Rodney “Blair” Stewart listened intently at a recent city council meeting, taking notes as residents described their concerns — park modernization, traffic issues, city-sponsored downtown events.
Photos of former mayors — all white men until 1982 — hung on the walls around Stewart, who was elected Brea’s first black councilman last November.
Only 1.2% of the city’s 47,500 residents are black. Stewart fits right in with the Republican establishment, enjoying the support of influential insiders and calling for strong relationships with small businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.
But for an Orange County town that was once a “sundown town” and has recently had heated debates about its Ku Klux Klan past, Stewart’s milestone is significant.
At some point during his four-year tenure, he could be nominated by his peers to the mayor’s seat and his picture would enter the council chamber along with those of his predecessors.
“We are moving into an environment of inclusion,” said Gabriel Dima-Smith, 31, a Brea resident and political consultant who is black. “This is definitely a symbol that can inspire confidence and inspire youth of color in the city that they can do great things here. How strong the symbol is depends on what he does on stage.”
The Brea city government has yet to catch up with the diversity of the upper-middle-class suburb that it represents. Three of Stewart’s congregation colleagues are white and one is Latino, in a city that is 40% White, 30% Latino, and 25% Asian American.
Stewart, 51, a firefighter in Torrance, downplayed his race during his campaign: “When I started talking about the first black councilor in Brea, everything else I’ve done in my life takes a back seat,” he said.
But his win shows just how far his hometown has come. He came in second with 8,880 votesin a competition where the top three took a place.
“I probably wouldn’t have won in the 1980s,” he said. “Fast forward to now, to get the second most votes as a political newcomer — a black newcomer — yes, there’s something to be said for that.”
Brea’s demographics roughly match that of Orange County as a whole, which is 2.2% black. Rhonda Bolton, a Democrat, became Huntington Beach’s first black council member in 2021.
Racist taunts against students of color, particularly at sporting events, continue to occur with alarming regularity in Orange County. At a basketball game last year at Laguna Hills High, someone in the stands called a black player a “monkey” and other insults.
The Stewart family moved to Brea in 1982, when Blair was 11. That same year, Norma Arias Hicks became the first woman and first Latino to serve as mayor.
Stewart’s mother, an immigrant who was Japanese and Dutch, raised him and his two brothers alone and worked in local supermarkets.
Sometimes there were holes in Stewart’s shoes and classmates teased 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 mother always taught us that people are going to hate,” he said. “People are going to make racist comments. You can let that define you or you can move on and focus on what your goals are.
In Brea, Stewart also found mentors, especially among his high school coaches, including Chris Emeterio, now the assistant city manager. Anonymous donors left sneakers on his doorstep, knowing he couldn’t afford them.
“It was a good thing my mom brought us here,” he said. “Brea has been very good to me and my family.”
After graduating from high school, Stewart joined the Marines, graduating from boot camp as a top recruit and serving eight years.
Stewart came back to Brea in the late 1990s and studied 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 transferred, and he’s the only one now.
Racial bullying has been a problem with some fire departments, but Stewart said he hasn’t had any issues.
After living in Corona, Stewart returned to Brea in 2018 as the city was in the midst of a racial reckoning.
There was a battle going on over the renaming of Fanning Elementary. Education pioneer William E. Fanning’s name had surfaced on a list of OC Ku Klux Klan members from the 1920s.
School board meetings grew increasingly tense, and the Fanning family challenged the veracity of the Klan list. A study by the Brea Museum and Historical Society questioned Fanning’s Klan membership, highlighting 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 against George Floyd’s murder had come to downtown Brea, the Fanning family asked the board to rename the school.
The Brea Historical Society has since joined the “Unvarnished” project, who published a history of the city, describes its origins as an oil town that passed covenants banning people of African, Chinese, and Japanese descent from living there.
The practices in the town of Sundown “helped maintain Brea’s predominantly white population,” the history said, citing a resident, Alice Thompson, who said in 1982 that there had never been any black people in the town and that the Ku Klux Klan was widespread in the 1920s.
“An official ordinance was not necessary, as the residents clearly understood that black people were not welcome overnight,” the “Unvarnished” history reads.
Stewart said he stayed out of the Fanning Elementary controversy. But he doesn’t obscure the city’s past.
“If you have a sundown town, you’re likely to have members of the KKK in leadership positions,” Stewart said. “I’m always one of those people who says don’t forget history.”
Stewart remembers watching the movie “Back to the Future” as a boy. In a scene set in the 1950s, a restaurateur mocked, “A colored mayor? That will be the day.”
Stewart’s mother explained to him the job of a mayor, saying, “You can be whatever you want to be, if you make the right decisions and work hard.”
The lesson stuck in the back of his mind, but he didn’t seriously consider running until recently, when he was nearing retirement as a firefighter.
Serving on the council comes with a stipend 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 fiscal or keeping Brea’s crime rate low,” he said. “I just want to be able to invest my time in Brea and serve the city that I love and that has given me so many opportunities.”
After taking the oath of office in December, Stewart addressed the hall and his fellow councilors. He spoke about growing up in poverty by an immigrant single mother. He did not mention the racial milestone.
Brea Councilman Steve Vargas, a Republican, supported Stewart’s candidacy. Voters wanted a new face on a board dominated by incumbents, Vargas said.
“Our city has been incredibly diverse,” Vargas said. “We need to make some positive changes in the future. We have chosen someone who shows that people want change.”
Stewart won’t be the only black official in Brea – the city attorney, community development director, and city clerk are all black.
‘Is it any surprise that my brother was chosen? No,’ Stewart’s twin brother, Ed, said. “But my brother must be relieved that we have come a long way. Brea too.”