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Failed recall heralds new era for Latino politics in Orange County

On a typical evening, Chatos Bar and Grill in downtown Santa Ana serves good Mexican food and cocktails in a half-empty dining room. By November 14, the line was over, but tacos and tequila were the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Supporters of Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Jessie Lopez were ready to party. For months, they had knocked on doors in Lopez’s neighborhood, in the wealthier northern part of the city, fighting a recall against her.

Criticism, fueled by nearly $800,000 from real estate groups and the city’s powerful police union, portrayed Lopez as a radical out of touch because she voted for rent control and a civil commission police surveillance. Lopez, 34, who is in her first term, was one of four outspoken progressives on the council and considered the easiest to eliminate.

Although he was trailed 8-1, Lopez pushed the recall from 56% to 43%. That’s why election night at Chato’s was as joyful as any gathering I’ve seen covering Santa Ana politics for almost as long as most of Lopez’s young volunteers have lived.

The supporters were mostly Latino but also white, black and Vietnamese. College students mixed with seniors. Artists stood alongside small business owners. Lopez’s longtime friends embraced constituents who voted against her in 2020, but were won over by the council member’s attention to meat-and-potato issues like broken streetlights and traffic. Even the police came to pay their respects.

One giddy speaker after another took turns on a stage where a DJ usually spun tunes.

“They tried to trample on our rights,” Orange County Supervisor and former Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento told the roaring crowd. “Now we’re saying, ‘You can’t buy this election.’ You can’t buy us. Santa Ana is not for sale,” pronouncing the town “SanTana” as the locals do.

Members of the Working Families Party of Los Angeles, of which Lopez is a member, drove down. So did Cudahy board member Elizabeth Alcantar, who met Lopez while the two were visiting Long Beach State. Everyone knew that history had been made that night, even if they didn’t grasp the full magnitude of what had happened.

Recall supporters, including Mayor Valerie Amezcua and Councilmember Phil Bacerra, have yet to speak publicly about the results. They should regret the choice of letting hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative mailings make their anti-Lopez argument for them, instead of doing the legwork as the winning side did.

I haven’t written about the recall until now because my wife has worked in catering for the city for the past year. But I’ve been following it closely, because it’s a bellwether of Latino politics in Orange County.

Twenty years ago, another progressive Santa Ana elected official named Lopez faced a well-funded recall. He was the late Nativo Lopez, a pioneering Chicano activist and Santa Ana Unified School District administrator who helped launch Orange County’s purple political transformation in the mid-1990s by enrolling tens of thousands of Latinos on the electoral lists. He wanted to found a political dynasty, but his arrogant ways, cronyism and RazaHis primitive mentality made him anathema in the eyes of the city’s ruling class. A recall against him in 2003 passed with 70% of the vote, and he never held office again.

His crushing defeat largely deterred progressive-leaning Latinos from running for office in Orange County for a generation. In Santa Ana, activists fought political windmills while moderate council members — almost all Latino Democrats — passed policies that ceded city property to developers, encouraged gentrification and granted big raises at the police department, which the union then spent millions of dollars to help. their preferred candidates remain in power or eliminate those they do not like.

Those days seemed gone during Lopez’s celebration.

Construction crews are working to complete the OC Streetcar in downtown Santa Ana in 2022, as well as housing developments along its route. Some residents welcome the coming changes. Others worry that transit-oriented development will only worsen the area’s gentrification.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Since taking office in 2020, the Santa Ana City Council has passed the aforementioned rent control ordinance (the only one of its kind in Orange County) and created a permanent fund to help residents with fight against eviction. Last month, the council proposed a measure on the 2024 ballot allowing non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections, which would be a first in California if passed.

“At the end of the night, I took Jessie aside and said, ‘This may not be understood tonight, but you’re on a very long journey,'” Sarmiento told me a few days later. “People lost seats and races, and paved the way for this moment for you. You stand on the shoulders of a group of people who have given up a lot.

“The energy of that room had an incredibly powerful impact, and I hope it stays that way,” Lopez said in a phone interview before leaving for a well-deserved break. “What I saw that night, I know I will never forget.”

Santa Ana’s progressive shift is part of a trend in Southern California where young Latinos are taking on their liberal elders, in the same way that Los Angeles City Council member Eunisses Hernandez upset Gil Cedillo, then in office, last year. Indeed, Hernández connected Lopez with volunteers and donors, prompting Lopez’s opponents to launch attack letters alleging that Los Angeles wokosos were infiltrating Orange County.

In fact, local activists have been planning a takeover of Santa Ana politics for years. These are people I have known forever, people who have long been proud of not being involved in the vendido world of politics, but I fell into it out of frustration.

Bulmaro "Boomer" Vicente

Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente is the political director of Chispa, an organization that seeks to be the voice of young Latino activists and which helped Santa Ana council member Jessie Lopez fend off a recall attempt this month .

(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Lopez, for example, became involved in the fight for the Willowick Golf Course, a 102-acre green space located in Santa Ana but owned by the city of Garden Grove. Santa Ana officials have long wanted to develop the land, but residents who live near Willowick organized to make sure they would have a say.

“We presented (resident) surveys to the Garden Grove and Santa Ana city councils” around 2019, the council member said. “They rejected this information. They didn’t want to meet us. They didn’t even respond to our emails.

Soon after, Lopez volunteered for the Santa Ana Unified Administration campaign of Carolyn Torres, whom I first met in the early 2010s when she was fighting gang injunctions to Santa Ana as a member of the Chicanos Unidos group.

“Politicians always told us, ‘You can be activists, but you can’t participate in electoral politics,’” said Torres, who now presides over a progressive majority as board president. “But when I started to see that we kept hitting this wall to convince decision-makers of our things – even allies who didn’t want to step onto a ledge – I knew we had to run.”

Chispa, a nonprofit run by Hairo Cortes, 31, supported Lopez and Torres. I first saw him in action as a student arrested for protesting expulsions. He was also skeptical of politics until 2016, when police union-backed council candidates defeated two activist friends.

“It was our ‘aha’ moment,” he said. His voice was still hoarse from Lopez’s election night. “We thought, ‘We need to invest in an electoral strategy. We don’t know what that means, but we will learn.

Chispa — which can support candidates and political issues as a registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit — joined with other groups to develop a handbook. They were careful not to make it just a Latino thing, Cortes said, because “we can’t win at the expense of other communities.” It’s not winning.

Another element of their strategy was to have Chispa’s political director, Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente, run in the 2022 legislative elections. He received only 15% of the vote in the primaries and was unsuccessful to run in the general elections.

But “by losing, he learned a lot of things” to help Lopez stay in power, Cortes said. “How to organize races on a larger scale and sophistication that we are not used to. Why shouldn’t a candidate for city council present it like that? This fool has learned to raise funds! »

Cortes, Vicente and others partied late into the night and continued into the early morning. The plan for 2024 is for Lopez and Torres to run for office, while their supporters volunteer for their races and others to maintain progressive majorities on the city council and school board. The hope is that from Santa Ana, a historic bastion of Latino politics in Orange County, this new model of victory can spread.

“Jessie’s win is huge,” Torres said. “The ‘These leftists coming here are not going to be deep,’ is over. Campaign season after campaign season, it is clear what the community wants.

Los Angeles Times

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