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Moreno Backers to Fight, but What Are the Odds?

Politics: With a longshot bid to unseat Santa Ana's mayor made even more so, will the councilman pursue it anyway?

September 07, 1998|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What will Ted do?

That's the question swirling around Santa Ana after last month's indictment of councilman and mayoral candidate Ted R. Moreno.

Before entering a plea of not guilty to public corruption, the combative Moreno was preparing a head-butting campaign against incumbent Miguel A. Pulido Jr. for leadership of the largest city in the county. As a council member, Moreno must leave office in 2000, but the separately elected office of mayor has no term limit.

Despite last month's 24-count indictment against him on charges of conspiracy, extortion and money laundering--the fruit of a two-year federal investigation--Moreno has insisted he's still a mayoral candidate.

And even if he chooses to drop out, it's too late to remove his name from the ballot, according to the city clerk's office and the county registrar of voters.

Moreno, 31, didn't return repeated calls for comment. Neither did his attorney, Edward Munoz. But Munoz said at Moreno's arraignment that the councilman was stressed and would have to "reassess" his bid for the mayor's office. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

"I don't have a sense that he's decided anything, but I think he'll try to fight this thing," said Pulido, who was elected mayor in 1994. "It doesn't change our campaign, but it makes it very awkward for everyone. There are a lot of other positive, exciting things going on in this city and we're going to talk about those. I don't think I need to connect the dots for people."

Several Santa Ana activists noted that Moreno filed candidacy papers Aug. 7 and clearly was aware then that he was under investigation by a federal grand jury. Running for mayor may be part of a strategy to fight the indictment and deny wrongdoing, while accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated because of the election, they suggested.

But even Moreno's supporters acknowledge that it will be difficult for him to stay focused in a race that would have been a longshot even without the indictment. Most Santa Ana political observers saw the mayoral challenge as a way for Moreno to build his political base with an eye toward a third attempt to gain a like-minded majority on the seven-member council.

"He was out to do some good things in his own way," said longtime community activist Arturo Montez. "The disappointment is that Ted has some good, solid issues that need to be addressed in Santa Ana, like how is the money being spent and physical planning. Whether Miguel is up to addressing them, I don't know. Miguel has had four years [as mayor] and nothing's been done."

Democratic political advisor George Urch said it's only a matter of time before reality hits and Moreno drops out of the race. Potential donors won't be excited about giving to an indicted candidate.

"He's still a voting member of the council until 2000 and he may use that as leverage to raise money, but people don't want to be giving money to someone who may have one foot in the federal pen," Urch said.

He said Moreno's political future further suffers because he built a constituency of people "on the outs" with the city who were hoping he could help them. He usually wasn't able to deliver, because he had only one other ally on the council, Tony Espinoza, who now faces one count of felony extortion in the alleged Moreno-led scheme.

"Ted was trying to create a constituency instead of respond to one," Urch said. "Ted always took the opposite view to Miguel because he wanted to juxtapose himself against the establishment. But it was politically calculated, not genuinely motivated."

Council candidate Zeke Hernandez, who lodged a complaint against Moreno during their 1994 Assembly race, said Moreno's biggest worry won't be winning the mayor's seat but how he'll pay the bills sure to pile up while he fights the indictment. State law allows campaign funds to be used for attorney fees only if the need for legal help arises out of the normal duties of a candidate or officeholder.

"This just makes it easier for Miguel to show voters that in terms of accomplishing something in Santa Ana, he has the majority support and the style to get things done," said Hernandez, who accused Moreno in 1994 of attempting to muscle him out of the Assembly race. He complained to the district attorney's office, which declined to act for lack of evidence.

Other activists, who declined to be identified by name because they feared political retribution by Moreno, said another factor could determine Moreno's future decision. State law holds candidates and their campaign treasurers liable under penalty of perjury for the accuracy of campaign finance reports, and Moreno's wife, Claudia, pregnant with the couple's third child, is his campaign treasurer. As such, she signed all of his campaign reports, including those that failed to list $31,000 in campaign contributions alleged in the federal indictment.

Montez said some Santa Ana voters remain sympathetic to Moreno, but whether it's enough to fuel a campaign remains to be seen.

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