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Santa Ana is facing a possible three-way race for mayor in November, has wide-open contests for three City Council seats, and the largest fundraising to date has been by the city’s police union, according to the latest campaign reports.

The police union started the 2018 election year with 76 percent of all Santa Ana campaign money in the bank – or $397,000 out of $519,000 – according to the filings.

If the union continues to fundraise at the rate it did last year, it will have over $675,000 to spend on the November 2018 City Council election.

During the 2016 city elections, the union spent just over $400,000 on City Council races, more than half of the entire amount spent on the election.

Last year, the union raised about 80 percent of all campaign fundraising reported for the city’s 2018 races.

The next-largest campaign fund belongs to Councilman Jose Solorio, who raised $39,000 last year, according to the reports, and had $60,000 in the bank at the start of this year. He was one of the candidates backed by the police union in 2016. The seven-member city council includes six council members and an elected mayor.

The police union’s new filings also show it gave maxed-out campaign contributions this fall to Solorio, Juan Villegas, Vicente Sarmiento, and Sal Tinajero. The maximum donation allowed under city law is $249 if the council member wants to be able to vote on matters affecting the contributor for a year after receiving the money.

The four council members provided key votes a few months earlier for a $2.7 million raise for officers as the city projected major budget shortfalls. Before the raises, Santa Ana officers’ median compensation package was about $213,700 per year, including $125,800 in pay and $87,900 in health and retirement benefits.

Tinajero and Sarmiento publicly clashed with the union leadership in 2016 and the first half of last year, but have calmed their public criticism since last summer.

The union’s current labor contract is set to expire at the end of June, and a new agreement could come before the City Council for approval around that time.

Possible Three-Way Race for Mayor

Two council members who have clashed with Mayor Miguel Pulido – Tinajero and Michele Martinez – are running for mayor this year, setting the stage for a possible three-way battle for the seat. Pulido, who first was elected in 1994, can run for election one more time before he’s termed out in 2020.

A third council member, Solorio, has been considering a run for mayor but has not announced plans to run this year. Pulido has been mayor for 23 years, raises large amounts for his re-elections, and often wins by large margins.

Tinajero had about $13,000 in the bank at the start of this year, while Solorio had $60,000. Neither Pulido nor Martinez have filed campaign finance disclosures for the latest reporting period.

Pulido, in his last re-election campaign, didn’t rely on contributions from his own committee. Instead, 95 percent of his campaign was financed through a separate “independent expenditure” committee, set up for his re-election and run by Pulido’s longtime campaign consultant George Urch.

The city’s campaign contribution limits don’t apply to these types of committees, which are often called “IEs.” Under state law, these IE committees can collect unlimited amounts of money from a single donor and then spend it in support or opposition to a candidate, as long as the candidate isn’t directing how the money is spent.

The independent committee for Pulido had $9,000 as of the start of this year. But if Pulido does run for re-election, his consultant’s committee has shown it can raise large amounts quickly from a network of wealthy donors.

Contributions of $10,000 and $20,000 from single donors were paid to the Pulido IE committee in the most recent election year, with a total of $88,000 spent to support Pulido in the election.

The donations included $20,000 each from the police officers’ and firefighters’ unions, and $9,000 from the developer of the one of city’s largest-ever real estate developments, The Heritage, that Pulido voted to approve earlier that year.

Only One Candidate Has Declared for Each of the Three Open Council Seats

In each of the three council seats up for election in November, only one candidate has opened a campaign committee so far, although the deadline for candidates to enter the race isn’t until Aug. 10. The seats are open because the incumbents are ineligible to run due to the City Council term limits of three, four-year terms.

In the central Ward 2 district, which includes Downtown Santa Ana, the candidate is LGBTQ youth advocate Laura Kanter. Because she opened a campaign committee after the start of the new year, she won’t be required to file a campaign finance report until late July.

In the southern Ward 4, which includes the South Coast Metro district, the one candidate with a committee so far is city Planning Commissioner Phil Bacerra, a land entitlement planner at Clearwater Communities, a land development company. He reported raising about $17,000 last year, with $13,000 remaining in the bank as of the start of this year.

And in the southwestern Ward 6, which includes the city’s largest park, Centennial Park, the only candidate with a committee so far is Mirna Velasquez, a business consultant who previously ran for the Ward 2 seat in 2014. She reported $1,300 in fundraising last year, with $700 in her campaign account at the start of the year.

Rise of Facebook as a Campaign Ad Platform

Election campaigns in Orange County traditionally rely on mailers sent to voters’ homes. But as social media becomes one of the main ways people get information, Facebook is a growing platform for political campaigns to get their message to voters.

With Facebook ads, campaigns have the ability to target ads at very specific audiences for a comparatively low cost. Leading the pack in Facebook spending so far has been Solorio, who spent nearly $3,000 in campaign money on Facebook ads last year.

It’s unclear if Facebook discloses to the public what is in the ads that are financed by local political campaigns. The company didn’t return a message seeking comment Friday.

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

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