The Santa Ana City Council majority – which since Election Day has been flexing its muscles in ways that it never had before – is now pushing to transform the city’s electoral system to district-based voting.
The proposal is being championed by Councilman Sal Tinajero, who argues that changing to voting by districts – known as “wards” in Santa Ana – from the current at-large system would lessen the influence of money in politics and empower candidates who don’t have big campaign donors supporting them.
“We need to go to ward elections because it is extremely difficult for someone to walk every household [in the city] and knock on that door and introduce themselves. But you can do it in your neighborhood,” Tinajero said last month at the first City Council meeting since the election.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Tinajero talked specifically about how deep-pocketed players, like the city’s police union, can dominate at-large elections because they can blanket the entire city with campaign mailers.
“Our police officers’ union leadership spent almost $300,000 to buy a seat, to make sure that they could try to take control to fire our city manager and our chief of police,” Tinajero said. “Why? Because they wanted to control the show.”
After spending far more on Santa Ana’s election than any other group, the police union succeeded in ousting council majority member Roman Reyna and replacing him with Juan Villegas, and helping elect lobbyist and former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio to a vacant seat. The union was also the largest financial supporter of Mayor Miguel Pulido’s successful re-election against activist-backed Benjamin Vazquez.
The police union argued throughout the election season that the council majority has turned a blind eye to an officer shortage while Santa Ana’s violent crime rate grew by nearly 50 percent in recent years.
Members of the council majority, meanwhile, disputed the union’s claims and said its true motivation was to take control of the city government by electing council members who would be willing to fire City Manager David Cavazos and Police Chief Carlos Rojas, who has cracked down in recent years on police officer misconduct.
The police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, has so far declined to comment on the election, other than to say he looks forward to working with the council. He didn’t return a phone call seeking comment for this article.
The new candidates will be sworn in next week, which will increase the number of police union-backed council members to three of the seven seats – just shy of a majority.
A Ticking Clock for Council Majority
The election results mean the current City Council majority (consisting of Tinajero, David Benavides, Vicente Sarmiento, and Michele Martinez) could hold on to power only until 2018, when three of the four are termed out.
And the election of Donald J. Trump as president has motivated this group (other than Martinez, who was absent) to pass a resolution Tuesday declaring Santa Ana a sanctuary city for unauthorized immigrants, and to speed up the demise of the city’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigration detainees in its downtown jail.
If the council adds district elections to this new policy mix, Santa Ana will join a growing list of local cities that have overhauled their electoral systems. In November, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Buena Park, and San Juan Capistrano all held their first district elections. And voters in Fullerton, Costa Mesa, and Placentia approved shifts to district-based elections starting with the next election in 2018.
On Tuesday, Tinajero, Benavides, Sarmiento and outgoing council members Roman Reyna and Angie Amezcua voted to direct city staff to bring back options for holding a special election in 2017 to establish district-based voting in time for Santa Ana’s 2018 election. Those options are slated to go before the council on Dec. 20.
Local neighborhood activists are also supporting the district-based elections effort. Many of them supported two candidates in the November election – Vazquez and Ana Urzua – who lost badly to the far better funded Pulido and Solorio, respectively.
“Anaheim’s new district ward system cuts back against vast amounts of special interests coming in, buying out and taking over cities,” said Roberto Herrera, an immigration advocate with Resilience OC, during Tuesday’s council meeting.
“I certainly do not have $1,000 to throw at an election cycle. I imagine that a majority of santaneros cannot afford, at the current rate, to pay in to access and compete in our political system.”
Martinez is looking like the swing vote on the issue – she has not come out publicly for or against district elections and didn’t return a call seeking comment. Pulido, Solorio, and Villegas – who are considered less likely to support the district elections effort – also did not return calls for comment.
Arguments for district elections typically center around increasing representation for minority communities, particularly Latinos. But in Santa Ana, which is roughly 80 percent Latino, the City Council is all-Latino.
A switch would increase the likelihood of a Vietnamese council representative from Santa Ana’s west end, and a white council member from the city’s northern end. It also increases the chances of the all-Democrat council shifting to having one or two Republicans.
Tinajero says he welcomes more diversity on the council.
“I think that anytime you have different points of view, you become a stronger community. It doesn’t mean we always have to agree,” Tinajero said in an interview. “I still think that the Vietnamese population, the youth, is leaning more Democratic to begin with. And a lot the new people who have come in in ward elections, are new, are young people.”
A New System Could Affect Term Limits and Pulido
Tinajero’s effort could also benefit his political career, if a switch to council districts also includes a change in the city’s term-limit rules. Because state law resets the clock for council members whenever term limits are changed, a new system could mean more terms for Tinajero and his currently termed-out cohort.
When their current terms expire, they will have each served 12 years on the council.
So far, Tinajero isn’t ruling out the possibility of running for re-election if the districting move allows it. “If it does reset it, [I] would probably shrink the term limits to two terms instead of three,” he said.
It’s also possible the council could structure the ballot measure in a way that doesn’t reset their term limit clocks.
Another potentially huge impact of a change to council districts could be a new challenge to Pulido’s 22-year reign as mayor. Tinajero is considering proposing that the number of wards in the city be increased from six to seven and the mayor’s seat be switched from an at-large seat to a rotating council position.
“I believe in smaller wards, because it allows you have to contact with the voters, and for the voters to get to know their city council member,” Tinajero said.
The mayor lives in the same northern ward as Solorio, so these changes could require Pulido to run against his council ally in order to keep his seat, unless the mayor moves to another part of the city. Solorio is required to continue living in Ward 3 as long as he serves on the council.
The district effort is scheduled to come before the council at the Dec. 20 meeting, which starts at 5:45 p.m.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.