Longtime mayor faces a challenge

Barboza is a Times staff writer.

After more than two decades in office and nearly 14 years as the mayor of Orange County’s largest city, Miguel Pulido finds himself on unfamiliar ground -- fighting for reelection.

And the challenger is one of his colleagues, a rookie councilwoman who is trying to win votes by painting the longtime mayor as being out of touch and inaccessible to many residents in the immigrant community.

The leader of the city of 350,000 watches over an area with urban ills not seen in other Orange County cities. Santa Ana is an arrival point for Latino immigrants, who make up much of the city and struggle with unemployment, high housing costs and a low-performing school system. Gang violence, which had been on a general decline since the mid-1990s, has resurged with nearly two dozen homicides so far this year, reaching last year’s total in September.

Michele Martinez, 29, narrowly elected to the council less than two years ago, said she is running to offer a more youthful alternative and to help shake off any sense of complacency the mayor may have developed.


“He’s had the opportunity to make a difference for over two decades,” she said.

The campaign has showcased their contrasts: Pulido, the composed statesman at ease working with the establishment, and Martinez, the sassy populist with roots in a gang-plagued community.

By most measures, Martinez’s bid to unseat the mayor is a long shot.

Aside from Martinez, the entire council is supporting the mayor’s reelection.

Pulido, 52, is backed by many of the city’s neighborhood association leaders, influential developers and the police and fire unions, a base that has helped him get elected every two years since 1994, often by margins of more than 70%. And the mayor has reported raising $42,500 so far this year, four times as much as Martinez.

But this year, Pulido has felt compelled to step up his campaign, organizing a corps of 40 volunteers who work a phone bank and knock on doors, an effort he would not have undertaken if Martinez had not challenged him.

“We’re having to work extra hard,” he said.

Also running are George Collins, a video producer who records city meetings and posts them online; and Stanley Fiala, a regular speaker at council meetings.

Pulido’s supporters characterize him as a tireless, behind-the-scenes deal maker who is influential in county and state politics. He touts his connections to state legislators and other big city mayors, and says he has the tested experience to balance the relatively green City Council members, many still in their first term.

“You don’t want to go to a surgeon that’s never operated before; you don’t want to have a pilot flying an airplane that’s never flown,” he said at a recent forum.

Critics see him as a low-voltage mayor who is often absent at community events.

Albert Castillo, an organizer with the neighborhood group Barrios Unidos, has backed Martinez, criticizing Pulido for being out of touch on issues such as immigration reform, crime and poverty, and for too often favoring developers over small businesses.

“In the beginning he was a good councilman, and I supported him back then, but now he’s gone in with the good old boys and played ball with them,” he said.

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro, a longtime friend of Pulido, said the mayor’s reclusive reputation has been misinterpreted.

“There is a huge side of Miguel that is much more interested in accomplishing things than cutting ribbons and getting his picture in the paper,” he said.

Although the mayor of Santa Ana is a position with part-time pay and no more voting power than council members, it is heavily symbolic. Pulido, born in Mexico City and Santa Ana’s first Latino mayor, now presides over an all-Latino council in one of the nation’s largest predominantly Latino cities.

Martinez, a fourth-generation Latina who grew up in Santa Ana, has styled herself as a grass-roots advocate of “the people’s agenda,” a more responsive representative of a city where the median age is 28 and where many of its problems involve youth living in poverty.

She has pushed the city to address the causes of gang violence and has opposed the mayor on the relaxing of council term limits. The city, she says, needs to do more to promote small businesses and make city services more accessible and transparent.

Pulido defends his record, pointing to improvements to city streets, negotiations with the Chivas USA to build a professional soccer complex in town and funding secured to study projects such as creating a light-rail system through the city’s downtown.

Although Martinez and others paint Pulido as inaccessible and distant, he likens himself to other big city mayors, saying he constantly balances community appearances with city dealings, board meetings and running several businesses, including a consulting firm and his family’s muffler shop.

Martinez is a self-employed consultant and criminal justice student at Cal State Fullerton, young enough that her campaign video on YouTube shows her text-messaging her constituents.

“I represent the majority: The majority of our kids are poverty stricken, they come from single households, and they’re around an environment that is in total disrepair like I was,” she said.

Martinez openly discusses her troubled childhood, growing up in a gang neighborhood with a mother she said was addicted to heroin and selling drugs herself as a teenager. At times she has used her background to appeal to the community.

After a 13-year-old boy died in a gang shooting, she organized a town hall meeting in a park, giving a speech that highlighted her rough upbringing before promoting a 100-day plan to “reclaim our communities for youth from gang violence” through outreach with local churches.

And this summer, while Pulido stood in front of TV cameras to announce the arrest of 85 alleged gang members in a police sweep, Martinez was dealing with the fallout of her brother being one of those arrested. She later said the city manager, police chief and mayor had conspired to deliberately target her family.

Her past sometimes has been a liability.

Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez, a Pulido ally, has elicited boos during public forums for mentioning Martinez’s brother’s arrest and calling her a “self-admitted drug dealer.”

Martinez said it was “ridiculous for them to discredit me over my childhood. Everybody makes mistakes.”

For residents who have seen Pulido come from being one of the city’s early Latino leaders to becoming an institution in his own right, the contest has been divisive.

“She’s giving him a run for his money,” said Tish Leon, a parks commissioner who said it was a difficult decision to settle on supporting Martinez.

Martinez said she won’t be utterly disappointed if she doesn’t win. She will hold on to her City Council seat for another two years, after all.

“It doesn’t really make a difference what the outcome is, it really doesn’t, because we were able to get this guy to work with others, open his campaign and actually walk door to door,” she said. “That was a victory in itself.”