Today’s the last day for Santa Ana voters to decide whether Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias should be replaced, a decision that council observers and community members say could set the stage for the November general election and change the future of City Hall.
It’s Santa Ana’s first all-mail ballot election in light of coronavirus social distancing restrictions, for starters. Of more than 113,000 ballots issued to voters, more than 17,300 voters have mailed them back, according to Monday’s county elections data.
Election results today will start to show where residents stand on Iglesias, who didn’t return phone requests for comment for this story.
A former school board member known for her conservative base, Iglesias throughout her year-and-a-half in office garnered support among people in the city — both on the left and right — for her vote against enhanced police salaries, which in large part triggered a public battle with the local police union funding the recall campaign against her.
But Iglesias has also been at the center of several controversies, including her past support for President Donald Trump and one of Santa Ana’s most controversial development projects in recent years at 2525 N. Main St.
One person close to the council likened all of today’s possible outcomes to the latest chapter in the “choose-your-own-adventure book” of Santa Ana politics:
If voters want Iglesias out, they’ll have three different replacement candidates, all backed by different people, to choose from.
The Replacement Candidates
Thai Viet Phan — a local government attorney who’s supported by Councilman Phil Bacerra and has sworn off support from the police union — could become the city’s first Vietnamese American council member, and would be the council’s first Asian American woman.
The seat could also go to Nelida Mendoza, a Rancho Santiago Community College board member who previously ran for council on a slate backed by former councilman Sal Tinajero, is now backed by Councilman Jose Solorio, and has expressed openness to police union support.
Or it could go to Angie Cano, a planning commissioner who’s close with Iglesias and opposes the recall entirely, as well as the union backing it.
Phan has raised nearly $22,000 in campaign contributions — the most out of all the candidates — which largely consisted of individual donors and labor unions. She’s followed by Mendoza, who raised a little over $7,800 in contributions that also came from individual donors and unions and received more than $7,000 in loans, most of which came from herself.
Cano, by comparison, has reported no fundraising this year, according to online campaign finance data.
Iglesias has framed the efforts to unseat her around her public battle with the campaign’s key backer and funder: the city’s police union, one of Santa Ana’s most aggressive campaign spenders.
Campaign finance records show the union, known officially as the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, spent close to $400,000 toward the recall campaign.
Iglesias’ fight with the union began with her hard line stance against $25 million in controversial raises for police officers granted by union-backed council members last year. Since then, she’s fought with the union’s president, Gerry Serrano, over social media and in public memos to the council, with Serrano requesting her removal from certain boards.
Serrano didn’t respond to requests for comment, but has in the past denied funding the recall campaign solely because of Iglesias’ stance on the raises.
Iglesias’ critics say the recall goes beyond the police union debate, arguing a few examples, like her controversial support for President Donald Trump and some of his policies — in a city with a large undocumented Latino population — and one of Santa Ana’s most protested development projects at 2525 N. Main St., have given residents more than one reason to support her recall.
Dale Helvig, a resident in the now-dead 2525 project’s surrounding Park Santiago neighborhood, said Iglesias’ initial support for the project prompted people in the neighborhood to sign the recall petition. “It was the tipping point.”
Iglesias later flipped her vote on the project in late April, but only after two other council members switched their votes to consolidate a clear majority against it.
Helvig rejected the notion that a “Yes” vote on Iglesias’ recall equals an endorsement of the police union, adding there are candidates running who have not been endorsed by the union, and that the issue “goes beyond” that or the 2525 project. “It’s about being able to trust what she says.”
Carlos Perea, the city’s first undocumented resident to serve on a citywide committee, noted that Iglesias — despite her unique conservative base in the city — may struggle for support among the city’s progressive Latino electorate. “She’s voiced support for a President who targets and criminalizes the immigrant community.”
She’s also drawn the ire of her council colleagues. Back in April, in light of the coronavirus public health crisis’ anticipated impacts to the local economy, Iglesias tried to get council support to “suspend” the city’s Measure X sales tax increase approved by voters in 2018. After staff clarified such a move wouldn’t be legal, council members criticized her for trying to “score political points.”
And most recently, online accusations have been lobbed at Iglesias and Cano, alleging they played a role in the theft of pro-recall campaign signs. Iglesias denied those accusations on her Facebook page.
“A Referendum for the Soul of the City”
Iglesias and her supporters argue that the recall, if successful, would bolster the police union as an aggressive force and campaign spender in Santa Ana politics.
“From Ceci’s side, it’s about the police union attempting to take even more power — it’s a dramatic act to be able to fund the recall of a sitting council member,” said Manny Escamilla, a former staff member at the City Manager’s office and past council candidate.
At the same time, Escamilla said the union risks strengthening Iglesias if she survives the recall and the money the union spent against her — especially since she’s planning a mayoral run this year.
“The union basically spent all this money to recall a council member,” Escamilla said, adding that if she withstands the recall, “her name ID would be better than ever … it would likely raise her profile enough to actually strengthen her come the battle royale for the mayor’s race in November.”
George Urch, a longtime political consultant and advisor to past council campaigns, agreed that Iglesias’ recall election “sets the scene” for November — at which point five seats, including the mayor’s, will be up for grabs.
What happens to Iglesias this month, he said, “will have a large impact on what happens in the general election.”
The slate of Iglesias’ opponents in that race will include fellow council members Jose Solorio and Vicente Sarmiento. Santa Ana would see its first new mayor in 25 years, after Miguel Pulido — first elected to the seat in 1994 — terms out.
“For over 20 years, many folks grew up in Santa Ana knowing only one mayor,” Perea said. “November is going to be a referendum for the soul of the city.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and Report for America corps member. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.