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Santa Ana’s mayor and his top challenger clashed in a battle of ideas Wednesday night, during a debate that showcased their sharply different visions for the city.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, who has been in office since 1994 and is supported by the city’s police union, emphasized spending more on police to crack down on crime.

“I want to get public safety back under control,” said Pulido, adding that the city is down from 120 patrol officers to about 90. “We can increase it and we should.”

Ben Vazquez, a Valley High School teacher and community activist who’s challenging Pulido, instead emphasized investing in youth and building stronger trust between police and the community.

“Public safety is about giving people hope” like a job and chance at success, Vazquez said. “If we just hire more police and we try to arrest our way out of the situation, it’s not going to help anybody.”

The third mayoral candidate, Steve Rocco, didn’t show up to the debate.

On homelessness, which has emerged as a major campaign issue for Santa Ana this election, Pulido and Vazquez also offered starkly different mindsets.

Pulido said more services should be provided, which he didn’t specify, but added that he didn’t want to provide more services than other areas and make Santa Ana “a magnet” for homeless people.

“Sometimes the more [services] you offer the more [homeless people] you attract,” Pulido said.

“I don’t want to be the capital of all California where all the homeless people come here because we’re doing more services than anybody else.”

To Vazquez, it’s that kind of attitude that has allowed the situation to grow into a crisis.

The problem in Santa Ana, he said, “is that we’ve neglected it for over 20 years.” He argued for transitional shelters to help get people into housing.

“We are so backed up on affordable housing that it’s spilled over into homelessness,” with families living in garages and motels, he said. “It didn’t happen this year, or two years ago. This has been going on because of neglect.”

On affordable housing, another major campaign topic, Vazquez proposed requiring developers to devote 40 percent of housing in new projects to affordable housing, up from the current 15 percent.

“We need to incentivize developers who will give us affordable housing,” Vazquez said. He also wants to use some of the 90 city-owned parcels of land on Bristol St. to create permanent affordable housing through community land trusts.

Pulido said there’s already been a lot of housing built in Santa Ana, with another 2,000 units in the pipeline, and that it’s time for other cities to step up.

“I’m trying to get Anaheim and Irvine and other cities to do their fair share, so that we’re not the only city that’s trying” to build more affordable housing.

That prompted a backlash from Vazquez.

“To say that we’re looking to Anaheim to build for us, we need to build for ourselves” so Santa Ana residents can “live in dignity,” he said.

Pulido fired back: “Look around, there isn’t a lot of open space,” so building new housing requires displacing people or going vertical, which he said the city is doing.

The two candidates also clashed when asked how they’ll work to implement their plans in their first 100 days in office.

“My opponent has lost the ability to lead,” Vazquez said. “I have three endorsements from the current City Council, and he has none,” Vazquez added, saying he’d focus on more investments in youth and more affordable housing.

Pulido corrected Vazquez, saying he does in fact have one council endorsement, from Mayor Pro Tem Vincent Sarmiento.

“I don’t need 100 days. [On] November 9th, I’m already going,” Pulido said, referring to the day after the election.

Vazquez shot back.

“Mr. Mayor, I applaud you for Vincent’s endorsement, but you had 20 years, and it hasn’t been done yet,” he said.

Asked what the main differences are between them, Vazquez replied: “I think I want to be mayor for Santa Ana, and Mr. Pulido wants to be mayor for Mr. Pulido….I want to listen to the people who may not contribute to my campaign.”

Pulido responded that he doesn’t really know Vazquez, but “I think the difference is talking and doing…I’m a doer.” He then cited his accomplishments with the Discovery Science Center, Bower’s Museum, Orange County High School of the Arts, and the downtown Artists Village.

Vazquez criticized what he described as the neglect of poorer central neighborhoods under Pulido’s leadership, where potholes go unfilled for years while they get fixed “right away” in wealthier areas of the city.

“We need to make sure people feel safe in every neighborhood, not just where Mr. Pulido lives,” Vazquez said, referring to the mayor’s home in what is considered the Santa Ana’s wealthiest neighborhood, Floral Park.

Pulido responded that the city is transparent about its spending, through the budget that’s posted online. But the budget does not break down spending by neighborhood or region of the city.

The mayor also said that 271 city streets have been paved through a bond measure that he helped push through a few years ago, but didn’t address where the street paving took place.

“I think with a lot of hard work and a strong vision, we’re gonna continue to get things done here in the city,” Pulido said.

The mayoral debate followed a forum in which eleven City Council candidates participated.

Council candidates generally fell into camps that placed a stronger emphasis on more police spending and enforcement, or more investments in youth programs and affordable housing.

“Our police force is stretched to the max. You guys know if you call the police, if it’s not an emergency situation, you’re lucky if you get a response in three to four hours,” said Ward 1 candidate Jessica Cha.

Other candidates who emphasized more police enforcement were Juan Villegas, Joshua Mauras, and Shane Ramon Barrows. Candidate Jose Solorio is supported by the city’s police union, as are Cha, Villegas, and Pulido.

Councilman Roman Reyna, who’s running for re-election in Ward 5, was among those who focused on more youth investments. “If we don’t provide them positive opportunities, we’re gonna reap the [consequences] of their negative behavior”, Reyna said.

Others who emphasized youth investment were Sarmiento, Ana Urzua-Alcaraz, David De Leon, Patrick Yrarrazaval-Correa.

At a couple moments during the forum, Ward 3 candidate Juve Pinedo drew groans from the audience with comments on homelessness and Latinos.

Pinedo, a commercial real estate broker, said he had a client willing to ship old food from another county to Santa Ana to feed homeless people. “We can feed the homeless with that trash,” Pinedo said, prompting grumbles from attendees.

He later remarked that “the Hispanics” who have come to Santa Ana over the past few years don’t respect this country like those who came in the 1970s and 80s. Some in the audience booed.

The two candidates who spoke next – Urzua-Alcaraz and Solorio, both running for the same Ward 3 seat – were quick to make clear that they appreciate all residents, regardless of when they arrived.

“I want to thank all of you, longtime residents, recently-arrived,” said Urzua-Alcaraz, calling all residents “dignified people.”

“I’m proud of all the immigrants that have come to Santa Ana,” said Solorio.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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