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 disappeared after one question: Are you the victim of political conspiracy?
He sighed before saying, "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." Tinajero says he can prove it.
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 white Republican councilman in years.
"I'm not an election-law expert," adds 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 told me in an interview that 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 said, because voters "are tired of nothing getting done."
Yet, if Tinajero is right, this PTA official is guilty of playing sinister politics like a pro.
I asked her about Tinajero's vote-splitting allegation. Martinez paused and said, "That's incorrect. I don't have any alliance with Mr. Gordon. 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 only Martinez who supported Gordon. It appears that other voting-age adults at her South Ramona Street residence signed papers backing Gordon's candidacy against Tinajero. (The list also 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 candidacy without the signature of anyone at her residence. So Martinez signed Gordon's nomination papers, but not her own.
"I would have signed Sal's papers, too," she explained to me. "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 told me. "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," said 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 six 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," said Aldaz. "What he did was morally wrong. I was appalled."
Benavides did not respond to interview requests for this story by press time.
How can Aldaz be so sure of not only a conspiracy, but also the identities of the participants?
Said Aldaz, "Helen admitted everything to me, and I can prove it."
Before we get to that alleged proof, let's note an irony: Gordon didn't qualify for the ballot to run against Tinajero, Martinez and Nam Pham.
"I turned in 23 signatures," he told me. "I needed 20, but the clerk disqualified a few of them, including my own. Imagine that: They claimed my signature didn't match my voter registration. But hey, I'm not going to claim any conspiracy. I screwed up. Shame on me. . . . I kick myself every day that I'm not running against Sal."
Did he conspire to split the Latino vote before his nomination debacle? "Come on!" said Gordon, adding he would welcome an investigation. "They've got you chasing the bogeyman. . . . I've broken no laws. Look, I'm loud, and I get in people's faces at City Hall, and they don't like it."
The idea of planting fake candidates on a ballot isn't unusual. Democrat Larry Agran kept control of the Irvine City Council in 2004 by having Earle Zucht run as a Republican. Zucht, whose campaign tellingly spouted Agran's talking points, siphoned several thousand key votes from authentic GOP candidates. California's election code makes it a crime punishable by prison time to submit false declarations of candidacy or commit an act of voter fraud. But such schemes rarely get prosecuted because of lack of evidence.
Aldaz insists that is not the case in Santa Ana. She has documents--notably, e-mails from Martinez to her and another woman, Irma Macias--that she says prove the conspiracy. Aldaz provided those e-mails to Tinajero, as well as the Weekly (and law enforcement). I corresponded with Martinez and set up our phone interview using the same address on the e-mails Aldaz provided.
"Hey, Girls," Martinez allegedly wrote on Aug. 8 letter. "I am running for council member of Ward 6. I filed yesterday just before cut off time. I trust both of you to not share this with anyone, but I'm sure you've both figured out why I'm doing this. . . . If anyone asks you why I am running, just say that I want to make a change in our community before we end up like the city of Bell."
On Aug. 21, Martinez allegedly sent another e-mail to Aldaz.
"I know that you are upset, and quite frankly I'm disappointed, too," the e-mail reads. "Tom and I only committed an illegal action for two hours. Two hours because that is how long it took Tom to be told that he did not make enough signatures to put him on the ballot."
She also claimed "David" had called to discuss dropping out after Gordon didn't qualify and noted, "Tom helps where he can, but still kicks himself in the butt for his mistake."
Martinez disputes even the existence of the e-mails. "I have no idea what [Aldaz] is talking about," Martinez told me.
For her part, Aldaz declares, "I couldn't sit on this. If Helen wanted to make change in the city, she should have tried to do it honestly."
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Councilman Tinajero said that he believes at least two sections of the California Election Code relate to the allegations. They are:
"Any person who files or submits for filing a nomination paper or declaration of candidacy knowing that it or any part of it has been made falsely is punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months or two or three years or by both the fine and imprisonment."
"Any person who commits fraud or attempts to commit fraud, and any person who aids or abets fraud or attempts to aid or abet fraud, in connection with any vote case, to be cast, or attempted to be cast, is guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment for 16 months or two or three years."