Mal de Mayor — Is the Whole Santa Ana City Council Sick of Miguel Pulido?


A token challenge to the Mayor-for-Life just got real. What's going on?

Sometimes, one reports. Sometimes, one recognizes that others probably have better information — and so one inquires. Today, I’m inquiring. I look forward to your collective insights (which I hope will be worth the cost of the inevitable rumors and innuendos and attacks.)

Apparently, something really big is going on in Santa Ana politics.  Maybe some of you can help the rest of us understand it!

For those of you just tuning in, Miguel Pulido was first elected Mayor of the city in 1994, becoming the City’s first Latino Mayor.  He remains only the second person to hold the office since the position became elected.  (Three-termer Dan Young was first.)

Since 1994, his tenure has generated a trivia question: “what do Ann Avery Andres, Leah Dupont, Ted Moreno, Vital D’Caprio, Stanley Fiala, Thomas A. Gordon, Michele Martinez, and Al Amezcua have in common with Nobody?”  The answer is that they’re the top runners-up in the nine elections Pulido has faced since then; he ran unopposed in 2002, just before Fiala’s first race.  Of these, only the first challenger was close, losing by a little under 1500 votes out of 39,000 spread across eight candidates.  Pulido beat the others by margins of about 2:1, 2.4:1, 4.2:1, 4.1:1 (that’s Fiala), 2.8:1, 1.9:1, and 1.8:1.  (People haven’t called him Mayor-for-Life for nothing.)

Pulido’s tenure has been marked by accusations of heavy-handedness and pay-for-play, though I have no personal knowledge of the latter (and my experience in OC politics suggests that it could as easily be true or made up.  Some of you will no doubt have more informed opinions on that.  But as late as a few weeks ago, it not only didn’t seem like he was in serious danger — it seemed like he might well again run either unopposed or with token opposition.

When David Benavides entered the race, people thought that it was interesting — not all that surprising since he’s not up for re-election and has a free pass — but was probably more a matter of setting himself up for 2014 (or whenever Pulido’s term would expire) rather than intending to win this year.  When Sal Tinajero entered the race, I and most others who expressed an opinion thought that it might be a way of one potential rival getting a head-start over the other for the honor of succeeding Pulido when he’s gone — sort of the crabs in the boiling pot pulling back down the one who’s trying to climb out.  Of the other candidates, only Minutemen personality Lupe Moreno seems to have much fame, but she’s not a threat to take many votes.

Benavides’s entry itself meant that Claudia Alvarez would have no point getting into the race  even if she had been so disposed, since he rather than her would have Council support.  But Tinajero’s entry seemed in any event to have rendered the whole question moot.  That changed, though, when Tinajero dropped out — and endorsed Benavides.

Even then, it has seemed to me that Benavides would have to be a significant underdog — but a story in today’s Voice of OC, entitled “Pulido Opponents Sowing Seeds for a ‘Santa Ana Spring’” suggests that there’s a lot of palace intrigue going on.  Go read the whole thing — don’t get Norberto and Adam pissed off at me for stealing any of their thunder — but I’ll summarize the tastiest bits.

[T]he council majority is declaring that the alignment [of City Council members behind Benavides] is part of a revolution that would not only oust Pulido — long considered the central power broker at City Hall — but also return control of city government back to the residents.

Tinajero has gone so far as to declare that a “Santa Ana Spring” is blooming, a reference to the “Arab Spring” uprisings in recent years that toppled dictators in such nations as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

That’s rather strong language that the crack debate coach is unlikely to use thoughtlessly.  And he’s not alone:

Breaking down the invisible walls that separate the city bureaucracy from residents, the majority argues, requires diluting Pulido’s influence or unseating him altogether.

Besides challenging him directly in a mayoral contest, the council majority voted earlier this month submit to voters in November a term limit for mayor. The move sent a strong signal to staff that the mayor does not control the council, Martinez says.

That’s Martinez as in recent AD-69 candidate Michele, who appears to be in on the deal.  (Pulido endorsed Martinez in that race; Tinajero supported Julio Perez.)  If the Benavides-Tinajero bloc claims to have a majority next year, when both Carlos Bustamante and Claudia Alvarez will have been replaced, then the fourth candidate who will remain on the Council, Vincent Sarmiento, must with them as well.  The Voice of OC says that they are also endorsing Eric Alderete and Roman Reyna for the open seats — and will be working with Santa Ana Unified School Board and Rancho Santiago Community College District Board candidates to share costs for a common campaign.

It’s this last part that really raises my eyebrows.  Of whom could they be speaking?  Rob Richardson and Jose Hernandez are running for re-election to the Santa Ana Unified School Board, which Reyna is departing for his Council run; among the other candidates are Valerie Amezcua, Myrian Tinajero — now there’s a couple of familiar last names — attempted 2010 Loretta Sanchez campaign vote-sipohn Ceci Iglesias, and perennial candidate Arturo Pedroza.  The Rancho Board is if anything even more prominent — not only moderate Labor figure John Hanna, but now Jose Solorio, and Claudia Alvarez running against two incumbents — Mark McLoughlin and David Chapel.

Depending on who if anyone in this previous paragraph may be cooperating, this is starting to look like the sort of “revolt of the Barons” that led to signing the Magna Carta — except that here, the interest is in deposing the ruler.  Martinez makes no bones about the plan in the article: they want to have a unified six-person Council majority against Pulido if he remains — and they don’t want him to remain.  She pointedly suggests that potential donors, of whom Pulido generally has plenty, decide whether they want to put their money on Pulido, who would face a hostile council, or Benavides, who (especially if Reyna and Aldarete run), would be enjoy a cooperative one.

I’ve had various people offer to give me good odds earlier this year that Pulido was a lock for re-election.  I now wish that I had placed those bets.  If it’s true that all of this has been going on under Pulido’s nose and has led to an apparently tight bond among the Council majority, this is not only the biggest challenge Pulido has faced since his first race — but it’s a credible threat to topple him.  As with most palace coups, it’s pretty remarkable.

The prospect that this perhaps only became possible when both Julio Perez and Michele Martinez lost to Jose (the Republican who is not the Dr.) Moreno in the AD-69 runoff, eliminating a potentially expensive race and freeing up financial resources to be used in other causes, will have to wait for another day.  (For now, let’s just say Pulido may join me in wishing that he had placed some different bets on Santa Ana polics this year!)  What coalitions, if any, may emerge of this race is as yet unclear, but that’s another big part of the story.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)