Candidates for Santa Ana's city council and school district displayed disparate views on a range of issues -- including homelessness, policing and charter schools -- during an election forum Tuesday.
The forum, which was held at the offices of the largest union for city employees (Service Employees International Union, or SEIU), featured some of Santa Ana's most influential politicos and served as a window into how various factions in the city are battling for control of its most important institutions.
Among the participants was Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who – with support from the city's powerful police union and council candidate Jose Solorio – could regain the power over City Hall that he lost after the "Santa Ana Spring" election of 2012. Pulido’s main challenger is community activist Benjamin Vazquez.
Four of the seven council seats, including the mayor’s seat, are up for grabs in November. In addition to Pulido, councilmen Vincent Sarmiento and Roman Reyna are running for re-election against police union-backed candidates. And seven candidates are vying for the open Ward 3 race, including Solorio.
There’s also a three-way battle for seats on the Santa Ana Unified School District board, with two candidates supported by board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua going up against those backed by the teachers' union, as well as a Republican candidate supported by socially conservative trustee Cecilia "Ceci" Iglesias, who is running for re-election.
Among the City Council candidates, the starkest contrasts in viewpoints surrounded what to do about the exploding homeless population in the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center and whether to focus new spending on police or youth programs.
On homelessness, most council candidates emphasized the need for greater mental health support and housing options.
Ward 3 candidate David de Leon argued for a “case by case” assessment of each homeless person’s needs, starting with veterans, Solorio argued for a “housing first strategy” to get the homeless into homes.
Meanwhile, Pulido called for a return to the days of tougher police enforcement towards the homeless.
“We’ve been rougher with the homeless…Frankly I think we need to do more of that,” Pulido said. “Because on a short term basis they just take over…they think [the Civic Center] is theirs.”
Ward 5 candidate Juan Villegas, who is challenging Reyna and is also backed by the city’s police union, voiced similar sentiments.
“You’ve got to use a little tough love,” said Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer assigned to the Civic Center.
Meanwhile, Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, who is defending his Ward 1 seat, said county officials have failed to live up to their responsibility at the Civic Center. So he and Councilwoman Michele Martinez have co-authored a proposal for next Tuesday’s council meeting that urges county officials to provide homeless services in a nearby abandoned bus terminal that the county purchased earlier this year from the Orange County Transportation Authority.
When it comes to spending priorities, Pulido and other police union-supported candidates have emphasized more police resources, citing an increase in shootings and crime this year.
In June, Pulido succeeded in getting the council to devote this year’s entire budget surplus to police. And he’s hinted at potentially dipping into city reserve funds to provide more police funding.
The city has “not restored our services” in the police department, Solorio said Tuesday, citing what he said was a 500-percent increase in shootings in the city. “We need to beef up our gang unit.”
This is another issue where there is a clear division between the police union-backed faction and their opponents, who argue that public safety would be better served with more investments in youth services like after school programs, mentorship, and job training.
Vazquez criticized the mayor’s approach.
“Somehow [the surplus] was all given back to police. We should be asking why would you do that when we still have so many needs” in the city, Vazquez said. “We need to invest in youth and somehow we stopped investing in youth…if you put money back in, crime will go down.”
Ward 3 candidate Ana Urzua Alcaraz agreed.
“We need to shift resources from suppression, from incarceration” and instead improve opportunities for youth, “because nothing stops a bullet like a job,” she said, quoting Father Greg Boyle, the East Los Angeles-based founder of Homeboy Industries.
During his comments, Pulido called for dipping into the city’s rainy day reserves to give pay raises to existing city employees and hire more workers.
“My top priority is to increase the number of employees in the city [government] across the board,” Pulido told the SEIU members, who were preparing to make their endorsement decisions.
But council majority members have warned that dipping into reserves to pay for labor expansion is fiscally irresponsible and contributed to the city nearly declaring bankruptcy in 2011.
Among school board candidates, the main difference surrounded charter schools.
The Republican candidates, Iglesias and Angie Cano, both gave strong support for charters, arguing that they allow parents to make the best choice for their children.
“Parents should be empowered” to send kids where they want to, said Igelsias. “Who am I to tell the parent where to send their child?”
The teachers union-backed candidates – Rigo Rodriguez, Mark McLoughlin, and Alfonso Alvarez – said they opposed “for profit” charter schools but support other forms of charters.
Rodriguez said he supports “dependent” charter schools, which should respect collective bargaining rights of employees, be accountable to local school districts, and not siphon tax money from districts. He said his position is consistent with the state’s largest teachers union, including the California Teachers Association.
But Bruce Bauer, who is on the Palacio and Amezcua slate, suggested that Rodriguez couldn’t be trusted on this point because of financial support and endorsement from a leading charter school advocacy group in 2014.
“You can’t have two masters…if you’re accepting charter school money, that means you’re in favor of charter schools,” Bauer said. He said that while he supports "dependent" charters that are unionized and operated by the school district, Rodriguez supports non-union independent charter schools that are "sucking…our neighborhood public schools dry.”
Rodriguez responded by pointing to his teachers union endorsement.
“I am asking you to trust the teacher’s union” and classified staff of the district, he told SEIU members. “They have vetted us on all the issues,” including charter schools, he said of himself, McLoughlin and Alvarez.
After the candidates spoke Tuesday, SEIU union members voted on their recommendations for endorsements, which will be officially decided by the chapter’s executive board in the coming days.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Ben Vazquez's last name and gave an incorrect title for Juan Villegas, who works as a sheriff's special officer. We regret the errors This story has also been updated to clarify that school board candidate Bruce Bauer supports some forms of charter schools.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.