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Politics Divide Santa Ana Leaders

The split between mayor and a recalled trustee, both Latino, grows out of their visions for the city. A pending lawsuit is the latest salvo in clash.

August 04, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

In their own ways, the two politicians champion Santa Ana and its mostly Latino population. But their conflicting visions divide the community.

Mayor Miguel A. Pulido sees a Santa Ana of growth and prosperity, an emerging center of mainstream commerce and industry. But former school board member Nativo V. Lopez sees a Santa Ana of simple aspirations, of disenfranchised immigrants struggling to make ends meet in a new homeland.

There is little compromise between the two visions and little collegiality between the two men. Political tension between them dates back 20 years and continues to rise.

Two years ago, Lopez sued Pulido, alleging the mayor had not fully declared his business interests on economic disclosure forms that California public officials file annually. This year, Pulido campaigned for the successful recall of Lopez from the Santa Ana Unified School District board.

Lopez's lawsuit against Pulido is scheduled next month in Orange County Superior Court.

"The public has the right to know what the mayor is doing, what his business interests are and how those affect the way he votes," said Lopez, executive officer of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a nonprofit immigrant-rights organization that has also filed lawsuits in the past over housing and redevelopment in Santa Ana. "To me, it's really not personal -- this is something of community interest."

Pulido declined comment for this article, referring calls to his attorneys. One of them, Bradley Hertz, wrote in a court document that Lopez's lawsuit is "an incomprehensible kitchen sink effort to prosecute and harass the city of Santa Ana and its mayor, Miguel Pulido, for a variety of ill-defined and unintelligible alleged wrongs."

Pulido, 47, is a native of Mexico City who has been on the City Council since 1986 and mayor since 1994. He tends to focus on polishing the often-tarnished image of a city surrounded by the pristine suburbs of Orange County. A conservative on immigration issues, he has played host to Presidents Bush, Clinton and Mexico's Vicente Fox in Santa Ana but local community leaders say they do not see enough of him.

By comparison, Lopez is one of the most vociferous voices for immigrants in a city where 75% of the residents speak Spanish. Lopez, 51, a native of Boyle Heights, supports bilingual education and legal status for undocumented immigrants.

Lopez said he helped Pulido get elected in 1986 with a band of immigrant campaign workers. But Lopez said he turned against Pulido after Pulido sent a political flier denouncing undocumented immigrants as the cause of crime in the city.

The philosophical rift between the two Latino leaders is the source of much debate in Santa Ana.

"I think at the very base of the conflict is the question: how do we as Americans interact with each other?" said Paul Giles, a community activist who operates an Internet chat group that focuses on Santa Ana issues. "Mr. Lopez's answer is: 'My ethnic group is more important than anything and I will do anything to get stuff for my ethnic group.' Mr. Pulido would say: 'We are all Americans and all have to work together.' "

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michael Metzler supported the recall against Lopez and says his lawsuit "is a merely a game of power that is being played. Mr. Lopez is now trying to use the courts to regain some of his lost power. To me, this is a personal matter. The court will determine if that is in fact the case."

Lopez said he hopes the lawsuit will force the mayor -- who for years claimed little more than a family muffler shop as his income source -- to disclose his other business and property interests.

"He has been voting where he has conflicts of interest and he has not disclosed that as is required by law," Lopez said.

"We want to hold him accountable as we would any other politician."

Critics have long speculated about Pulido's personal earnings, especially given his purchase in 1999 of a $915,000 house in Santa Ana. The mayor's position is a part-time job with a $200-a-month salary.

"There's something out there because he can't make that kind of money selling mufflers unless he is selling 24-carat mufflers," said downtown merchant Sam Romero.

Elected officials annually must report their economic interests in their city and within two miles of it on a form submitted to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Law experts say Pulido apparently violated state law by omitting businesses in or near Santa Ana.

Disclosure "is supposed to provide the public with an idea of what his interests are in the jurisdiction. If he doesn't disclose he has an interest, it's hard to know if his decisions are affected by them," said Chuck Bell, whose private law practice specializes in conflict-of-interest cases.

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