Santa Ana held elections for city council last November but candidates are back plastering the city with big banners, again. Former councilman Roman Reyna’s resignation this March left an empty seat on the dais. When remaining council members couldn’t decide on anyone to appoint to represent Ward 4, they left the task up to voters during a special election–one court orders compel Reyna to pay $578,000 in restitution for after he pleaded guilty to election fraud.
The last of the political signs to go up around town are also the most unique. Banners painted by Santa Ana artists are boosting the candidacy of Manny Escamilla. For the 33-year-old, the artwork stands as a vibrant, visual symbol of his fundamentally grassroots campaign. And yes, FPPC identification numbers are painted on the banners, too!
“It’s trying to get attention in creative ways,” says Escamilla between bites of red tacos at La Super Birria during a recent lunch rush. “There was a choice between that and putting money into large corner signs to get my name out there that way.”
He’s hoping Santa Ana voters will choose him on the November ballot over other candidates who are backed by big money donors or enjoy key endorsements. And Escamilla’s campaign isn’t just grassroots, but progressive–the latest in a series of recent bids trying to sway city hall in the direction of a new generation of Santaneros who want to see change in the city’s politics.
Bespectacled and bookish, with a penchant for v-neck sweaters even on a sweltering day, Escamilla is very much like a Mexican Harry Potter readying to pry Santa Ana away from the clutches of its dark lords. He’s even hosting a “Manny is Magic” fundraiser, too. But it will take more than magic to defy the odds and run a winning campaign.
“It’s scary to be against but there’s also a narrative that we’re trying to establish that people are so fed up out-of-town money interests deciding what happens in the city,” he says. “People are exhausted, overall, with what is perceived as corruption even if it’s not a direct violation of the law. There seems to be ethical boundaries that have been crossed.”
Although Escamilla interviewed with the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, a dominant force in local politics, he has no intention of seeking their endorsement. The police union supported former planning commissioner Phil Bacerra as Reyna’s sole opponent last year but seems too preoccupied this time around with trying to recall two Republican council members, Ceci Iglesias and Juan Villegas, for voting against their more-than-generous raises earlier this year to make their presence felt in the special election.
Undeterred by domestic violence allegations from a past relationship that hounded his campaign last year, Bacerra is back with campaign coffers stuffed by out-of-town developers like Mike Harrah as well as support from building trade unions hoping to go to work on whatever projects enjoy a rubber stamp at the dais. Beatriz Mendoza, who recently was heralded “Woman of the Year” at LULAC’s National Convention, enjoys the endorsement of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
By contrast, Escamilla loaned his campaign $6,400 to start and has since gained the endorsement of Service Employees International Union Local 721. Much of his contributions since then have come from local Santaneros. (The Chase and Fainbarg families, downtown Santa Ana property owners, have donated to both Bacerra and Escamilla’s campaigns this year). He didn’t vie for a direct appointment to council before the special election as others had. The decision to run came in mid-June when Escamilla moved back to his family home after his mother’s lung cancer took a turn for the worse.
Before that, city hall’s high turnover instability left him a little disillusioned. Escamilla counts 14 years of civic service despite his young age, including being a librarian, historian and urban planner working under former city manager David Cavazos before his ouster.
“I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to make a difference inside,” he admits. “Pretty much the entire executive team had been wiped out.”
But now Escamilla believes he can change the city for the better if elected to council. He sees Willowick Golf Course as a rare opportunity to create more than 100 acres of green space in a notoriously park poor city and not as prime real estate for a stadium or an industrial zone. On homelessness, the candidate proposes a four-step process that includes job resources for the economically insecure and permanent supportive housing for folks on the streets with mental health issues.
And then, there’s the city’s finances being in shambles. A sales tax hike approved by voters in November isn’t panning out the way it was hoped to as a recent Measure X committee meeting at city hall revealed this month. The revenue’s coming in, but is largely being spent on paying down debt while the city continues to spend more than it takes in.
“I was the only candidate that was there,” says Escamilla. “Dealing with $60 million in the budget, I would’ve thought that there’d be other people there.”
City council sure didn’t help matters much when approving $25.6 million in police raises over three years, a pay hike that will dip into Measure X revenue. Escamilla doesn’t believe the police raises will be sustainable in the long run for the city and would’ve voted alongside the council’s two conservatives against spending as if there won’t be a fiscal cliff.
It’s an issue-by-issue approach he hopes to bring to a dais without a clearly defined majority. But to get there, Escamilla has to do what other young progressive Latinos in Santa Ana haven’t been able to in recent cycles: win election. Ana Urzua Alcaraz ran for council in 2016 only to place a distant second to Jose Solorio. Last year, Paul Gonzales, a relative newcomer and openly gay candidate, placed fifth in a competitive field.
Escamilla remains optimistic. “The margin has gotten smaller and smaller between a progressive and a moderate Democrat in the city,” he says. “That’s because our voting demographics are starting to change.” There’s a sizable portion of young voters in the youthful city, but the conundrum is how to fully activate them. A special election may not be the best test case, but taking a larger share of an expected smaller turnout can get Escamilla over a hurdle not cleared by others who came before him.
Deeply knowledgeable about the city’s past, Escamilla believes that such a victory can help propel the city towards a promising future that awaits.
“Santa Ana has a chance to be a model of young, Mexican progressive politics in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a very unique dynamic.”
Updated with reporting on newly released campaign finance disclosure forms.