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A Sort of a Coup
The Santa Ana Mayoral race is heating up. Since his first election to the position in 1994, Miguel Pulido has never faced a challenge like this. That’s no insult to Michelle Martinez, Al Amezcua, and his other challengers of past years; what has changed in not the caliber of the opposition so much as the tenor of the city’s political environment.
Santa Ana has experienced a quiet revolution in its political climate, where the six people who would most likely comprise the rest of the City Council if Pulido retains his seat — Martinez, Pulido’s primary opponent Santa Ana Councilmember David Benavides, Councilmembers Sal Tinajero and Vince Sarmiento, and likely newcomers Roman Reyna and Eric Alderete — are united in opposition to him and presumably prepared to undermine (if not gut) his Mayoral powers even if he wins. Now, it’s just a question of whether Santa Ana voters will proceed to elect with a spastic city government — in which its head flops this way and that, as if at war with its body — or a united and functioning one.
I can’t say that no one saw this coming, because apparently someone (Tinajero? Sarmiento? Benavides himself?) did, but from the vantage point of many observers it seemed to come out of the blue. Its first public manifestation was when Benavides announced his candidacy — which seemed like taking the role of a sacrificial lamb, because you just knew that Pulido was going to arrange for something to come along and screw it up. And, sure enough, within a day or two Sal Tinajero announced that he was leaning towards running for Mayor as well. Ah, the classics — someone challenges you, so arrange for another person to challenge you and split the opposition vote! Pulido’s seat was going to be safe again, many of us figured.
And then … Tinajero dropped out! And he endorsed Benavides. And the announcement came that all but Pulido and the outgoing members of the City Council — disgraced Carlos Bustamente and Guest-Who-Would-Not-Leave Claudia Alvarez — were behind the insurgent cause, as were Reyna and Alderete. Around this time, a proposal for Council term limits was changed into one imposing term limits on the Mayor, meaning that Pulido’s time was numbered anyway — although what was passed could of course later be un-passed….)
By the time of the Democratic Party Central Committee endorsement meeting — where the charming Ms. Alvarez appeared and did a perfect swan dive into an empty pool, badly losing the endorsement to incumbent Mark McLouglin — Pulido did not even show up to seek the endorsement that would have been automatic for him in the past. (I think that he filled out his questionnaire, but I’m not even sure if he paid his fee to the party to be considered — anyone know?) The option of No Endorsement still remained, but Benavides won the endorsement going away. Pulido has apparently continued to tout the endorsement of Democratic Party of Orange County Chair Frank Barbaro since then, implying party support, but as Barbaro is bound by party rules not to endorse anyone against a party-endorsed Democrat — the same rule that would prevent me from endorsing anyone in Anaheim’s City Council race against Jordan Brandman, if I were so disposed — he agreed at the next meeting to demand that Pulido stop using his name.
[Disclaimer: I abstained in the vote at that first meeting, because I knew that I might be writing about that race, but as the analysis below will show I have decided to support him — as well as the rest of the “reform slate” that he heads. I’m going to try to keep this piece reasonably calm and objective, though, and not go the Full Pedroza here.]
What’s going on here? Several things. Much of it is the continued widening of a rift than was exposed during the 69th Assembly District primary, where decidedly non-Latino County Recorder Tom Daly not only won the Democratic nomination but Republican Joe Moreno — all together now: “Not Dr. Jose Moreno from the Anaheim School Board!” — took second place over reform candidate Julio Perez. (Moreno has since been forced to drop out of the race due to an expansive interpretation of the Hatch Act. I think that Vern still endorses him on the grounds that having a new special election, as I believe would happen if Moreno were elected, would be preferable to seating Daly.) So, with absentee ballots coming out at the beginning of next week, let’s take a look.
Overplaying the Hand
If you want it in one sentence: the Santa Ana-centered Democratic Party establishment overplayed its hand. Daly’s now running unopposed — and will presumably at least eke out a victory over the political equivalent of a deceased opponent. Jose Solorio can’t be made to pay the price for it. Neither can Barbaro. Alvarez might, but her prospective Rancho Santiago Community College seat — which would allow her to sit next to and absorb evilness from Solorio — is relatively small potatoes. Lou Correa wisely stayed out of the fight; Loretta Sanchez, while generally trying to be a peace-maker, ultimately lined up on the reform side. No, the ripe target sitting there for pissed-off reformers who had finally had enough was Pulido — and at some point everyone looked around at one another and realized “we can do this!” And so they have.
I don’t think that it’s possible to overemphasize the ill-will that was generated by the Tom Daly team’s successfully shutting out not only Julio Perez, but any Latino Democrat, from the ability to compete in the general election to represent the 69th Assembly District seat — the district that (stop me if you’ve heard this before) is the most Latino in the state — next year. Fighting and losing would have been one thing. But being shut out of the competition because of a combination of treachery and a million dollars in independent expenditures from Republican groups — that was enough to make people in the County Labor movement snap. (OC Labor Federation head Tefere Gebre did just that, notoriously, in an Election-night interview. Establishment Democratic Party leaders laughed at him for that. Sorry, but I can’t resist this: Who’s laughing now?)
It took a bizarre combination of factors in addition to the above to keep Perez out of the runoff — a Republican candidate who shared the name of a well-known and well-liked Democrat, the quixotic entry of OJ’s own Paco Barragan into the race (whose meager vote total was still twice the margin by which Moreno edged out Perez) — but the main factor beside the money was this: the recruitment of Michelle Martinez into the race. That’s the idea, remember — split the opposition vote. Solorio — apparently after first hitting up Tinajero, Sarmiento, Benavides, and who knows who else — charmed Martinez into the race with promises of support (most of which never materialized.) The idea was that this would help Martinez’s future political career. Solorio — who hated Perez for being a brazen reformer — did the minimum to help her campaign, also endorsing Daly for the seat and being placed prominently and interviewed loudly at Daly’s victory night party. The worst of all possible worlds for Martinez — that she would have been used by our resident Iago to destroy the chances of AD-69 to be represented by someone who was Latino not only in their face but in their corazon — came to pass, and the party establishment more or less abandoned her once she had fulfilled her role as a guided missile aimed to sink Perez. (Fate spared her the humiliation of making the runoff and seeing which of her supporters, like Solorio, just really couldn’t support her against Daly — so sorry!)
(As an aside: Daly is in many ways the least culpable figure here. Solorio, whose wife works in Daly’s office, by many accounts is the one who recruited Daly into the race, no doubt with assurances that Latinos won’t really mind not having a Latino representative in AD-69 — and of course he’d know, having a Latino name and mustache! — and even if they did make a stink about it initially they’d certainly get used to it. The tragedy is that there was a very good seat waiting for Daly — the far more Anglo and conservative SD-34, which Lou Correa vacates in two years. The problem, of course, is that Solorio has already sprayed that territory for himself in a (doomed) attempt to keep other Democrats away. Daly — a generally mild guy with wonderful parents — has earned so much enmity this year for taking away Latino self-representation that it’s not impossible to imagine him eventually having the same reaction to being used as Martinez has — and could run for “Solorio’s seat” himself. If I were a playwright, that’s how I’d plot it, anyway.)
About Michelle Martinez’s reaction: Martinez is no dummy — and she apparently didn’t like being used and discarded by the scheming Men Who Run Things. I don’t know how this anti-Pulido coalition came together, but my intuition is that Martinez — either by instigation or mere somewhat unexpected acquiescence (“unexpected” because she’d been seen as a Pulido ally for much of the past year) — played a very significant role in it. (Maybe Solorio just doesn’t quite grasp the saying about “a woman scorned.”)
Organized Labor is a prime driver of events. At this, a time of Labor’s greatest need due to the cynical and vicious Prop 32, it is highly aware that the same people who funded the anti-Perez campaign are now spending gobs of their money trying to knock off other anti-Labor candidates. (Notably and nearby, the pro-Daly funders are now backing the odious Jeff Miller against pro-Labor candidate Robert Roth in Riverside’s SD-31 (which ought to be a Democratic district, stretching from Corona to Moreno Valley and southward.) Labor has generally gone along with the pro-business Democratic establishment in the past. Not this year — and, from the looks of things, not only not this year.
But that’s just the personal and the interest group politics of the matter. There is one other thing to consider: the merits.
Transparent Government — Like It or Not
No one seems to know what is going on with the governance of Santa Ana. No one seems to even know whether it is possible to know what is going on with the governance of Santa Ana. It’s not transparent, even to the City Council — in fact, opaque might be an understatement. Here’s some of what the LA Times had to say yesterday in a piece on what it calls the “no-nonsense immigrant from Mexico City” entitled “More voices join call for ouster of Santa Ana’s ‘invisible mayor’“:
For the first time, Santa Ana leaders, activists and political insiders are actively urging voters to make a change in November and replace the man who some have come to view as the “invisible mayor.”
“I think it’s the start of an awakening within the city,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero, who along with two council colleagues are backing Councilman David Benavides.
“In order to make good decisions for a city you need to have a pulse and understand what the needs and the issues are in the community, both for the residents and businesses,” said Benavides, who believes City Hall has become largely inaccessible to residents in the immigrant community under Pulido’s watch.
Pulido, he said, has been “absent from our community for far too long.”
When I started attending “Drinking Liberally” gatherings for a few months in Santa Ana in early 2007, someone in the group there (the occasional or frequent members of which then included the likes Mike Lawson, Claudio Gallegos, Melahat Rafiei, Paul Lucas, Ed Velasquez, and Michelle Martinez — along with Art Pedroza usually not quite there at the same table but hovering nearby and occasionally visiting to proclaim his beneficent political independence) once explained to me, newly returned to the area, how Santa Ana politics works. I don’t recall exactly who said it (it might have been then-reformer Martinez, who at the time was effusive and told a good story) or how it was worded, but as I recall it was to the effect that no one really knew what was going on with the government and the only thing that seemed to be clear was that somehow Pulido was getting rich off of it.
I had wondered aloud how this worked. Someone looked at me, with the succint and quiet gravity of the man in The Graduate who tells Dustin Hoffman that the business to get into in those late-60s days was “Plastics,” and said: “consulting.” The idea was: if you wanted to get something done in Santa Ana, you would be very smart to hire Pulido’s firm, or claque, or self — it was never made clear to me and I didn’t pursue it — to make it happen. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t happen.
Now, I can’t say that that’s true. One thing I’ve learned in Orange County politics is that, compared to most other places, we seem to be an extraordinarily gossipy bunch — and I’m presenting this as what seems to be a prevalent perception. (Hey, if Pulido didn’t know that people think this about him, this gives him a chance to open up his personal finances for the past 18 years and set the record straight, if he wants to! I’m doing him a service!) True or not — and I don’t know if the famed muffler shop from which his political career was launched is just that profitable — this is a corrosive perception for any city government. If people think that the system is dirty, then they will tend to act accordingly — and if it wasn’t dirty before it will generally end up that way.
So shall I just lay things on the line here? The real question underlying that “you need to understand what’s going on” and “largely inaccessible” and “absent from our community for far too long” quotes — and I don’t know that David Benavides would say this out loud or at all, but I suspect that what I’m about to say wouldn’t surprise him — is this:
Is Miguel Pulido using his power as Mayor to take advantage of opportunities to benefit himself personally rather than to maximize the benefit to the people of Santa Ana?
Put bluntly: if the way to get something built or contracted or staffed or fixed in Santa Ana is not to provide the best product or service or complaint, but instead to win the approval of an autocratic Mayor — possibly in ways that leave him better off both politically and otherwise — then the City is not being well-served.
I don’t know if that’s happening. That doesn’t bother me that much. What bothers me is that people sitting on the freaking City Council — like Tinajero, Martinez, and Benavides — apparently don’t know if it’s happening. (Or, maybe, they know and don’t want to pay the political price of saying so.)
The root problem is not so much that “[m]ost people either get handed off to somebody else or neglected or ignored or denied, until they finally just move along,” as local activist Deb McEwen is quoted as telling the Times. Blowing people off like that is a symptom of the problem. The problem is that it makes perfect sense for Pulido to do that — because individual people complaining to the Mayor is not relevant to determining what happens. Something else is. And, the whispers maintain, that “something” has made Pulido wealthy.
Our bitter competitor Dan C. of The Liberal OC seems to think he has a lead on things:
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido held his first fundraiser of the 2012 election season tonight in Santa Ana at a catered event at First American Corp off Main Street. And the event attracted the likes of Lucy Dunn of OCBC, Frank Barbaro of the DPOC, State Rep. Jose Solorio, Broadcom executive Henry Nicholas, Rancho Santiago Trustee Dave Chapel, and Karina Onofre, the Republican candidate for Santa Ana City Council in Ward 5.
I’m sorry to see Barbaro, Chair of the Democratic Party that has endorsed Pulido’s rival, in attendance after having promised to disassociate himself from the Pulido campaign — I have a feeling that I’d get my butt raked over the coals for doing far less on behalf of, say, John Leos or Duane Roberts in the Anaheim City Council race — but Frank is a self-described “political realist” and that’s not the point of the story. This list includes people who want to “get things done” in Santa Ana and they clearly think that Pulido is the guy who can help them “get things done.” Now, how does that work exactly? And, by “exactly,” I mean exactly.
Why should Benavides be elected Mayor instead of Pulido? It’s not that Pulido has necessarily done anything wrong as Mayor. It’s that we are much further away from knowing how things really get done in the City — and why — than we ought to be. I probably have lots of policy differences with Benavides — and while he seems like a decent and forthright guy, who knows what 18 years in the City’s Executive office (now thankfully impossible — for now) might do to him. But his major advantage right now is that, along with being inoffensive to most people, he is not Miguel Pulido. He’s the guy who can put a tent over City Hall and fumigate it, and have people go through all of the files — which had better remain in the office once Pulido’s gone! — and figure out just what has happened in the City for the past 18 years — and how it happened.
Benavides will not be the titanic power that Pulido has been — Tinajero, Martinez, and Sarmiento all have their own ambitions and power bases within the Council and others (including Solorio and Alvarez) will from off the Council as well. He’s not going to have an iron grip over the city. But you don’t need an iron grip to open the blinds and let in the sunlight.
Santa Ana voters have not gotten transparency from Miguel Pulido — so now they’ll just have to impose it on him. They probably don’t care anymore whether he’s “no nonsense.” They should want to make sure he’s “no shenanigans.”