The Greening of Santa Ana's Miguel Pulido : Politics: Some constituents say the councilman's new conciliatory style means he has learned to be a leader. But others suggest that he has abandoned his role as Latino spokesman.


These days, City Councilman Miguel Angel Pulido doesn't rile easily.

Whether he is working in his eighth-floor City Hall office or meeting a constituent at a Taco Bell table next door to his family's muffler shop, Pulido is a different man, by his own admission, than the young man who once railed against City Hall.

Pulido, 33, is not the kind of politician many voters expected when they elected him three years ago. The councilman, whose first encounter with government was a pitched community battle, has changed. To some of his constituents, the changes show that Pulido has learned to be a leader. But others suggest that he has abandoned his role as spokesman for Santa Ana's Latino community.

Pulido said he has decided not to work from a soapbox and has instead chosen to be a team player, assuming a quiet, behind-the-scenes approach. Even at a recent council meeting where members hurled insults at each other over a redevelopment plan, Pulido remained quiet, finally suggesting that they postpone the vote.

For Pulido, all of this started by chance.

The Pulido family fell into politics in 1983, when the city threatened to raze patriarch Miguel Armando Pulido's muffler shop on East 1st Street to make way for downtown redevelopment. The younger Pulido, who had graduated from Cal State Fullerton on a tennis scholarship, quit his job with an engineering firm in Tustin to help his father's legal battle with Santa Ana. At that time, he did not even know the names of the council members.

After a long and bitter struggle, which eventually attracted the city's diverse Latino leaders to the cause, the family won, and the muffler shop remained.

In August, 1986, fresh from his family's success, Pulido announced in front of the shop that he was running for City Council.

"During this fight, I was forced to open my eyes to some disturbing facts about Santa Ana government," Pulido said then. "I learned that an individual's dreams can be wiped out completely by a majority vote of the Santa Ana City Council if folks are not willing to cast down the gauntlet and fight for what is rightfully theirs."

During the waning days of campaigning, Pulido angered some Latino leaders by issuing a mailer urging strict enforcement of laws affecting undocumented workers. Pulido, who admits that the letter upset some supporters, still got a majority of the Latino vote.

Pulido spent his first years on the council scrambling to learn about City Hall and local politics and answering phone calls from constituents who needed advice on anything from trash prices to American customs.

He also had to alleviate the concern among some city leaders that he would try to dismantle city government.

"There was fear that I would do everything I could do to destroy City Hall," Pulido said. "I had no intention of doing that."

What did happen in those first years, Pulido said, was a transition, in which he learned to perform a balancing act, representing both the Latino community and all of Santa Ana.

His staunchest supporters say Pulido is doing fine.

"He's the Hispanic politician of the 1980s and the '90s," said Reuben Martinez, secretary of the Orange County Democratic Club. "People want Miguel to knock down doors. That's a different generation. He looks boring compared to other politicians in the past. He doesn't cuss and he doesn't drink. But he has his own way of taking care of business."

But some say Pulido, born in Mexico, has abandoned his Latino community.

"Miguel has not taken a stand on anything," complained Sam Romero, a community leader who supported Pulido in 1986. "We're still waiting for the champion of the lower rung to show up. But he hasn't materialized."

Romero did say, however, that Pulido provides "a flicker of hope" through his efforts to exempt some homes on Bristol Street from being razed as part of a $335-million redevelopment project.

To Zeke Hernandez, president of the Santa Ana chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens, Pulido has been a "disappointment."

"He's in his own world," said Hernandez, who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in 1988. "He's failed to keep a close rapport with his own community."

As a Latino politician, Pulido should help found neighborhood associations, attend community meetings and react strongly to issues that may affect Latinos, Hernandez said.

"Being visible is just as important as the decisions he makes on the council," Hernandez said.

But Councilman John Acosta, the only other Latino on the council, said Pulido is facing the same scrutiny he faced--and the same demands from the Latino constituents that he represent only them.

"If he says no to any requests, that naturally upsets some in the community," Acosta said.

Pulido also has to break stereotypes about Latino leaders, Acosta said. Pulido is a new breed of Latino politician, who does not need to be loud to be heard, said Acosta, who admits to being on the brassy side.

"Miguel will go places in politics," he said, "because he's got a smooth, quiet approach. He sits down and analyzes what approaches he should take."

Pulido's supporters say his leadership in ensuring that all Latinos are counted in the coming U.S. Census and in the battle to keep a jail from being built in Santa Ana has served his constituents well.

Pulido adamantly insists that he represents Latinos, but not Latinos alone.

"If people are saying that I'm ignoring a particular group, that is not the case," Pulido said. "My efforts are to help people across the board."

Pulido said he is "very comfortable and secure" himself.

"It's very easy to judge and come up with the wrong conclusions," he said. "I don't want folks to think of me that way. Whenever you do something, good or bad, there's going to be criticism."

Pulido defended his approach: "I'm not unemotional, but I'm not going to throw a temper tantrum and then apologize later for it."

Pulido, who has missed just one council meeting since 1987, acknowledged that his tenure has been "stressful."

"People want more than what I can possibly do," he said.

His father said Pulido, a bachelor and vegetarian who does not drink or smoke, "used to look like a kid before he started (being a councilman). He's getting old fast because he's always worrying about the people."

The younger Pulido gives his phone number and address to anyone who asks for it. For now, he said, he is content to remain a councilman and will not speculate on his political future--although in the past he has said he would consider running in 1990 for the 72nd Assembly District seat held by Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove).

"When we had trouble at the muffler shop, the council didn't have five minutes for us," Pulido said. "We fought the hard way. If you are a congressman or president of the United States, maybe you don't have time for everybody. But I'm a councilman; I have the time for people to talk to me."

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