Despite being heavily outspent by landlords and the police union, supporters of Santa Ana City Councilmember Jessie Lopez rejoiced on Tuesday night when a TV inside of Chato’s bar on Broadway revealed the outcome of a battle to tip the city’s balance of power.
Ballot counts indicated that evening that Lopez would prevail over a yearlong effort to unseat her in a special recall election.
And as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday – the most recent results update – a total of 3,821 Santa Ana voters answered “No” to the recall question while 2,963 answered “Yes.”
A total of 902 ballots were processed after election day, and 230 remain to be counted, according to OC Registrar of Voters Bob Page’s office.
The recall movement – which the police union kicked off after Lopez voted against officer pay demands last December, and in support of rent control in 2021 – brought an intense City Council divide to more bitter and personal heights over the last year.
It tore a deep political chasm over the idea of “saving your community” in the working-class Latino heart of Orange County, with the progressive faction that included Lopez pushing things like tenant protections and noncitizen voting.
Meanwhile, the police union and landlord-backed faction, a smaller voting bloc, urged a narrower focus on the city’s essential, basic services – and a more hardline approach to cracking down on street racing spectators, for instance, and ramping up arrests of people who are intoxicated in public, often homeless.
The recall also came at a time of new uncertainty for City Hall leadership, with the sudden departures of the police chief and city manager, both of whom found themselves the subject of lawsuits by the police union’s former boss, Gerry Serrano, in what they deemed a pressure campaign to boost his pension.
Or in the former city manager’s words, an effort to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.”
It was under Serrano that the Lopez recall effort started – an attempt to oust an elected lawmaker for the second time since 2020, when a prior police union recall effort successfully unseated a Republican, Cecilia Iglesias, after she challenged police officer salaries and the union’s political grip from the public dais.
What’s on the Horizon?
With a majority of voters in Lopez’s ward appearing to solidify her place in office, council members are poised to appoint an interim City Manager next week to steer them through another election cycle next year.
One in which four council seats are going up for grabs this time.
Including the mayor’s.
So what does Lopez’s survival say about Santa Ana’s political future?
“What people want is not for this city to be under the thumb of the police union anymore, the way that it’s been in the past,” said Lopez, reacting to this week’s results in a Wednesday phone interview. “Because they are not the people who were elected into office, making those decisions on behalf of people in the city.”
Still, Lopez said, “a lot of people didn’t think we were going to overcome this challenge.”
The police union spent more than $660,000 – as of Oct. 28 – on the recall campaign, according to campaign finance disclosures.
The campaign has been getting significant boosts from property owner and landlord advocacy groups, notably with a $100,000 contribution from the National Association of Realtors Fund. Mobile home interest groups have also contributed nearly $100,000 to the recall efforts through two different political action committees.
The committee fighting Lopez’s recall has spent more than $123,000 this year as of Oct. 28, with $10,000 in independent spending support from a PAC run by the Latino organizing group Mijente, and $23,000 in spending from a PAC set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
One supporter of Lopez was the founder of a prominent political organizing venue for young Latinos in Santa Ana.
“This is the third election in a row where the police union couldn’t get a majority,” said Hairo Cortes, the executive director of Chispa. “People are tired of the old politics. People recognize her work toward housing and accountability and basic government service. A lot of people recognize how much she works.”
The police union-sponsored recall committee’s chairman, Tim Rush, said the results of the election don’t prove “tremendous” support for Lopez in her ward.
“It’s not over yet, although obviously the success of the recall doesn’t look promising. That’s certainly a fair statement. In any event, I think it’s important to look at things in context and that is, you had 21% of people who are registered voters who participated (the number became 25% on Wednesday evening) and it certainly wasn’t a landslide victory for Jessie,” Rush said. “It was relatively close in terms of the numbers.”
Rush argued that Lopez still “has a record to answer for.”
Support for Lopez’s ouster didn’t stop at the police union. Her support for rent control spurred hundreds of thousands of dollars into the recall effort from landlords, property owner advocacy groups, and real estate associations.
Rush said Lopez and her allies are passing policies like heightened developer fees (meant to go toward affordable housing construction) that make developers and businesses in town feel unwelcome.
“While the police union did start the recall, they were far from the only monetary support,” said Rush, also criticizing Lopez and her progressive colleagues as being “more concerned about the perpetrators of crime than victims.”
One example he cited was street racing. Where Lopez and progressive colleagues supported a ban on street race spectating that allowed police to choose between issuing infraction, misdemeanor or administrative citations to people (the latter of which, they said, would serve to avoid burdensome financial penalties on poorer families), the council minority pushed for stricter consequences.
Santa Ana politics have been far from binary.
A Complex Scene
Former Councilmember Cecilia Iglesias, a Republican, held office until 2020, when the police union mounted a successful recall effort over her public challenges to millions in officer pay raises in 2019, which came just after Santa Ana voters approved taxing themselves at the highest rate in OC to deal with a structural budget deficit.
In a written statement on Wednesday, Iglesias said she doesn’t agree with Lopez, a Democrat, on policy.
“The recall was wrong on principle,” Iglesias wrote. “She (Lopez) was rightfully elected to represent Ward 3. It’s unfortunate that the Police Union leadership wasted our tax dollars for an unnecessary recall effort.”
She said Lopez should be cautious of all interest groups.
“My advice to council member Lopez is to listen to and be transparent and accountable to her constituents, don’t raise our taxes and not bow down to the pressures of ANY private or public interest group, like the public sector unions.”
Rush — who also supported the police union’s recall of Iglesias, at one point publicly debating her in 2019 — acknowledged that the Lopez recall effort was hindered by its associations.
“The antics of the previous president of the Police Officers Assocation, which really had nothing to do with so many of the issues, played into people’s dislike. That created a pall over the whole recall process.”
Serrano parted ways with City Hall in July. His successor police union president, John Kachirisky, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Neither did Serrano or Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, which endorsed the recall.
Rush also blames the 11th hour wrench thrown by OC Registrar of Voters Bob Page, who after being notified about election questions in Kings County, raised questions to Santa Ana officials about whether recall petitioners should have used the map Lopez was elected under in 2020, in gathering residents’ signatures, instead of the redistricted map that took effect after her election.
The issue was expected to be sorted out in court, with a hearing scheduled for Jan. 12.
Both Lopez and Rush said they supported pushing on with the court case and sorting the legal question out, as state law seems to be ambiguous about which map would apply and could set a needed precedent for other recalls.
The City Council’s police union-backed council members endorsed the recall, and refused to supply the needed votes to cancel the election after Page raised the questions about whether the wrong electorate was determining Lopez’s fate.
However, one of those council members, David Penaloza withdrew his support for the recall after Page rescinded his initial recall certification.
Penaloza offered his congratulations on her victory in a Wednesday phone interview.
“She worked very hard and this whole recall was not only a mess, but a distraction of the work we were all elected to do. I’m happy it’s behind us now so we can focus on city business,” said Penaloza, who has bitterly clashed with Lopez during council meetings. “There was never a doubt in my mind that she would beat this recall.”
Requests for comment from the other police union-backed council members, Phil Bacerra and Mayor Valerie Amezcua, went unreturned on Wednesday.
Cortes, the executive director of Chispa, was among the crowd of Lopez supporters watching the results at Chato’s.
He said the results “flip the script” of politics in Santa Ana.
As a standalone ballot question in the off season, special recall elections don’t tend to do well with voter turnout – especially among working young people, said Cortes.
“Everything was stacked against Jessie,” he said. “Your traditional assumption of a recall electorate was stacked against Jessie.”
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