In what has become an election year rarity, incumbent Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido showed up Wednesday evening to debate Councilman David Benavides and others vying to end his nearly 20-year reign in office.

Benavides didn’t waste time painting the mayor as a distant and inaccessible City Hall gatekeeper who has created an unhealthy business climate.

“Are you OK with the status quo? Has our city reached its full potential?” Benavides asked in his opening remarks. “I believe there’s so much more that we can do. … What’s missing is leadership.”

Pulido responded by pointing to his resume of accomplishments, noting that he had brought the Discovery Science Center to the city and far from being anti-business, he brought in a new auto dealership. Crime has gone down dramatically during his tenure, he said, and the downtown has blossomed.

“I see a city that’s come a long way from where we were,” Pulido said. “I see so much more here, so much progress and so much interest. There are more people that love Santa Ana, and that’s a good thing.”

The debate, held by a neighborhoods group called Connect-to-Council and moderated by the League of Women Voters, was the first time in recent memory that Pulido has debated a challenger in a public forum, suggesting that Pulido sees Benavides as a significant threat.

In 2010, Pulido skipped a debate event with then candidate Alfredo Amezcua, angering the city merchants group that held the event.

Other mayoral candidates at the forum included frequent council critic George Collins; Lupe Moreno, a member of the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group; and retail manager Miguel Briseno. Candidate Roy Alvarado did not attend.

Before the mayoral debate, candidates for Santa Ana City Council gathered in what was more a forum than a debate, during which they answered questions but didn’t directly challenge each other.

When the mayoral candidates were asked how they would entice business to the city and encourage greater patronage of local businesses, Benavides said he would focus on branding the city as a live, work and play urban center.

Pulido said the city is already on the right path, having brought the Penske Auto dealership to the city and bringing “millions and millions of dollars” to the community. Sales tax revenue is up 6 percent in some areas, he said.

Benavides shot back, saying that while Pulido has achieved considerable accomplishments like the auto mall, he has neglected local businesses.

“When I declared my candidacy, I can’t tell you how many businesses reached out to me and said, ‘Finally, we have someone we can access,’ ” Benavides said.

Collins touted his experience as a media expert, saying he could lend his marketing skills to the city’s business community. He and Moreno added that the city’s steep business tax discourages local businesses.

Briseno brought up the city’s gang problem, saying he will confront gang members. “I am not afraid of talking to them directly,” he said.

When asked about the city’s mounting pension obligations, Pulido and Benavides gave similar answers.

Pulido said that he would work with the city’s labor groups to have them contribute a greater share toward retirement but that ultimately Gov. Jerry Brown and the state would have to better manage the state’s pension fund. “We’re taking care of business. We’re doing well here,” Pulido said.

Benavides said Brown’s two-tier pension plan, which will require new hires to retire later and contribute a greater share, will help tackle the problem.

Moreno said, “We should not be under the thumb of unions and special interests.”

Pulido continued to focus on his list of accomplishments throughout the debate but also said that as mayor he would create a streetcar transit system that would add connectivity to the city, thereby bringing in new clientele and enhancing business. It’s part of an economic development solution to replace the city’s redevelopment agency, a vital tool that the state took from cities across California, he said.

Collins said such grand public projects — which would rely heavily on revenue from Measure M2, a countywide half-cent sales tax — is what led cities like Stockton into bankruptcy. He argued that both Benavides and Pulido have had their chance but failed to deliver.

“Benavides has been on the council for six years, Pulido for 20, so why hasn’t that been done?” Collins said, referring to the transit system and renewed focus on local business.

“There’s an individual who holds us back,” Benavides replied, saying that Pulido’s far-reaching but narrow-minded authority has blocked new ideas and projects. The council majority has accused Pulido of ignoring their will and exercising undue influence over the city bureaucracy.

Benavides pointed out that Pulido ran for office as a champion of the little guy, a way to save his family’s modest auto-care shop. But, Benavides said, “things have changed.”

“When was the last time the mayor attended any of those neighborhood associations?” Benavides asked.

Pulido never rebutted the repeated notion that he was aloof and unreachable. But, he argued, the city has improved during his tenure. “I see a city that’s been on the right track for a long time,” he said.

To which Benavides countered, “A lot of us out there feel we’ve been on our own.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.