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Santa Ana mayor announces candidacy for Latino-majority district seat on county board

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento has announced a run for District 2 supervisor.
(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

It was seen as a historic vote late last year when the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a majority-Latino district for the first time.

Advocates celebrated the decision, seeing it as a way to get a voice for the Latino residents of the county on the conservative-leaning board.

So far, there are two candidates running for the seat in June — Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Nguyen and Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento.

Nguyen, who announced her bid last month, was the first Latina elected to the Garden Grove City Council in 2016.

Sarmiento, who has served for about 14 years on the Santa Ana City Council, announced his candidacy on Wednesday.

In a historic election for the city, he was elected mayor in 2020, replacing Miguel Pulido, who termed out after 26 years. Sarmiento ran as possibly the first Bolivian American mayoral candidate, and earned the trust of voters with a platform that put Santa Ana’s most vulnerable residents front and center.

During a phone interview Thursday morning, Sarmiento said the newly created district seat is a historic opportunity. If elected, Sarmiento would be the third Latino to be elected to the board.

Sarmiento could be a strong contender considering his Santa Ana background. District 2 contains all of Santa Ana, as well as portions of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Tustin and Orange. Nearly 63% of voting-age residents in the district are Latino.

“It’s finally going to incorporate a large percentage of the community that hasn’t been represented at the board, and that’s Latinos,” he said. “We make up about 35% of the county, and there hasn’t been somebody on that board for the past 15 years.”

If elected to the board, Sarmiento hopes to improve the county’s responsiveness to social inequities in the community. While serving on the Santa Ana dais, Sarmiento said he has seen the county drop the ball on providing social services to residents, including providing enough resources to cities to help reduce homelessness or making healthcare available to low-income residents.

Sarmiento specifically highlighted what he called the county’s deficiencies during the pandemic.

“First it was on testing. There was very inadequate attention paid to cities that we knew were going to have a spike in positivity rates,” he said. “Then in vaccine delivery, when we saw vaccine delivery go to other communities, and we knew where the hot spots were. We knew where those clusters of very, very dangerous conditions were, and the resources were going elsewhere.”

Research showed that Latino communities have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic in Orange County. However, many have been concerned during the pandemic that the county didn’t adequately include underserved communities in its vaccine distribution plans, which focused on mass sites called Super PODs at Disneyland and Soka University, among other locations.

Sarmiento said the city had to step in to provide services due to the county’s inaction. Sarmiento pointed out that his city set aside $12 million to provide stimulus checks to low-income residents. Last year, about 20,000 households received $300 stimulus checks. The checks will be passed out this year also.

“That’s some of the hard work that I’m most proud of because we didn’t just set up a tent somewhere and tell people to come to us, we went to them,” he said. “It was probably something that has been a shift in culture at the city because that’s just not the way things were done before my time. Now it’s become part of our effort.”

Sarmiento was raised in Santa Ana before heading north to UC Berkeley to get his bachelor’s degree in economics. He then earned his law degree from UCLA before returning to Santa Ana, where he started a financial law practice and went into public service.

Sarmiento spoke about a few of his most proud accomplishments while serving as mayor, including approving rent stabilization in November to limit the amount landlords can raise rents.

“By enacting the first rent stabilization ordinance in the county, that will prevent a lot of people from becoming homeless,” he said.

Sarmiento also spoke about the council’s approval of a new program that provides street outreach and care to homeless people, particularly those suffering with mental illness. The pilot program will steer calls for service away from the police department.

Many Orange County cities have adopted similar programs in order to free up police and decrease violent confrontations between law enforcement and people with mental health issues.

“We’ve shifted away from having a police response and moving to a civilian response, where people who are professionally trained can have that first contact,” Sarmiento said. “That’s a big deal for me.”

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