Adding youth to the mix

Times Staff Writer

She is all of 27, the daughter of a heroin addict, a product of a gang-infested community and the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Michele Martinez is also -- quite suddenly -- one of the more powerful people in Santa Ana, and she is not embarrassed to admit that she has assembled a 20-person kitchen cabinet to help her make decisions.

Martinez, known for her sassy personality, is hoping to shake up city politics in Santa Ana, where for years critics have charged too much happens behind closed doors, community input is stymied and there is not enough access to elected officials.

Other Latinos who have served on the council have been more educated -- former Councilman Jose Solorio, was educated at Harvard University. Or more accomplished -- Mayor Miguel Pulido owns several businesses. Martinez is employed at a lending company while working toward her college diploma at California State University Fullerton.


But, in her underdog victory in November, she defeated three better-known opponents, including one backed by the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce.

Elections “don’t happen to people like me,” she said.

Martinez is one of six children born to a drug addict in Santa Ana. While her mother served four years in prison and four years in county jails for various drug offenses, Martinez was raised by a great-grandmother who also cared for her five siblings and seven cousins. She said she never knew her father.

Martinez’ mother, Maryann Oliva Martinez, 43, said her daughter’s goal was to “not be like anyone in our family.

“No one has gone as far as she has in our family,” she said. “Everyone else dropped out of high school in the eighth and ninth grade. She always wanted to better herself.”

When Martinez graduated from high school, she said her mother told her: “The best thing I can do is make you go on your own.”

“She gave me two weeks to leave the house,” Martinez said.

She moved into a $750-a-month apartment and worked part-time jobs, her first as a basketball coach for the city’s parks division. Later she was a receptionist at Gold Coast Bakery and, by 21, was promoted to human resources manager. After the company was sold, Martinez became a human resources manager with ConquistAmerica, a lending company.

She applied to sit on the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission and was appointed by then-Councilman Mike Garcia.

In 2005, she bought a $270,000 two-bedroom condominium in the French Park Historic District, within walking distance of City Hall. She said the condo, bought without a down payment, is perfect for a single person like herself.

That same year, she got the idea to be a council member, despite no experience in local politics and no financial backing.

“I wanted to give back to my community, particularly the youth in this community,” Martinez said. “I felt I needed to be part of the policy-making to make a difference.”

Taking a page from her personal life, Martinez the councilwoman has surrounded herself with political mentors.

As the campaign began, Martinez met with downtown merchants, among them jewelry seller Teresa Saldivar, who looked over Martinez’s hip-hugging wardrobe and her bleach-blond hair.

Martinez recalled Saldivar advised her that her clothes were too tight, her earrings too big and that she needed to look more professional. “She gave me tips like a mother should,” Martinez said. “Most people might not take that. I said, ‘Thanks very much for caring.’ ”

The next day, Martinez bought several business suits. She dyed her hair brown and had it cut in a stylish bob.

“I knew that constructive criticism was going to prepare me for interacting with professionals and people in the political field,” Martinez said. “This isn’t a young person’s game. You need to carry yourself that way.”

Nonetheless, she knew she had a healthy group of critics disparaging her effort to run against Fortino Rivera, endorsed by the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as Evangeline Gawronski, a longtime community activist, and Tish Leon, who works at Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization dedicated to health education.

During her 18-month campaign, Martinez raised $33,000, about three-fourths of what Rivera took in.

“People laughed at me,” Martinez said. “I wanted to prove to them that no matter where you are from, you can accomplish something if you work hard.”

Martinez’s campaign platform was hardly revolutionary. She said she would encourage more recreation programs for youths, attract new businesses and jobs to the city and increase public safety and city services. In part, Martinez appealed to voters who sought a new and energetic voice.

Martinez is the second-youngest person to ever serve on the City Council.

One of her first moves has been to establish a 20-member advisory committee. The committee has drawn community activists from across the political spectrum, including personalities that have previously clashed.

The unusual alliance is cited as evidence by longtime city government opponents who think they may finally have a chance against the well-entrenched power of the veteran mayor, Pulido, elected to the council in 1986, and his allies. Pulido did not return calls for comment.

The committee members, who have already met a half-dozen times, “can be a think tank for me,” Martinez said. “They can help us create transparency in the city’s government.”

The members, she said, “all have passion. They have anger. I need them to help me.”

At recent meetings, the group has discussed televising more City Council meetings, making the government more accessible and who to endorse for a vacancy on the City Council.”

Before, we never saw any possibility for change,” said Arturo Lomeli, a dentist involved in local politics. “I felt we all were going around in circles. Now, there is a chance. She is a driving force and that is what is so exciting about this.”

At her first council meeting, Martinez made the bold move of proposing a limit on the number of times the mayor can run for reelection. The motion failed by a 3-3 vote. But the vote signaled the possibility that Martinez and council members Sal Tinajero and Claudia Alvarez have the potential for a more liberal majority.

This new mix of council members comes at a critical time. The council has to fill a vacancy left by Solorio’s election to the Assembly. Council members will decide this week whether to appoint someone for the vacated seat or hold a special election.

No matter who takes the seat, opponents argue that Martinez is too young and inexperienced to make an impact while on the council and her committee might not be able to save her.

“The community elected Michele. They didn’t elect this 20-member cabal,” said Tim Rush, co-chairman of the Wilshire Square Neighborhood Assn. “To give her credit, I think she is attempting to get input from people.... I applaud her efforts, but I think she’ll find it’s an unwieldy bureaucracy she set up for herself.”

But Martinez brushed off the criticism, adding that she was already thinking about running for mayor in 2008 -- and maybe higher office after that.

“I believe I’m a true charismatic leader and I think I can encourage people to follow my vision and I don’t come across as a politician,” Martinez said. “My agenda is the people’s agenda.”