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Except for me and Sal Tinajero, the oversized, second-floor debate classroom at Fullerton Union High School was empty. Newspaper clips hailing Tinajero’s success as a teacher (he was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005 by Hispanic magazine) adorn one wall. To honor today’s migrant workers, as well as the memory of labor activist César Chávez, the black-eagle flag of the United Farm Workers hangs behind Tinajero’s desk. There’s no mystery that this teacher, who is also a Santa Ana city councilman, is an unabashed liberal. It’s a safe political stance in Santa Ana, the lone Democrat- and Latino-dominated city in Orange County’s vast white Republican landscape.
Or is it really safe?
The warm smile that seems natural to Tinajero disappears after one question: Are you the victim of political conspiracy?
He sighs and says, “Yes, I believe there was an effort to split the Latino vote by running a fake Latino candidate whose goal was to knock me out so that a white candidate, Thomas Gordon, would win Ward 6.”
And, he says, he has proof.
Gordon is a Republican, an outspoken community activist known for his work combating graffiti and an advocate of conservative principles. A surprise Gordon victory—only one-third of Santa Ana’s voters are white—would have meant the city would gain its first Republican councilman in years.
“I’m not an election-law expert,” says Tinajero, who is nearing the end of his first term on the council, “but what happened seems illegal. They tried to commit a fraud on Latino voters.”
Depending on who is speaking, Helen Martinez is or isn’t a legitimate City Council candidate. Identifying herself as a “community volunteer,” Martinez filed a petition to run in Ward 6 (the area near South Coast Plaza) in August. The Santa Ana native and single mother listed her occupation as vice president of the Santa Ana Council PTA; on her campaign website, she touts herself as someone who can “insure that our city moves in a positive direction and that we, the residents, are the ones who shape our city’s future.”
It’s an innocuous campaign pledge by a novice candidate who insists she is “not a politician.” She says she’s simply a parent who faults the current council for neglecting public safety and ignoring business-friendly policies. Her campaign is gaining strength, she says, because voters “are tired of nothing getting done.”
But if Tinajero is right, this PTA official is guilty of playing sinister politics like a pro.
I ask her about Tinajero’s vote-splitting allegation, and Martinez pauses. “That’s incorrect. I don’t have any alliance with Mr. Gordon,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
So why is Tinajero so suspicious of Martinez? There’s this pesky fact: Martinez signed the nomination papers for Gordon’s campaign. Yet it wasn’t just Martinez who backed Gordon. It appears that other voting-age adults at her South Ramona Street residence signed papers supporting Gordon’s candidacy against Tinajero. (The list includes Rosa V. Martinez, Susan Martinez and Jacob Martinez.)
There’s more to the mystery. Precisely 11 minutes before Gordon filed his Martinez-backed candidacy documents with the city clerk, Martinez submitted her own without the signature of anyone at her residence. So Martinez signed Gordon’s nomination papers, but not hers. “I would have signed Sal’s papers, too,” she explains. “See, I’m not a politician. Sal’s the politician.”
Rosa Aldaz also calls herself a non-political mom active in the Santa Ana PTA. She is also a stickler on ethics. In Tinajero’s case against Martinez, Aldaz is Exhibit A.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she says. “There was an effort not just to split the Latino vote for Mr. Gordon, but also to hurt Mr. Tinajero. I believe what they did was illegal.”
The statement is potent if for no other reason than Martinez lists Aldaz as her campaign’s contact person on an official city document.
“Helen wasn’t naive,” says Aldaz. “She knew exactly what she was doing. She said everybody does it. But she wasn’t the mastermind. Thomas and David Benavides put her up to it.”
Benavides is Tinajero’s colleague on the City Council; in fact, the men sit next to each other on the dais. If the seven Democratic Party members of the council like to present a unified voice to the community (and they do), Aldaz’s assertion seems to shine a spotlight on some behind-the-scenes backstabbing.
“I’ve lost all respect for Mr. Benavides,” says Aldaz. “What he did was morally wrong. I was appalled.”
Benavides did not respond to interview requests for this story by press time.