If current election trends hold, Santa Ana’s progressive community activists are on track to lose a newfound council majority that gained power in 2020. 

Many ballots remain to be counted, but as of Wednesday morning all three incumbent council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza and Nelida Mendoza held wide leads of at least six percentage points or more over their progressive challengers. 

But the mayor’s race will be the lynchpin.

With Santa Ana’s sitting progressive Mayor Vicente Sarmiento out the door, the progressives’ choice to replace him, Sal Tinajero, fell behind a police union-backed candidate Valerie Amezcua by 17 percentage points as of the early Wednesday morning results update – that’s 3,906 votes.

The results are subject to change as ballots remain to be counted, but the current trends could send Santa Ana’s recent progressive policy directions into a 180. 

Since the 2020 election, Santa Ana’s progressive majority approved a landmark rent control law, placed tighter affordable housing requirements on new development projects, pushed to negotiate police salaries in public, and even called for a redo of the police department’s written policy manual, citing $24 million in police lawsuit costs over the 2010s

It’s unclear now whether some of those things will be followed through with a more centrist, police-backed majority and mayor. 

Or walked back.

It was “not that surprising” to see progressive gains in 2020, given the large voter turnout of a presidential election on the heels of police violence protests that kicked off with the police murder of George Floyd, said Stephen Stambough, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton and a local politics expert.

“That’s going to regress a little bit because turnout was still high, but lower this time around,” said Stambough in a Wednesday phone interview. “And it will regress a little in some areas based on some of the issues.”

In other parts of the country, “even Democrats were running against” progressive platforms like the push to reallocate or defund police budgets, Stambough said, adding issues like public safety “make the older, more centrist people more skittish. So you’ll see a little bit of a course change.”

“We’ll wait to see the final numbers of course, but it looks like turnout did not decline as much as it normally would during a midterm after a presidential election,” Stambough said.

“The political staying power of the younger activist core – even if there’s a little bit of a setback – it’s something I see as on the rise.”

Amezcua and all the incumbents on track to hold onto their seats this year are supported by or have been associated with the police union, which has spent roughly $1 million on local elections, much of it on mailers and digital ads in Santa Ana. 

[Read: Will Law Enforcement Political Spending Pay Off in Orange County?]

The union’s president, Gerry Serrano, has become a lightning rod figure over the union’s heavy political spending and his alleged pressure tactics on City Hall officials to get a pension spike in 2021 – a campaign that had top city administrators vocally concerned about whether he’d “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”

Serrano, over that same time, has taken issue with a handful of top city executives, including the Police Chief David Valentin and City Manager Kristine Ridge, naming them in lawsuits and claims against City Hall. 

Though his grievances didn’t have much of an audience with the current council, whose mayor issued public rebukes of Serrano in city statements. 

Now it might be the police union-backed Amezcua’s signature underneath the city seal.

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