Results Tighten as Vote-Counting Continues for Santa Ana Council Seat

Campaign Photos

The leading candidates in second-day results for a Santa Ana City Council seat in the November 2019 special election. From left to right: Phil Bacerra, Manny Escamilla and Beatriz Mendoza.

Phil Bacerra, a real estate consultant and former city planning commissioner, maintained his lead for a City Council seat in the second day of election results, as former city planner Manny Escamilla made major gains with votes still being counted.

Escamilla went from 6 percentage points behind Bacerra in Tuesday’s initial results, to just 2.4 points behind on Wednesday. He also overtook the OC Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Beatriz Mendoza, for second place in Wednesday’s update.

Vote counting is expected to continue into next week, with an unknown number of ballots still in the mail.

In the Santa Ana Unified School District board race, Carolyn Torres continued to hold a wide lead at 46.5 percent, with David Benavides trailing in second at 31 percent.

The 5 p.m. Wednesday update reflected an extra 2,213 votes in the council race, on top of the 10,605 reported in the final election night update last night. A total of 12,818 votes have been counted so far in the council race.

The latest results show all mail-in ballots received by county election officials as of Wednesday, plus in-person ballots cast on Election Day. They do not include provisional ballots or mail-in ballots not yet received by election officials.

The next update is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday. Results could also be updated next week as voters get a chance to challenge their ballots being disqualified over signature issues, under a new state law that took effect last year.

The ultimate winner of the council race will fill a hotly-contested City Council seat and potentially impact key decisions on local issues like the ongoing homelessness crisis, complaints about slow 9-1-1 response times, and how to spend an extra $60 million a year from a new sales tax increase that has bolstered city coffers.

The Ward 4 City Council election was triggered by the resignation of Roman Reyna, who later pled guilty to lying about his residency for last year’s election.

It was Santa Ana’s final at-large election for a council member.

Starting next year, only voters within a particular ward of the city will vote for their area’s elected official on the full council.

The school board seat opened up after Cecilia Iglesias was elected to the City Council last year.

Whoever won the school district seat will join four other board members grappling with issues like class sizes, how to address students exposed to violence at home, and whether to welcome or limit the growth of charter schools in the city. 

The election also will help determine the balance of power on the City Council, which has been confronted with sharply rising city police and pension costs and an upcoming decision on approving a controversial project at 2525 N. Main St.

The election also came as city committee members, who are supposed to oversee money from the new city sales tax increase, claim the city is using the money to pay off its own debt – which is projected to grow over the next few years – instead of using it to improve public safety services as promised to voters.

That tax increase, known as Measure X, created the highest sales tax among OC’s 34 cities, and was estimated to bring in an annual $60 million in extra revenue for the city. It was described on the ballot as a “Santa Ana Neighborhood Safety, Homeless Prevention and Essential City Services Enhancement Measure.”

The City Council approved $25 million in raises for police four months after voters approved that sales tax increase. They did not authorize a way to pay for the raises at the time, though months later the city announced it found a way to pay for them by cutting back overtime and other measures.

Who Funded Who

A host of developers and labor and trade unions, including the city’s police union, comprised the City Council race’s key campaign spenders. The final set of campaign finance disclosures, however, aren’t due until the end of January.

[Click here to see a rundown of all campaign spending disclosed so far in the City Council election.]

Some of the largest spending was $25,000 from the police union supporting Jennifer Oliva; $18,000 in total supporting Oliva and Mendoza from a developer-funded committee advised and partly funded by developer Ryan Ogulnick’s lobbyist on the 2525 project; and $6,000 supporting Bacerra from a committee set up by Mayor Miguel Pulido’s consultant.

Bacerra, a real estate consultant and former city planning commissioner, led the pack in campaign spending with about $87,000 spent in his favor as of Monday, according to state-mandated disclosures. Major financial support included $6,000 from the committee set up to support Pulido and $5,000 each from the county firefighters’ union, local developer Mike Harrah, and trash hauling contractor CR&R.

Bacerra was supported by $89,000 from the police union last year, though this time the union is supporting Jennifer Oliva, his opponent, while spending significantly less.

Next in the money race after Bacerra was Oliva, a city arts and culture commissioner and longtime friend of Councilman David Penaloza. A large majority of the $38,000 spent supporting her has been funded by the police union ($25,000) and the committee advised and partly funded by the 2525 project’s lobbyist ($8,000). Oliva has said she doesn’t agree with the police raises.

In tight competition for third and fourth place in campaign spending were Escamilla and Beatriz Mendoza, each of whom had had about $17,000 spent in their favor, as of disclosures through Monday.

Escamilla, who has worked as a city staff member at the main library, city manager’s office, and planning department, spent about $17,000 from the committee he set up. It’s funded largely by a $6,500 loan from himself, and most of his remaining contributions are $200 or less from city residents, activists and business people. He also received $249 each from downtown developers Irving and Ryan Chase; and from the union representing Santa Ana’s general employees, SEIU Local 721.

Escamilla, who ran on a grassroots platform, was opposed by the committee partly funded by the 2525 project’s lobbyist – SoCal Responsible Growth – which gave $3,000 to a committee formed to oppose Escamilla.

Mendoza, a victim’s rights specialist and former staffer to Rep. Loretta Sanchez, saw $12,000 of the $17,400 spent in her favor funded by the committee advised by the 2525 project lobbyist. She also received campaign support from Planned Parenthood and real estate developer Barry Cottle’s company C&C Development.

Mendoza is a former caseworker for former State Sen. Joe Dunn, and was endorsed this year by Sanchez and the Democratic Party of Orange County.

The other two council candidates – Brandon Sisco and Gale Oliver Jr. – had no records filed with the city indicating they’ve done any fundraising for their campaigns, nor any outside spending for or against them.

This year, the police union is devoting substantially more money toward trying to unseat Iglesias and Councilman Juan Villegas, who opposed the $25 million in police raises and blocked a mid-year budget increase to pay for them.

The police union has put at least $225,000 into trying to recall the two council members, and the effort faces deadlines in January and February to turn in enough signatures to get recalls on the ballot.

In last year’s election for the Ward 4 seat, Bacerra was accused of domestic violence by a former girlfriend, Griselda Govea, who appeared in campaign videos against him.

An OC Democratic Party investigation found no independent evidence substantiating claims of physical violence, but did find evidence of verbal abuse Bacerra and his ex-girlfriend directed at each other. Bacerra denied the violence allegations and lost his Democratic Party endorsement last year, while Govea stood by her account.

Bacerra lost to Reyna, whom Bacerra later sued over election fraud allegations. That ultimately prompted Reyna, who was under criminal investigation over the same claims, to agree to step down in March to avoid the likelihood of sworn testimony about his alleged fraud in a civil trial. Reyna later pleaded guilty to lying about his residency in response to charges brought by the District Attorney’s Office.

The School Board Candidates

Four candidates were vying for the vacant school board seat: Torres, a middle school teacher; Benavides, a former councilman; city Parks and Recreation Commissioner Cecilia Aguinaga, and insurance broker Gisela Contreras.

Benavides has the Democratic Party of Orange County endorsement, while Contreras has the endorsement of the Republican Party of Orange County and Iglesias, a Republican who held that school board seat and now serves on the City Council.

All of the candidates said they see a need to reduce the size of classes at Santa Ana Unified’s public schools and appear to generally support the use of restorative justice practices in school discipline.

But one area where they clearly differed is how to approach charter schools, which are publicly funded but run separately of the district and usually don’t have a teacher’s union.

Contreras and Aguinaga expressed support for charter schools, while Benavides and Torres have expressed opposition to their expansion.

Across the country, critics say charter schools suffer from a lack of accountability and transparency — as some are managed by corporations — and take money away from public schools. Supporters say parents unhappy with their district-run school should have a choice to send their children to charter schools.

A topic where Benavides and Torres – both Democrats – had clear differences is the use of gang injunctions in local neighborhoods.

At an Oct. 16 candidate forum, a conversation about the Townsend neighborhood gang injunction heated up when Benavides, a supporter of the injunction, challenged Torres on her criticism of it, repeatedly calling her an “outsider.”

Torres, in turn, defended her roots in the area and criticized Benavides as supporting the district attorney’s approach to the youth of that Santa Ana neighborhood.

Critics have called the gang injunction ineffective, arguing it strips Santa Ana youth’s rights away while doing little to actually curb crime in the area where the injunction is in place. Supporters, including police and prosecutors, say it’s an effective tool to prevent gang violence and have pointed to studies showing drops in violent crimes after gang injunctions went into effect.

Other Elections in Play

The Santa Ana political community has also been gearing up for next year’s race, which will see most of the council seats up for election – including the first open mayor’s race in 25 years.

Pulido was first elected in 1994 and has won every election since then, but is now termed out of office. In addition to the mayor’s spot, three council seats are up for election, currently held by Vicente Sarmiento, Jose Solorio, and Juan Villegas.

The mayor’s seat and two of the council seats are open races. Sarmiento is termed out and Solorio is running for mayor instead of seeking re-election to his council seat. The mayor’s race has also drawn Iglesias and former Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez as candidates.

Benavides, the former council member, showed interest in running for mayor, and earlier this year transferred about $11,000 toward a mayoral run. More recently, he entered the school board race, transferred $9,000 of his mayor campaign money to it, and he’s said that if he’s elected to the school board he won’t run for mayor.

Special elections were also held Tuesday for a San Clemente City Council seat and two ballot measures in Stanton – one to increase hotel room taxes and the other to create a tax on marijuana businesses.

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Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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