With Election Day just over a week away, candidates for Santa Ana mayor took part in a forum dedicated to issues and concerns important to the city's burgeoning youth population, such as immigration, police-resident relations, bicycle lanes and park space.
The forum was hosted by the Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities coalition and Voice of OC and drew all five candidates and more than 150 youths to Latino Health Access’s downtown headquarters on Fourth Street. The coalition includes Latino Health Access, KidWorks, Center OC, The Grain Project and ThinkTogether.
The candidates included incumbent Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana Councilman David Benavides, anti-immigration activist Lupe Moreno, videographer George Collins and retail manager Miguel Angel Briseno.
Youth both moderated the forum and posed the questions to candidates.
The questioning began with candidates being asked for their positions on the city’s mayoral term limits measure, on Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 calling for temporary tax increases primarily to fund education, and the federal Dream Act, which would provide a path to permanent residency for immigrants who enter the country as minors.
Pulido and Briseno were the only candidates to oppose the term limits. The others argued forcefully for them, with Benavides arguing that a mayor with term limits would be forced to accomplish goals for the city before being termed out.
Answers to the other two position questions and to several other questions during the 90-minute forum broke down largely along party lines. Democrats Pulido, Benavides and Briseno said they favor both Proposition 30 and the Dream Act, while Republicans Moreno and Collins said they were against Proposition 30 and the Dream Act, Moreno emphatically so.
Pulido spoke for the majority of the panel when he said, "Prop. 30 [Brown’s tax increase] places you on a higher priority, and we need to do that.”
Beyond the position questions, youth asked candidates how they would conbat the city’s gang problem and improve police-community relations. They also asked whether it is appropriate to regulate the city’s food trucks to sell more healthful foods, how the candidates would handle fenced-off vacant lots and what the candidates would do to address the city's lack of bicycle lanes.
One aspect that set Friday's event apart from earlier forums was the youth moderators forbidding personal attacks during the forum. They were quick to jump in if the conversation veered in that direction.
This forced the candidates to focus almost entirely on their positions regarding the issues. What emerged were the many similarities between front-runners Pulido and Benavides regarding their visions for local government.
Both said that government must take an active role in the lives of city residents, whether it takes the form of job training, park building or obesity education.
They differed, however, in how they related to the youth. Benavides spoke of his experience working for KidWorks, one of the youth organizations that sponsored the event.
He was most effective when the questioning turned to issues such as police-resident relations or gang violence. He discussed his neighborhood work and said he would create a new office to help residents deal with police.
“We need to make sure everyone in our community … feels safe approaching law enforcement,” Benavides said.
Pulido, meanwhile, often spoke as a parent, mentioning at the outset that he has a teenage son. He lectured the youth about healthful eating and listed the things he has done for them, like building the city jail and developing parks. And he said if they are afraid of gangs, they should contact city officials.
“If you have any fear as you’re walking to school, please contact us,” he said.
Things became most heated among panelists when the issue turned to immigration. Lupe Moreno, an activist with the anti-illegal immigration group known as the Minuteman Project, said that if she doesn't win the mayoral race, "I will be doing everything I can to stop the Dream Act.”
Briseno, meanwhile, was at his most animated when condemning the Arizona law that he says “demonizes” people. Everyone in the U.S. is a descendant of immigrants. “Even the Native Americans came from somewhere else,” he said.
Collins provided most of the evening's awkward moments, the worst when in response to a question on healthful eating he said to the young women in the room, "Moments on the lips, decades on the hips."
And in an admonition against regulating food trucks, Collins asked the youth to “imagine being expelled from school because you got caught with a bag of potato chips."