At the end of Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido’s state of the city address, he strummed a guitar with his father and son, performing a Spanish ballad called “La Llorona,” or weeping woman; a song of love and pain the mayor said reminds him of the past.
Coincidentally or not, the past is what Pulido sought to distance the city from during his Wednesday morning speech -- a Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce event held at the Bowers Museum -- to a crowd of power brokers and political insiders.
The city’s once high crime rate, its formerly dead and perilous downtown, and its lack of opportunity for quality education and high-profile development are where the city was, not where it is now or where it’s going, Pulido emphasized.
“We believe in things. We are tenacious. We don’t give up,” Pulido said. “And if God blesses you, it will work.”
Perhaps the most notable dignitary in attendance was District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who led the flag-salute and sat right next to the mayor during breakfast.
Rackauckas is leading a corruption investigation into Pulido’s business dealings, including a property swap with a city contractor that ethics experts say could be a $200,000 bribe.
Those who have attended past state of the city events said Rackauckas had not previously sat at the mayor’s table.
DA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder downplayed Rackauckas’ attendance, saying that the county’s top prosecutor didn’t know beforehand he would be sitting with Pulido.
“The district attorney was invited to attend the state of the city in his role as the district attorney. When he arrived, he was assigned to Mr. Pulido’s table, along with other dignitaries,” Schroeder said. “As to any inquiries that maybe conducted by the professional law enforcement officers and prosecutors of this office, if they find any law violation, we will handle that case accordingly.”
On the city budget, Pulido noted that the city’s reserves had dwindled to $3 million after the recession hit and are now up to $30 million. Meanwhile, city leaders are looking at creative ways to keep cost down, like keeping artificial turf on the center medians of city streets, he said.
“We had reserves that were dwindling and dwindling, and we were cutting and cutting,” Pulido said. “But we made it.”
In addition to the budget, there are clear signs that the city’s economy has also bounced back, the mayor said, pointing to the 27,000 business licenses at City Hall, a figure he called “an all time high.” Car sales at the Santa Ana Auto Mall is up 74 percent, he said.
Also, unemployment is half what it was four years ago, Pulido said.
Crime, which peaked in the 80s and 90s but has since fallen dramatically, took a major dip because the city made investments that paid off, Pulido said. He pointed to the construction of a new police facility in the 90s and the organization of a city neighborhoods group called the Communication Linkage Forum, or Com-Link.
However, the police facility, which also houses the city jail, has since become a financial albatross on the budget and a political quagmire for city leaders. With crime levels low, the jail houses no city criminals, and is instead used primarily for federal detainees, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Activists have demanded an end to housing ICE detainees in a city of nearly 80 percent Latinos. Meanwhile, the facility is running a multi-million dollar deficit.
The downtown has been revitalized – in the past it was difficult to get anyone to go downtown at night -- thanks to a city investment in the eclectic area known as the Artists Village, Pulido said. It has become a vibrant restaurant scene and home of a burgeoning food renaissance.
The Orange County High School of the Arts will soon be undergoing a large expansion, Pulido said. He noted that the school was at first reluctant to move from its previous home in Los Alamitos.
Pulido also noted that with Lyon Communities’ luxury apartments project The Marke recently constructed on MacArthur Blvd., the city can boast cutting edge development.
And the city’s streetcar, a light-rail system that will connect the downtown with the city’s train station, has also been moving ahead, Pulido said, noting that the city recently released an environmental impact report for the project.
While the city has made strides in the 20 years since Pulido was first elected mayor, challenges remain.
According to a 2012 report by a team of public and private social health consultants, Santa Ana ranks lowest or nearly at the bottom among Orange County cities in a host of economic, community and physical health indicators, including poverty among children, violent crime, unemployment, crowded living conditions and park availability.
And the "Santa Ana Spring" -- a council majority that revolted against the mayor's power over the city bureaucracy and left Pulido politically isolated -- means his ability to wield influence has waned.
Still, all indicators that the city with a once gloomy past can have a bright future, Pulido asserted.
“Santa Ana can continue to be a place where dreamers dream, and dreams come true,” Pulido said.