Political Sausage Making, Santa Ana-Style

The political sausage-making factory is gearing up in Santa Ana under the guise of electoral reform.

Councilman Sal Tinajero is the principal advocate of shifting to by-district council elections. He cites the usual reformist rationales, but the proximate impetus appears to be the Santa Ana police union’s success this November in taking out one of Tinajero’s allies, Councilman Roman Reyna and supporting the election of a non-ally, Jose Solorio.

Santa Ana currently uses a from-district system to elect its council: candidates must live in the ward or district from which they are running, but are still voted on city-wide. This ensures councilmembers are accountable to the entire citizenry they are governing, but it also necessitates communicating with a larger universe of voters – which costs money.

By-district council elections can blunt the impact of large campaign warchests – whether they belong to candidates or independent expenditure committees – because the voter universe is smaller. Voters can reach a saturation point when it comes to the volume of mailers and other mediums of voter contact. Due to the smaller voter populations in by-district elections, the saturation point can be reached more quickly. In other words, by-district elections can function as a kind of bottle-neck or choke point limiting the volume of effective voter communication. The ancient Battle of Thermopylae is roughly illustrative: the narrowness of the Thermopylae pass meant the Persian army could only funnel in so many soldiers at a time, largely negating its vast numerical superiority and enabling the much smaller Spartan-led force to face it on roughly equal terms.

By-district elections also enhance the ability of campaigns to offset a spending disadvantage with door-to-door campaigning.

Negating the Santa Ana police union’s campaign spending advantage is likely at the forefront of Tinajero’s sudden advocacy of by-district elections. On Tuesday, the three-term liberal Democrat councilman thundered his outrage over the police officers union “buying an election:”

Our police officers union leadership spent almost $300,000 to buy a seat…they wanted to control the show. It was one of the scariest moments I have seen as an elected official where one group wants to exercise their will on another, greater population”

While Tinajero’s point is on target, it also elicits skepticism. Tinajero is a member of the California Teachers Association, which spends massive sums in nearly every election in order to exercise its will on a greater population. Tinajero himself has been the beneficiary of their exercises on political will when the teachers union supported his campaigns for the Santa Ana Unified School District Governing Board. “Exercising their will on another, greater population” is standard operating procedure in California for the special interests that constitute Tinajero’s political party. One has to wonder if Councilman Tinajero is outraged over the outsized influence of government unions in general, are about its specific application in this year’s Santa Ana City Council elections. In other words, if the Santa Ana Police Officers Association had spent the same sum in support of Councilmembers Reyna and Sarmiento, would he still accuse the union of “buying” council seats and demand a shift to by-council elections?

Other political agendas are also at work under the guise of reform, according to a Nick Gerda article published in the Voice of OC on December 9.

Tinajero and of his council colleagues David Benavides and Michele Martinez are bumping up against term limits, will be forced off the council in two years. They’ve been able to serve three terms, rather than two, thanks to a deceptive term limits “reform” measure the council placed on the ballot a few years ago.

A by-district election “reform” measure would be an ideal vehicle for sneaking in another term limits “reform” to extend their lease on political life. Santa Ana voters would be told, truthfully, that this reform would reduce the number of terms councilmember could choose from three to two. Buried in the text of the measure would be an abstruse, legalistic explanation of how this would re-set the clock for term-out councilmembers and allow them to run for two more consecutive terms – exactly the opposite of what voters think they’re getting by supporting the “reform.”

Tinajero didn’t rule that out when asked by Gerda:

So far, Tinajero isn’t ruling out the possibility of running for re-election if the districting move allows it. “If it does reset it, [I] would probably shrink the term limits to two terms instead of three,” he said.

It’s also possible the council could structure the ballot measure in a way that doesn’t reset their term limit clocks.

Anyone want to give odds on “no re-set” if term limits changes are bundled into the by-district election measure? This is the same council that placed a 700% council salary increase on this year’s ballot with a ballot question written to mislead voters into thinking they were limiting that compensation.

Tinajero also left open the possibility of using this government restructuring as a tool to settle political scores with Mayor Miguel Pulido by replacing the directly-elected mayor with a rotating office. That would be a strange change: a standard talking point of by-district elections advocates is they’re better suited to bigger cities, while rotating mayorships are characteristic of smaller, at-large city councils. But there’s political hash to be settled, so why let coherence get in the way?

This is political sausage making, Santa Ana City Council-style.

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