Here are the Candidates Running in Santa Ana’s May Recall Election

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana City Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias has been a vocal critic of the city's police union on issues like salaries for police officers.

Santa Ana voters will be deciding May 19 whether to recall Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, and if so, which of three candidates will replace her in the police union-backed recall election.

The all-women candidate line-up consists of Nelida Mendoza, a Rancho Santiago Community College District board member who previously ran in 2018 on a slate backed by former councilman and mayoral candidate Sal Tinajero; Thai Viet Phan, an attorney and city planning commissioner who was appointed by Councilman Phil Bacerra; and Angie Cano, a planning commissioner who is close with Iglesias.

Candidates had until last Thursday to enter the race, and the three challengers were the ones approved to run, according to the City Clerk’s Office.

Voters across Santa Ana will decide Iglesias’ fate on the council in the May 19 recall election, which was put on the ballot through a signature-gathering campaign financed mainly by the city’s police union.

The police union’s president, Gerry Serrano, has openly clashed with Iglesias as she took a series of positions against what the union wanted. Among the most high-profile was her vote last February against $25 million in raises for police officers that did not have an approved funding source.

Iglesias and Cano are criticizing the police union and the recall process as part of their campaigns, while Mendoza is criticizing Iglesias over her “long history of attacking labor organizations” and defends the recall’s legitimacy, calling it a “democratic” process. Phan has focused her campaign message on rezoning areas to add housing and make it more affordable for Santa Ana’s immigrant communities.

Asked in interviews whether they’ve received or would accept an endorsement from the police union, Phan said, “I am not getting their endorsement and I have not asked for it.” Mendoza said, “I will weigh my options when the time comes.”

Last year, the police union also put money into a recall effort against Councilman Juan Villegas – who was the other vote against the raises – but the union apparently later backed off funding the recall against him. Together, the union’s support for both recall efforts cost more than $300,000, according to public disclosures.

Since voting “No” on the raises and subsequent attempts to move money around the budget to initially pay for them, Iglesias and Villegas have engaged in public battles with the police union and Serrano. 

Last month, Santa Ana City Council members disbanded a number of subcommittees that included their public safety board, where Villegas and Iglesias both sit, after the police union demanded in a letter to the council that the two be removed from their committee.

Serrano, the police union president, didn’t return phone, text and email messages seeking comment for this story. In the past, he has denied claims that his backing of the recall was because of Iglesias’ opposition to the pay raises. 

Police union officials, through multiple letters, have attributed their support of the recall  to what they describe as Iglesias’ failure to properly support public safety.

“She opposed revenue initiatives supporting after-school programs, homelessness and public safety,” Serrano wrote, among other reasons he cited, in an op-ed published by Voice of OC last month.

In a phone interview over the weekend, Iglesias called the recall effort a “power grab.”

“The union wants to make an example of me, saying, ‘This is what happens when you dare cross me,’ ” she told Voice of OC.

The recall election campaign has already drawn controversy.

At least one other person tried – and failed – to qualify to run for Iglesias’ seat: Mike Gonzalez, the CEO of a private security company and past City Council candidate. But after he pulled initial papers to run, Santa Ana’s city clerk said she had concerns about whether he met the city charter’s requirement that candidates live in the ward for 30 days before filing their paperwork. 

The city clerk, Daisy Gomez, laid out those concerns in a March 5 letter to him.

Attempts to reach Gonzalez in recent days were not successful.

Concerned over whether Gonzalez lived for 30 days at the Ward 6 address he provided, the city clerk reminded him that he would be filing his candidacy paperwork under penalty of perjury.

“I have expressed to you many times that I have great concern that you have history with the City of Santa Ana changing addresses prior to running for candidacy and that you currently do not have anything to prove that you live at your said address for a minimum of 30 days,” Gomez wrote in her letter.

“I have also expressed my concern that you are suddenly making changes to many documents to show your said address within that last few days.”

Gomez said the two documents Gonzalez provided her – a business license and driver license – had the correct address on them but didn’t prove whether he lived at the address for at least 30 days.

Gonzalez does not appear on the official final list of candidates.

The Candidates

There are three candidates seeking to replace Iglesias, and most of the public disclosures about which groups are backing which candidates haven’t been filed yet.

Thai Viet Phan is a planning commissioner and attorney for local governments with the law firm Rutan & Tucker. In an interview with Voice of OC, she said she’s running on a four-pronged platform: addressing the homelesness crisis and pressing south county cities to “pull their weight;” finding ways to spread out density in the city for development that both alleviates traffic and makes housing more affordable; encouraging community policing in law enforcement; and revitalizing the city’s small business sector.

“The issues I care about are influenced by my upbringing in Santa Ana,” Phan said, detailing her early life as a renter in a family of Vietnamese-American immigrants. 

Angie Cano, the planning commissioner who is close with Iglesias, didn’t make herself available for an interview. But her candidate statement urges residents to vote “No” on the recall — essentially advocating for a scenario where Iglesias stays on the council instead of choosing a replacement.

“The recall will cost taxpayers (you) approximately $650,000. This shameful move will only benefit the greedy and put our city resources in jeopardy,” Cano’s statement says.

Nelida Mendoza, a board member at the Rancho Santiago Community College District, supported the recall in a statement to Voice of OC this weekend, calling it a “democratic process” where “over 16,000 residents signed a petition because they believe Cecilia Iglesias is not representing our community.”

“This is demonstrated by her part in the handling of the city’s general fund budget, the stagnant response on our current homelessness issues, and her long history of attacking labor organizations and the working class such as teachers, public safety and our public schools,” Mendoza said.

“Our community relies on education and public safety in order to live productive lives and thrive on a daily basis,” Mendoza said. Her candidate statement says she will work with law enforcement to make neighborhoods safer, “alleviate” homelessness in Santa Ana, and advocate for street maintenance and business growth, among other things.

Iglesias, a Republican seeking to hold on to her seat in May, said those who want her removed from office see her as a “truth teller.”

Iglesias said she’s been informing and educating residents about the context of the recall. 

“I’m not shy about it and people have been responding, especially on social media,” said Iglesias, who’s active on Facebook. “I’ve also already started walking door-to-door, talking to people. People are just fed up with all the corruption.”

Her official candidate statement says a vote against the recall means a “No” to future tax increases in Santa Ana.

The recall will cost the city a total $710,000, according to Santa Ana city staff.

Voters will be able to cast their ballots either in person at vote centers as soon as May 9, or by mail starting on April 20.

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