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During the many election battles Miguel Pulido has fought in his 22 years as mayor of Santa Ana, he has often fashioned himself as the stay-the-course candidate, which makes sense for someone who’s had his hands on the levers of power for so long.

This year, however, has brought a twist to Pulido’s narrative, as he has teamed up with the city police officers’ union and others in an effort to gain back the power they’ve lost in recent years and change the course set by the current City Council majority.

The result of this dynamic is a clear choice for Santa Ana voters between Pulido’s law-and-order coalition that wants to invest more in police; and candidates backed by community activist groups that want more consequences for officer misconduct and more resources toward neighborhood services.

But first, a quick history lesson.

From 1994, when he was first elected as mayor, to the beginning of this decade, the city was essentially run by Pulido, former City Manager Dave Ream and former Police Chief Paul Walters. The rest of the City Council largely rubber-stamped the policies set forth by the Pulido-Ream coalition.

Those policies tended toward law and order, with the police department growing and becoming an ever-increasing share of the general fund budget. And the city’s biggest public works project of the past 20 years was the building of the downtown jail in the late 1990s.

But things began to change at the beginning of this decade. The first leg of Pulido’s stool was lost in 2011, when Ream retired after 25 years as city manager.

Then came the self-proclaimed “Santa Ana Spring” of 2012, when a coalition of council members (Michele Martinez, Sal Tinajero, David Benavides and Vincent Sarmiento) publicly challenged the mayor.

“It’s basically returning government back to the people,” Benavides, who ran against Pulido that year, said at the time. “That’s what this is about.”

Benavides lost the mayor’s race to Pulido, but the Santa Ana Spring coalition seized control of the City Council with the election of Roman Reyna that November.

Not long after the election, the new council coalition signaled the end of Pulido’s control over City Hall by  passing the “sunshine ordinance.” Among other things, the ordinance requires increased notice of public meetings and the release of council members’ calendars.

And though Pulido was able to install his ally Walters as city manager after Ream’s retirement, it didn’t take long after the 2012 election for the council majority to make its move. In January 2013, the council voted 6-1, over Pulido’s strenuous objections, to fire Walters.

By the fall of 2013, the council had hired David Cavazos away from the city of Phoenix, making him the first outsider to run Santa Ana’s government in more than a generation. Pulido, meanwhile, was left as powerless as he had ever been since becoming mayor.

In 2014, long-simmering tensions among police departments and communities of color erupted across the country, starting with the shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests over the shooting turned into riots that dominated headlines and newscasts for weeks. Similar scenes played out after police shootings in Baltimore and Milwaukee.

Santa Ana was not spared its own controversy. In June of that year, a home surveillance camera captured footage of Santa officers beating 27-year-old Edgar Vargas, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had been running from officers. The video showed Vargas place his hands up and lie face down in a front yard before police began repeatedly punching him, swinging a baton at his legs and shooting him with a Taser gun.

The FBI launched an investigation into the officers, and later declared on a visa certification that Vargas was a victim of felony assault by the officers. The city later revealed that a federal grand jury was investigating the officers’ actions. 

Since the Vargas beating community activists have engaged in a sustained effort, through protests and public forums, to pressure the City Council, Cavazos and Police Chief Carlos Rojas to improve police-resident relations and hold officers more accountable for their actions.

Rojas, with support from Cavazos and the council majority, in turn instituted a new beat system for patrol officers that moved in the direction of community policing and implemented harsher discipline against officers.

That harsher discipline became clear earlier this year, when three officers facing criminal charges related to a pot shop raid were apparently fired by Rojas.

Many in the department, especially long-time officers, bristled at Rojas’ approach. They requested a vote of no confidence in the chief and installed new union heads who have taken a more aggressive approach towards city leaders.

And with hostilities between the police union and the city administration reaching a fever pitch, Pulido wasted no time in strengthening his alliance with the union.

He first publicly tipped his hand during the final budget approval in June, when he advocated dedicating the city’s entire budget surplus to the police (which the council ended up approving). He has also suggested that the city dip into its rainy-day reserves to hire more officers.

Meanwhile, the union, under the leadership of new president Gerry Serrano, has ramped up its criticism of city leaders, saying they’re turning a blind eye to a spike in crime and a shortage of officers. Crime statistics reported by the city to the FBI show violent crimes increasing 52 percent since 2013. Serrano has also pointed to a decrease in sworn officers from about 400 to just over 300.

The union has set its sights on ousting Reyna and Sarmiento and getting a new council majority elected. To date, the union’s political action committee (PAC) has raised more than $240,000 to support their candidates and attack Reyna and Sarmiento. The scale of spending has dwarfed anyone else in Santa Ana’s election this year.

The union has funded mass mailers saying Reyna and Sarmiento are “to blame for Santa Ana’s rising crime” and that voters should “fire them.” Also, many Santa Ana insiders believe Cavazos and Rojas will be replaced if the union gains a majority of council seats.

So it is against this backdrop that Santa Ana voters will be making their decisions Tuesday. Here is a rundown of the seats up for grabs: 

Mayor: Pulido is being challenged by community activist Benjamin Vazquez, a Valley High School teacher who emphasizes more services to engage and educate youth to help them stay out of trouble and on a pathway towards higher education. The other candidate for mayor is Steve Rocco, an eccentric conspiracy theorist who once was elected to the Orange Unified School District board.

City Council Ward 1: Sarmiento is running against the police-union-backed candidate Jessica Cha, a family law attorney.

City Council Ward 3: Lobbyist and former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio is supported by the police union and is running against six candidates: community activist Ana Urzua; school counselor Patrick Yrarrazaval-Correa; former PTA President David De Leon; Republican Joshua Mauras; investment advisor Juve Pinedo; and Irvine police office Shane Barrows.

City Council Ward 5: Reyna is running against the police-union-backed candidate Juan Villegas, a sheriff’s special officer.

This story has been updated to add more detail regarding crime statistics and the city’s decrease in sworn officers.

Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn@voiceofoc.org.

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