A vacancy in the Santa Ana City Council’s Ward 4 seat — formerly held by Roman Reyna before he stepped down earlier this year amid allegations of election fraud — has attracted six candidates vying to win the upcoming November special election to fill his now vacant seat.
Vote-by-mail ballots have already gone out, and by Nov. 5 voters will have to decide between candidates Phil Bacerra, Manny Escamilla, Jennifer Oliva, Beatriz Mendoza, and Brandon Sisco, who are all Democrats, as well as self-identifying political independent Gale Oliver, Jr.
Oliver and Sisco didn’t return requests for comment for this story.
The election will be the last of its kind under the current “at-large” voting system, after the City Council last year switched up the city’s wards and will implement district voting next year in an effort to re-enfranchise a large concentration of Asian Americans — particularly Vietnamese Americans — in the city’s west-end.
The Council tried and failed to reach a consensus and appoint a council member in March, choosing instead to hold a special election for the seat.
Whichever candidate prevails in November will step in following months of controversy over election fraud by predecessor Reyna, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to felony election fraud and agreed to pay $578,000 in restitution.
Reyna resigned from the City Council in March to settle a civil lawsuit over the same allegations, and in September pleaded guilty to a felony count of perjury and a misdemeanor for filing false candidacy paperwork, according to Orange County court records.
Amongst the Ward 4 seat’s crowded candidate pool, a few contenders have emerged.
The civil lawsuit that brought Reyna down was filed by Bacerra, Reyna’s only other opponent in the 2018 City Council elections who’s now running again to replace him.
Bacerra, a Democrat, last year got 23,613 votes, while Reyna won with 29,863, according to county election results data.
Reyna’s council run last year was supported by $320,000 in money from undisclosed sources –often referrred to as dark money — part of which went to mailers opposing Bacerra, a police union-backed candidate. State authorities with the Fair Political Practices Commission have an ongoing investigation into whether that violated campaign finance laws.
Bacerra’s campaign this year also has been endorsed by the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, as well as former City Council members like Tom Lutz, Alberta Christy and Rob Richardson.
His campaign has received nearly $30,000 through a campaign committee he controls, with another $41,000 generated through a committee supporting him, with some of the largest contributors to that committee consisting of trade and labor unions.
Some of Bacerra’s top issues include solving the homelessness crisis with supportive housing, standing up to outside developers and contested project proposals, and expanding Sunshine Ordinance transparency laws to include all projects requiring Planning Commission and City Council review for approval.
While acknowledging the police union as a large presence in Santa Ana politics, Bacerra said city affairs aren’t as simple as police union vs. non-police union.
“I can see why some people are concerned about what the Police Officers Association does or does not do politically,” Bacerra said. “But to focus merely on them, especially after hundreds of thousands of dark money was spent on the elections last year attacking me, is a huge oversight.”
The only candidate with direct government experience at Santa Ana city hall as a former Santa Ana city staffer is Manny Escamilla, a Democrat who describes his base as “working class folks, as well as people who are concerned with the influence of corporate PACS and other outside developer money that played a role in our elections.”
A campaign committee he controls has raised around $19,000 this year, which includes just over $6,500 in loans. Many of the contributions received are what he calls small donations from “friends, family and local community members.”
“I think that’s what actually distinguishes my campaign,” he said in a phone interview.
Escamilla has the endorsement of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721, a labor union comprised of around 95,000 members in Southern California — “a big win for us,” he said.
Aside from his experience as a Santa Ana city staffer, he’s also a librarian and historian who’s been part of the Santa Ana Public Library Oral History Program and Mexican-American Cultural Center of OC.
Some of Escamilla’s top issues include solving the homelessnes crisis, which he says needs a look at how the homelessness crisis is exacerbated by the release of inmates from the county jails into the Civic Center, and increasing the city’s amount of libraries and park space. He also says he’s the only candidate who’s publicly advocated a rent control ordinance.
Despite securing the Democratic Party of Orange County’s endorsement, as well as the endorsement of former 46th District Congressional Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Mendoza rejects any notion that she’s part of the establishment.
“Some of my opponents are calling me an established candidate, and I’m my own person,” she said in a phone interview. “First of all, I’ve never held office.”
But she has worked for people in office. In the early 2000’s, Mendoza was a case worker specializing in areas like housing and CalOptima for former 34th District State Sen. Joe Dunn, she said. She herself is a Democrat as well.
She now works as a “Victims Assistance Civil Specialist” for the Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for victims of domestic violence, where she said she works “with a lot of patients of trauma, domestic violence and child abuse.”
A campaign committee she controls has received just over $8,000, with one of the largest payments being of $1,000 from Planned Parenthood in Sacramento. A political action committee supporting her has been set up as well, according to filings submitted on Oct. 23. That committee has so far received $3,000 from a committee titled “Social Responsible Growth” at an address in Irvine.
She said some of her top issues include shortening the amount of time families spend on housing waitlists, solving the homelessness crisis, and the need to provide city employees, namely police officers, “trauma-informed training” when dealing with domestic violence, child abuse and trauma victims.
Jennifer Oliva, a Democrat, describes herself on her campaign website as an educator, as well as a product of Santa Ana and its public school district and is an Arts and Culture Commissioner at the city.
Her top issues, she said in a phone interview, include rejuvenating local businesses in the city to foster economic development, addressing the city’s homelessness problem through a public safety approach, more youth outreach and increasing residents’ civic engagement.
Her campaign has received over $7,000 through a committee controlled by her, and $28,000 through another committee supporting her that’s generated most of its money from the police union.
When asked about the police union’s contributions to the committee supporting her, she said she was unaware of them.
“It’s news to me,” she said Sunday night, adding that she disagreed with the $25 million in raises for the city’s police officers, which were approved by police union-backed City Council members this year.
Oliva’s endorsed by Councilman David Penaloza, and was among the applicants who stepped forward for the Ward 4 seat back when the Council was still considering a possible appointment to it.
Gale Oliver Jr.
Oliver, a local pastor, also identifies as a political independent. Oliver did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
At one of the candidate forums last month, Oliver said some of his work in Santa Ana included efforts to curb gang involvement and sex trafficking in the city, as well as helping homeless people.
There are currently no campaign finance records available on the city website indicating whether or not Oliver has done any fundraising. There are no clear independent expenditure committees supporting him either, according to a search through the campaign finance data.
Sisco, a Democrat, on his website claims to have assisted the FBI at the age of 15 and founded his business Android Genius, a local cell phone repair shop. He did not return requests for comment.
His top issues, according to his website, include shutting down illicit cannabis shops in the city and maximizing cannabis taxes, continuing Santa Ana’s “leadership role” in solving the countywide homelessness crisis, finding a suitable location for another city dog park, and installing more speed bumps and traffic patterns.
Like Oliver, he has not reported any fundraising, nor has an independent expenditure committee been listed on city campaign finance records as supporting him.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.