Here Are the Santa Ana Council Candidates Heading into High Stakes Battle This November 

Three Santa Ana City Council seats and the mayor’s post are up for election this year, with a stacked line-up of candidates hoping to win each race. 

The departure of two sitting council members who are running for mayor and the reelection bid of one incumbent could result in a shift in City Hall’s balance of power — all of it coming as, for the first time in more than two decades, termed-out Mayor Miguel Pulido won’t be seeking reelection.

Whoever wins these seats this year will have a number of key issues facing their constituents to grapple with:

  • Activists and community leaders continue to call for a reassessment of policing in the city and the millions of dollars that law enforcement eats up out of Santa Ana’s budget, an issue that splits the City Council’s candidate pool.

    City of Santa Ana

    A map of the 2020 City Council Wards. (CLICK the image to enlarge)

  • The long-awaited land sale of one of Santa Ana’s last remaining open green spaces in a working class area could shape the region for decades, and it has in turn continued a debate over the availability of park space in a park-poor city.
  • A cornerstone affordable housing policy has just been overhauled to make it easier for for-profit housing projects to spring up or pass through, while concerns remain over the political role of developers and the need for rent control in one of California’s densest cities.

Nearly all the candidates have agreed the city is shouldering an undue burden of the county’s homelessness crisis and construction of shelters, while such lodgings have yet to spring up in other areas, namely south county cities.

And it’s become clear, now more than ever, that the city’s street racing problem is literally a matter of life and death.

Contenders for all three council seats — not including the mayor’s — sounded off on their views and priorities across these issues at a virtual forum on Sept. 10, hosted by civic engagement group Connect-to-Council and moderated by Voice of OC Editor-in-chief Norberto Santana, Jr.

A forum for the mayoral candidates took place on Sept. 17. 

Ward 1 Council Candidates 

Vying for this seat — currently held by mayoral candidate Vicente Sarmiento — are Thomas Gordon, a school facilities manager; Tony Adame, businessman and founder of grooming product company Suavecito; Thai Viet Phan, a planning commissioner and attorney; and Cynthia Contreras, who works for the Orange County Probation Dept.

A top issue in this district is open space — and all candidates agreed during the forum.

Namely, the looming, high stakes sale of the 100-acre Willowick Golf Course by the city of Garden Grove, which legally owns the property, would have consequences for the area’s parks outlook and has sparked fears that any development on the site would price nearby Latino families out of their homes.

Gordon said there’s a need to keep the golf course as open space; Contreras said she was interested in seeing it become a sports park; Adame indicated he’d like to see affordable housing there; and Phan said “we don’t have to choose only housing or only parks” — arguing for a mix of “boutique” businesses, open space, and housing at the property.

On supporting rent control, Contreras and Gordon said “No,” Adame said “only with the work and partnership with homeowners,” and Phan said “I support vouchers.”

Gordon was vocal about his opposition to needle exchange programs and the construction of more homeless shelters in Santa Ana. 

Contreras was vocal the night of the forum about community policing and the need to curb street racing in the city.

Adame said his priority is to revitalize the city’s parks and recreation services, and talked about what he saw as a need for special attention to recreation centers and WiFi access.

Among Phan’s main issues are economic development on the west-end and getting mixes of residential and commercial development in the area, as well as outreach to the area’s Vietnamese American community.

Both Contreras and Gordon were adamant “Nos” to activists’ calls to defund the police (a term some mean literally while others use it as a call to reallocate resources to other city services like youth and parks). 

Adame, asked about defunding the police, voiced concern over the stark imbalance year-after-year in the city’s budget that leans heavily toward law enforcement, and called for de escalation training.

Phan said there’s a need to reform the police department through the lens of internal policies and procedures and an oversight commission, and, like Contreras, argued for community policing — though specifically as it pertains to Vietnamese-speaking officers in the ward.

The ward was redrawn partly to properly enfranchise that sector of the city’s residents, and Phan, if successful, would be the city’s first Vietnamese American council member, as well as the council’s first Asian American woman.

Candidates in this ward were asked at the forum whether they would accept the political support of the city’s police union:

Phan, Gordon, and Adame said they wouldn’t accept the union’s support. Contreras said she would: “I want to work with the police.”  

Ward 3 Council Candidates 

Vying for this seat — currently held by mayoral candidate Jose Solorio — are Jessie Lopez, a diversity development coordinator; Mark McLoughlin, a planning commissioner; Danny Vega, an electrical engineer; Jeffrey Katz, a business owner in the city; and Jannelle Welker, a policy advisor for Democratic Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee.

All candidates except McLoughlin ruled out police union support for their campaigns. 

Only Katz and Lopez said they supported the idea of rent control.

A big issue for this ward spanning the north end of town is development. One of the greatest battles between a developer and residents in the city’s history took place in this ward, and culminated in the killing of the controversial 2525 N. Main St., apartments project in the Park Santiago neighborhood. 

Lopez said she supports “economic development that centers our community … no matter the density” and said the city needs to hold developers accountable to residents’ needs and that no project should put an undue burden on residents. Vega more or less echoed those points. 

Welker said there’s a need for more mixed-use development and said smart developments would come after surveying residents and using data. “I’m not a fan of having only luxury apartments that lead to nowhere,” she said.

Katz said “high density is not what people want,” calling for developments that are original and architecture that’s “inspiring and unique” and maintain the character of the ward and facilitate their connection with downtown. 

McLoughlin, asked about whether there’s a need for more development in the ward, said “there are areas in the north end and south end where development can still exist,” and called for a much needed update to the city’s general plan to identify other such areas.

A main issue for Lopez is parking: “We need to change the current regulations to allow people to expand their driveways if they choose to and … we also need a citywide comprehensive parking study to identify parking issues and develop solutions … parking is a quality of life issue.”

Vega said he wanted to crack down on homeless people in the ward, arguing he has to drive his kids to other cities he sees as safer when going to parks. He also called for a higher police presence related to the issue.  

A main priority for Katz is economic redevelopment, specifically creating a “robust, phenomenal downtown … I’ve got to build the yellow brick road going from north Santa Ana into downtown.”

Welker and McLoughlin said they’re concerned for the city’s workforce in light of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I think getting us back on track, our livelihoods back, is the most important issue I want to tackle,” Welker said.  

“We really have to do things to make sure when we exit this situation, we’re able to get our businesses back online,” McLoughlin said, focusing specifically on economic development.

On policing, Welker said the Santa Ana Police Dept. doesn’t need to spend money “on highly weaponized arsenals” and was in favor of bringing an oversight board to make sure police officers investigating each other “aren’t friends” and “making bad calls.”

Vega adamantly rejected any calls to defund the police “and most versions of it,” adding Santa Ana doesn’t need less officers and that “we don’t have a problem with the police, we have a problem with the union.”

 McLoughlin also rejected those calls for less police resources, arguing residents in the ward want “more police protection.”

Lopez said “there’s a fundamental difference between removing all resources and reallocating resources back to our neighborhoods,” adding “I believe we need to reinvest in our communities; we all know we cannot police our way out of the current problem we have in this country and also know over-policing isn’t working in Santa Ana.”  

Katz similarly voiced support for reassigning or reallocating police resources and instead having the department focus more on violent crimes. 

Ward 5 Council Candidates

Vying for this seat — currently held by Juan Villegas — are community health worker Johnathan Hernandez; property management coordinator Laura Perez; businessman Vic Mendez; and Villegas himself, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department special officer who’s up for reelection.

Perez said the pandemic has shone a new light on inequities and gaps facing the ward, such as a lack of open spaces and “true affordable housing that would allow us to have this space and self quarantine in a very safe environment.” Especially since the district stretches into the west end of the city, near the Willowick golf course.

Hernandez was most vocal about introducing a free, citywide WiFi program to increase access to education for young children in town, especially as the pandemic has brought about a new era of distance learning that is entirely online. 

Villegas said homelessness and public safety are one of his top priorities, pointing to his role on the council in creating the Family Justice Center, which provides a “one stop shop” of resources for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, human trafficking and elder abuse. 

For Mendez, a top issue is traffic safety: “I’ve been almost killed three times in downtown Santa Ana,” he said, contending “for too long City Hall has played a deaf ear to our concerns” when it comes to traffic management and high fatality vehicle accidents. 

On whether the candidates would accept police union support, Hernandez said “absolutely not,” Perez said “No,” Mendez said he would accept the union’s support, and Villegas said he hasn’t interviewed with the union.

All the candidates, except Villegas, said they supported the idea of rent control.

On policing and law enforcement spending, Perez and Hernandez supported either reallocating funding away from the department or investing more money into other programs.

“I support the reallocation of funds,” said Hernandez, adding there are some functions at the department that could either be better handled by other departments or social experts, like mental health workers.

Said Perez: “Our police department at this time should not be given additional money where other areas in our city lack that resource.”

Mendez said he supported questioning the department’s expenses and its performance.

“I want to understand where this money is going and ask the public to weigh in … we have a productivity problem and need to understand where the money is going and need to hold the police chief and department accountable.”

Villegas said that while he does believe in police officer accountability, he “100%” doesn’t agree with any notions of defunding the police: “The city of Santa Ana has a lot of crime in it … we need more police.” 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.