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
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
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
“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
"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.”
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.”