When he was elected to the Santa Ana City Council in 1986, Miguel Pulido was cast as the young Latino outsider taking on the city's political establishment, fighting to save his family's muffler shop from being swallowed up by redevelopment.
The budding politician who was born in Mexico City was quickly embraced by other Latinos in Santa Ana, who, in 1994, helped elect him the city's first Latino mayor.
As Pulido appears headed toward easy reelection in November to his fifth two-year term as mayor, his former supporters ponder his changed politics and some consider that he now embraces the very establishment he once scorned.
Critics say Pulido is cavalierly dismissing the Latinos who make up a plurality of Santa Ana's population -- but who wield relatively little political influence -- and that he is playing the role of the reclusive, political elitist.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Santa Ana mayor -- An article in Sunday's California section about complaints that Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido has turned his back on early grass-roots supporters quoted City Manager David N. Ream as describing Pulido as "a kind of non-public person in a public position." It should have added that Ream made the comment in a January interview.
"He's an invisible mayor," said city government critic Art Pedroza, a construction project manager. "A lot of us have no clue how he thinks about a lot of things."
Pulido prefers to see his role as benevolent patriarch.
"Our job is not to engage people, not to put more burden on them," Pulido, 48, said in an interview earlier this year. "Our job is to solve problems to make their lives better."
But some political adversaries complain that Pulido no longer empathizes with fellow immigrants.
For instance, he said at the time that Proposition 187, which sought in 1994 to ban illegal immigrants' access to education and other social services, didn't go far enough to control immigration.
Downtown Latino merchants question why Pulido champions the artists village of expensive residential lofts and art galleries where few Latinos live or work, but doesn't better promote mom-and-pop businesses operated by immigrants. Others question his support of a sign highlighting a Vietnamese business district when few signs direct visitors to the Latino merchants on 4th Street.
Downtown merchant Sam Romero likens the mayor to La Malinche, the Aztec woman considered a traitor because she translated for Hernan Cortes as he conquered Mexico. And Nativo Lopez, an immigrant rights advocate who is a bitter political opponent of the mayor, calls him "a white man's Mexican."
The most recent sting to the Latino community came from Councilwoman Lisa Bist, who said Pulido will endorse a non-Latino for a council seat in November because he does not want more Latinos on the City Council.
"I think it's news that he is specifically not endorsing a Latino," Bist said. "You can be representative of a community as a man with a family, but you won't endorse someone who is more [ethnically] representative? It doesn't make sense."
Pulido says his ethnic roots are irrelevant.
"When I came in, people thought, 'He is going to do this and that,' because of my ethnicity," Pulido said in a February interview. "I'm interested in trees," referring to his campaign to preserve older trees in the city. "Are trees Hispanic or not? I don't think it matters."
Residents of the city's less affluent neighborhoods complain that their roads are in worse shape than those elsewhere in the city, that code enforcement is lax when it should be strict and stringent when it should be more forgiving. Such issues are rarely, if ever, addressed by Pulido and other elected officials, residents say.
Cynics wonder if the city's poor are dismissed because so many residents are uneducated immigrants and not politically engaged.
"There is a silent majority that doesn't speak about what their needs are. They don't even see the reason to vote," said Roman Reyna, a City Council candidate running against incumbent Claudia Alvarez. "They have lost their faith in the city's government and they do not realize that they have a voice."
About 32% of Santa Ana's registered voters cast ballots in March, compared to 44% statewide and 42% in Orange County.
There are few influential community activists and advocacy organizations to address ethnic issues or concerns. And few candidates -- Latino or white -- can attract the money necessary to unseat Pulido.
As a result, there is little political wherewithal in Santa Ana to challenge Pulido's reelection bid, a reality that was made clear to Dave Lopez and other Santa Ana residents who tried for months to recruit candidates to oppose him.
"We found a lot of people who are worried about what's happening in the city," Lopez said. "Finding someone who could really challenge Miguel, though, was impossible."
The political shadow that Pulido casts over the city belies his upstart roots and current lifestyle.
Pulido emigrated from Mexico City as a 5-year-old and remembers struggling to speak English in kindergarten. He graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1980 and worked as a mechanical engineer for several years. In 1984, he made his name by successfully fighting the city's efforts to condemn his father's muffler shop.