It’s not an election year, but some Santa Ana voters will cast a ballot this November.
The Santa Ana police union’s $371,000 effort to unseat one of its most vocal council critics – Councilmember Jessie Lopez – means voters in her district will decide her fate in a special recall election on Nov. 14.
The date was set by City Council members on Aug. 15, after what was a contentious debate in the preceding weeks over whether to legitimize what some City Council members called a recall effort rooted in “corruption” and “deceit,” as police union critics have publicly accused recall canvassers of lying to residents in Lopez’s ward.
If successful, the council could lose a key vote in support of progressive policies like rent control – another reason recall supporters have cited behind their efforts – while Lopez’s replacement would hold office for only a year until the seat goes up again for a regular election.
Special elections, meanwhile, usually see a much lower voter turnout.
“We have been connecting with voters,” said Lopez in a Thursday phone interview. “A lot of people have said to us they weren’t aware this was happening. We’re doing education at people’s doors. Not a big electorate is going to come and turn out for an off-general election — we saw that during the 2020 special election.”
In May of that year, the police union had successfully recalled a previous council critic, Cecilia Iglesias, a Republican who was heavily and vocally critical of major police salary increases granted by a police union-backed council majority in 2019.
The current efforts come after Lopez – alongside Council Member Thai Viet Phan, against whom a similar recall effort failed to advance past the signature-gathering phase this month – voted down a salary increase proposed by the police union last December.
It also came in the wake of a high-profile legal battle between top City Hall management and the union’s years-long and embattled president, Gerry Serrano, who had been pushing for a pension boost.
Serrano officially separated from the city in July, after once threatening to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants” and fueling a department loyalty battle with Chief David Valentin.
But with Serrano for now out of the picture, there are questions as to what role the police union will now play in the recall under its new president, John Kachirisky, who did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Requests for comment from Serrano – and the recall committee’s chairman, Tim Rush – also went unreturned.
So far, the union has spent more than $371,000 – and racked up $15,000 in debt – on political campaigning.
The petition for Lopez’s recall qualified by a margin of 10 signatures, with about 1,333 of them found to be “invalid” and 129 withdrawn by signatories, according to the OC Registrar of Voters.
Police union critics on the council have painted the recall as illegitimate.
“They built this on lies,” said Council Member Ben Vazquez at the Aug. 15 meeting. “They claimed that Lopez was responsible for increasing rent by 15%, when she actually fought for rent control.”
Phan called it a waste of “over $600,000 for an election that we’re going to have in about a year.”
“It’s not about democracy,” said City Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez. “It’s about having control and a majority which consists of four people. You need four people to get things done here at the dais. They are trying to remove one so that they can replace it with a puppet that they can control.”
The last time the police union had a council majority, it voted in support of $25 million in police officer salary raises over two-and-a-half years in 2019 – the year after voters approved a ballot measure that made their sales taxes the highest in all of Orange County to support public services.
The raises were heavily criticized by two council members at the time, one of them named Cecilia Iglesias, who the police union successfully recalled the following year.
The latest recall, in turn, has brought a long-simmering and bitter political divide into the open between council members who are more critical of police, and council members who push more tough-on-crime policy ideas, like arresting people for being intoxicated in public.
There are currently three City Council members with police union support: Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, and Mayor Valerie Amezcua.
Bacerra and Amezcua denied being “puppets” that night.
“One moment we’ve got colleagues up here saying that we’ve got to bring down the temperature of the dialogue up here, then the next minute I hear terms like puppets,” Bacerra said. “Being pro-public safety and being supported by the POA does not automatically mean that any of us are going to vote a certain way.”
Amezcua told police union critics to look inward.
“All we had to do today was approve the election date … we’re not here to call names and make up whatever stories you want to tell, but I think before you throw stones look in your own backyard, look very carefully.”
Phan said the narrow margin by which Lopez’s recall has qualified points to the importance of voter turnout this November.
“It really makes me sad that that’s where we’re at, especially when the certificate of
sufficiency met the threshold by 10 signatures,” Phan said. “So you can never say here in the City of Santa Ana that your vote doesn’t count, that your voice doesn’t count, because that’s 10 people who for whatever reason signed that petition, and here it’s going to cost us $600,000”
“Ultimately it’s up to you to decide how this city is going to be run.”