Applause broke out when 55-year-old Valerie Amezcua became the first woman to take the Santa Ana Mayor’s seat on Tuesday, one of two freshmen council members to take the oath of office this week after their November election victories.
A host of key housing, open space and public safety challenges now await them at a time of substantial change in town, where since 2020 the council has seen a progressive majority pass rent control and push to negotiate police salaries in public.
Even with a police-backed mayor, the progressives still hold the majority.
Amezcua – along with reelected incumbents Phil Bacerra and David Penaloza – comes in from police union support this election cycle.
Last Tuesday night meant goodbye to another police-backed incumbent, Nelida Mendoza, who lost her reelection bid to a progressive challenger.
Instead, schoolteacher Benjamin Vazquez took the oath of office with his hand placed on a copy of “Latino City” by Erualdo R. González, a book that explores activist resistance to gentrification in Santa Ana.
In her first remarks from the dais, Amezcua signaled the policymaking differences expected between her colleagues, couching her public safety “lens” as one that’s “very different than others” in a city that’s become center-stage for the police reform debate.
“I have heard the scream of a mom that has watched her son die on the sidewalk because of gang violence,” said Amezcua, a retired county probation officer. “I do believe in restorative, I do believe people change, people decide to change their lives and they do.”
Amezcua also referenced her experience in law enforcement.
“My priorities are to make your city safe, because in my 30 years of law enforcement, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the boogeyman up close and personal, he really does exist,” she said.
Vazquez, in his remarks, held up his copy of “Latino City”.
“It’s the story of Santa Ana. It’s the story of activists in Santa Ana who fought off the renaissance plan, to save La Cuatro, to save their neighborhoods, to save their houses. And I’m honored to serve those people, to make sure we do serve the people, how our families are living and struggling, I’m here for those reasons.”
Bacerra, speaking on his reelection from the dais that night, called it “fitting” that “I get to be a part of a council installation that includes the first female mayor in city’s history and that all the city’s leadership roles … those that are hired by the city council are all women.”
For as contentious as city issues down the road may be, and after a years-long COVID crisis, the evening had city leaders looking optimistic in the council chambers, with a mariachi from Santa Ana High School playing outside.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in this city,” said Penaloza from his seat. “We’re off to a great start.”
Tuesday also meant goodbye to the city’s former mayor Vicente Sarmiento – the city’s first new mayor after Miguel Pulido’s two-decade tenure – whose oral defense of things like rent control during council meetings over the last several years won the esteem of community activists and organizers.
Sarmiento will now make decisions for central county as the District 2 representative on the elected OC Board of Supervisors.
“I remember people were ashamed to say they were from Santa Ana,” he said at the microphone. “Now they say they love our city. They say it with pride.”
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