbell says. Indeed, rather than a family love for politics, it was her father’s frustration with government, often expressed by his “yelling at the TV when he’d see politicians on the news,” that inspired her.

“I always felt, this is sad that this is how we feel about our elected officials,” she said. “We’ve got to make a difference.”

This year, Campbell is doing just that by launching the Young Civic Leaders Academy, a six-week biannual program that gives Yorba Linda’s high school students the opportunity to learn about city government in a nonpartisan, positive way that also shows them how they can be involved and make a difference of their own.

Lamenting the current state of national politics, Campbell argues that local government can offer an uplifting alternative.

“People don’t have a positive feeling about national politics because it’s so divisive, but if you focus on your local government, you’d be surprised, you’re able to get things done and make a difference.”

The secret, Campbell says, is respect.

“We have a great relationship with our current council because although we don’t always agree, we do respect each other. That makes it possible to debate issues and move things forward.”