ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — In the months of negotiations, arguments and rewrites of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, Rhonda Bolton read and reread large swaths of the document. It was perhaps the most notable bill to pass since the Voting Rights Act passed in the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965.
A tiny bit of that bill came from Bolton while she worked at the law firm Steptoe and Johnson.
Since then, her career has taken her away from public policy and into the corporate world and nonprofits where she has championed civil rights causes.
Now she's closing in on her first month as a Huntington Beach City Council member and has made city history as the first Black councilwoman to serve.
Her predecessor, Tito Ortiz, resigned with three years left on his term. The city council launched a search for his replacement, leading to Bolton, who had already served on the human relations task force with councilmember Natalie Moser.
Her first city council meeting introduced her to a range of attendees, some who welcomed her and others who angrily decried her appointment. Bolton, who has lived in the city for nearly a decade, said she understands people are disappointed by how Ortiz's time on the council ended.
"People are engaged in the process, and they feel like they have a stake," Bolton said.
On a platform filled mostly with national issues, Ortiz had made a name for himself and won the most votes — 37,000 — in city elections history. Fellow council members criticized him for not focussing enough on local topics.
During the search, members of the city council prioritized someone who was ready to go.
After some encouragement to apply, Bolton felt she could help. She had chosen not to run in the November election, saying it was the right time — for her or her family — to get involved.
Bolton's national police experience in Washington, D.C., preceded her local experience with the city. Before she attended William and Mary Law school, she worked for a former U.S. Rep. from Virginia Rick Boucher.
Then she attended law school and joined D.C.'s lobbying economy. When she finally moved to California, she took a job with KIA's American headquarters. She eventually took on responsibilities within the company, bolstering best practices policy on diversity and equity.
Now she finds herself in local politics and one of the most nationally visible cities in southern California.
In recent years, politics in Orange County have shifted; once a deep red stronghold, districts that were once guaranteed for the GOP have now switched over to Democrats or remain competitive. The November election appeared to be among the most divisive, pitting Donald Trump, who lost in the state by more than five million votes, and Joe Biden, who won decisively. But the county, which also voted for Biden, also chose to kick out two congressional Democrats.
Huntington Beach remains one of the more GOP-friendly cities in the county and has been a font of anti-mask sentiment.
At Bolton's first city council meeting on Aug. 3, people went to the microphone to scold the city council or congratulate the members on a fine choice.
Councilmember Dan Kalmick said roughly 190 people applied, providing what he called a way to enhance civic engagement. Now, he said, the city has a list of interested people they can tap for future committee assignments.
But in his conversation with Bolton, he said all councilmembers were able to interview whomever they wanted — she stood out.
He was looking for someone with previous government experience capable of immediately stepping into dense policy subjects like homelessness, the No. 1 issue councilmembers hear about from constituents.
"She's a trained lawyer. She's worked in Washington, which makes Huntington Beach look like small ball," he said. "She's a mom. She's a business owner."
Bolton is ready to get to work. Among her first tasks is to weather criticisms of a group that voted for her predecessor. Kalmick said it's only a vocal minority who isn't happy.
Bolton described herself as someone who doesn't jump to conclusions and won't form immediate opinions saying, "I'm not a knee-jerk anything."
High on the list of issues the council is working on is homelessness. Along with most cities in Orange County, Huntington Beach has put together programs to help curb the strain of homelessness and other emergency calls on police and other first responders. The topic is often heated at city council meetings, sometimes drawing large audiences to air their feelings.
"If I'm looking at a situation where a vulnerable person is being harmed, I'm going to find a way to help them," Bolton said.
Whether she runs for reelection is a decision to be made later. For now, she wants to start conversations.
"There needs to be an ability for people to have conversations. If they're shouting at you and you're shouting at them, then nothing is going to get done," she said.