Mayoral candidate David Benavides, left, listens as Miguel Pulido speaks… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
For nearly two decades, Miguel Pulido has been the face of Santa Ana, a no-nonsense immigrant from Mexico City who seemed a natural choice to lead one of the most Latino cities in America.
During his time as mayor, the crime rate has gone down, an arts academy moved in and the city's historic downtown teems with night life. But Pulido's grip on the reins of power in a city that bills itself as "downtown Orange County" seems to be headed in the opposite direction.
For the first time, Santa Ana leaders, activists and political insiders are actively urging voters to make a change in November and replace the man who some have come to view as the "invisible mayor."
"I think it's the start of an awakening within the city," said Councilman Sal Tinajero, who along with two council colleagues are backing Councilman David Benavides.
Longtime Pulido allies, such as the county's Democratic Party, the county's labor federation and the city's police union, also have deserted the long-time mayor and jumped behind Benavides, the best known of five candidates challenging Pulido.
"In order to make good decisions for a city you need to have a pulse and understand what the needs and the issues are in the community, both for the residents and businesses," said Benavides, who believes City Hall has become largely inaccessible to residents in the immigrant community under Pulido's watch.
Pulido, he said, has been "absent from our community for far too long."
The son of an immigrant farmworker, Pulido, 56, became interested in city government when his family was locked in a two-year battle against a plan to raze the family muffler shop. He was first elected to the City Council in 1986 and eight years later became Santa Ana's first Latino mayor. As the years and successful reelection campaigns rolled by, he became an Orange County institution, serving on up to eight committees at a time, from the county's transportation authority to the Great Park board.
He lives in one of city's best neighborhoods, is a vegetarian and is married to a former Register reporter. He is known for his fundraising ability and keeping a packed schedule. He also has a reputation for arriving late and leaving early. Pulido grants few interviews and seems content to avoid the media. He did not respond to The Times' requests for interviews.
Nearly from the beginning of his political career, Pulido has been criticized for not taking a more active role in advocating for Latinos, who now make up 78% of the city's 330,000 residents. At one point, an immigrant-rights group called the then-councilman a "traitor" for allegedly turning his back on a troubled neighborhood in town.
In 1995, Pulido introduced then-President Clinton to a crowd of Latino students without addressing them in Spanish, a move some interpreted as offensive. And in 2006, he hunkered down inside the police station when thousands poured into the city streets in an immigrant rights rally.
"This was an important day for immigrants and all who respect immigrants. And this is a mayor who can't be found," Amin David, a longtime Latino rights activist in the county, said at the time.
"I don't feel the connection some people assume I feel," Pulido said in a 1994 Times profile. "I don't think any one voice can speak on behalf of all Hispanics."
Pulido seemed unfazed about election day at a recent candidate forum, saying he was running his campaign as normal and hadn't beefed up staff.
"I'm feeling very confident that Santa Ana voters will respond to my message," he said.
Colleagues complain that Pulido is too insular and doesn't do enough to nurture city leadership.
"He knows the rules of the game," said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who ran an unsuccessful bid against Pulido in 2008. "Our staff are intimidated because they know that he's had the power for that long.
But the power is shifting. Despite improvements in the city, Pulido's election day support has declined over the years: He drew 71% of the vote in 2004 and 45% two years ago.
Still, unseating Orange County's longest-serving mayor will be tough.
"He's like Tide and Coca-Cola," said Martinez, who is backing Benavides. "Mayor Miguel Pulido is a brand."
Besides Benavides, the other candidates are Roy Alvarado, a retired engineer; Miguel Briseno, a retail manager; videographer George Collins and Lupe Moreno, an office specialist and admirer of the Minuteman Project.
Benavides, 36, was born and raised in East Los Angeles, the first in his family to attend college. In 1996, he moved to one of Santa Ana's toughest neighborhoods to mentor at-risk youth as part of an internship for KidWorks, a nonprofit that helps children and families in challenged neighborhoods. He still lives in the area.
Benavides says he's kept his finger on the pulse of the city, in part from his work with neighborhood associations and by holding walk-in office hours during his time as a councilman.
"I would vote for anyone but Miguel," said Debbie McEwen, a longtime resident and neighborhood activist. She says Pulido is not in touch with the city and often hears complaints from people who've tried to get meetings with the mayor.
"Most people either get handed off to somebody else or neglected or ignored or denied, until they finally just move along," she said.
But Santa Ana School Board President Rob Richardson said it might be too early to underestimate Pulido's appeal.
"I think what people care about is what happens outside my front door," he said. "Those things are really important."
He sees the race as an indicator of change within the city.
"I think, 30 years ago, there was a real question mark on where Santa Ana was going to go," he said. "I think we're heading in the right direction."