In Orange County, a Police Union Tried To Take Down a Progressive — And Failed

From police associations to real estate interests, California power players are launching an aggressive strategy of recalling progressives in retaliation for votes they don’t like. In Santa Ana, Orange County, they just fell flat on their faces.

Santa Ana council member Jessie Lopez, who beat a police-backed recall campaign, rides in a parade on February 05, 2022, in Anaheim, California. (Daniel Knighton / Getty Images)

It was set up to be a familiar story in Santa Ana, California: a young, progressive politician of color paying the political price for having the temerity to challenge the city’s powerful police union and real estate interests.

On Tuesday, however, voters in Santa Ana delivered a clear rebuke to the special interests attempting to choke their democracy — rejecting the recall of first-term city council member Jessie Lopez by a margin of more than twelve percentage points.

Lopez’s triumph affects just a slice of a small city. But it sends a message about who is in charge in a changing urban landscape. There is, of course, plenty of wealth in California’s famed Orange County. But Santa Ana is roughly 75 percent Latino and is home to four of the six poorest zip codes in Orange County. Over half of Santa Ana’s population is enrolled in CalOptima, a county-administered public health insurance program set up to serve the county’s most economically disadvantaged residents. As working people and immigrants are increasingly priced out of Los Angeles, many are moving into outlying areas like Santa Ana to the south and San Bernardino to the east.

“People forget this about a lot of wealthy parts of California, like Napa, Marin, Orange County, Disneyland, but there is a whole service industry that supports that wealth — and they live in those communities,” said Jane Kim, California director of the Working Families Party.

Santa Ana’s police department, meanwhile, has long been notorious for its brutality and profligacy. In 2019, the organization Campaign Zero determined that the Santa Ana had the second worst police department in the state of California and gave the department a failing grade for its incidences of brutality and cost to taxpayers.

It’s against this backdrop of racialized economic precarity and police abuse that Lopez was raised — watching her father wake up every day at 4 a.m. and her mother work two jobs to keep the family afloat.

“Growing up in a neighborhood that was under resourced, had no parks, growing up in a city that had more jails than public libraries — all of those things culminated in knowing at a young age that life was different from different areas and different neighborhoods,” Lopez told Jacobin. “Particularly in the areas where we would go and trick or treat and have full-size candy bars and space to be there. That was a big learning lesson for me at a young age.”

Lopez’s mom used to clean rooms in Anaheim hotels, and it was through her work that Lopez was introduced to the labor movement via UNITE HERE and began planning to bring the fight for racial, gender, and economic justice back to Santa Ana. The issues between Lopez and the city’s police union began shortly after she won her council seat in 2020, but boiled over in December of 2022 when she and her colleagues on the council voted to approve a new police contract that required outspoken police association president Gerry Serrano to perform actual police duties and cleared the way for the department to be audited.

The vote to approve the police union contract was 4–3, with Mayor Valerie Amezcua in opposition. And Lopez wasn’t the only member of city council the police union and its allies sought to recall following the vote. The forces behind the recall also targeted Lopez’s fellow first-term council member Thai Viet Phan, while leaving their two other colleagues who voted for the contract untouched.

“It’s important to note that even though several members of the council voted the same way that Jesse and Thai did, they initially only focused on the two young women of color on the council because they felt that they were the most vulnerable and they could make an example of them,” Kim said.

The union and its allies also had reason to believe they could be successful. In 2020, the union, led by Serrano, successfully pushed to recall council member Cecila Iglesias for a similar reason: her opposition to what amounted to $25 million in raises for police officers.

In an editorial in OC Voice, Serrano accused Iglesias of failing to support affordable housing and the city’s immigrant community, and claimed that she violated the city’s code of ethics and conduct by using inappropriate language on her Facebook page. But the real issue was Iglesias’s opposition to the unchecked power of the city’s police department.

“The Police Officers Association supports this recall because since Ms. Iglesias has been in office her slanderous comments about the Association, her lies, have been repeated and continuous, interfering with the Association’s right to represent its members,” Serrano wrote.

The union’s endeavors paid off. In an election held just days before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Iglesias was recalled and a precedent was set: if a progressive managed to beat the city’s reactionary machinery and get elected in Santa Ana in the first place, the police union and its allies would simply recall them.

So last year, when Lopez, Phan, and their colleagues voted against police pay raises, the machinery went into motion. With the support of local real estate interests, the union and its allies spearheaded a campaign to get a recall of both council members on the ballot, succeeded with Lopez, and then proceeded to spend well over $700,000 on their effort to unseat her in an election that ultimately drew fewer than seven thousand voters. They were handed a boost by no less a political force than the National Association of Realtors Fund, which poured $100,000 into the recall effort.

The playbook was a familiar one.

“We are seeking to recall Lopez and Phan for their part in advancing extreme policies that [are] harmful to our neighborhoods and undermine the strides Santa Ana has been making in improving our quality of life,” wrote recall committee chair Tim Rush in The Orange County Register. “Their palpable hostility to law enforcement is one aspect of their destructive record — but there is more.”

The recall campaign would go on to attack Lopez for her support of rent control, her opposition to a proposed ordinance to criminally cite people who watch street races, and, eventually, her conduct in her personal life. The recall campaign wrote in its ballot statement that Lopez had “brought embarrassment onto the city and displayed disregard for private property rights when she refused to vacate a rental property after being evicted for nonpayment of rent, as reported widely in the media.”

But even in an off-year election, following a court battle over the legality of the recall, those tactics didn’t prove persuasive. The recall campaign ultimately spent more than $223 on each vote it got — the kind of investment from the city’s power brokers that, as Lopez and her supporters pointed out frequently, her district rarely sees and could badly use.

“The process for us has been an educational one in telling people, look, you’ve been waiting for sidewalk repairs for ten years, but at the blink of an eye, the council can give $25 million contract raises to a department that frankly doesn’t need it,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s supporters hope her victory sends a message that Santa Ana’s democracy is strong enough to withstand blatant attempts by the police union, the real estate lobby, and their allies to purchase it. But the recall effort and Lopez’s victory might also have broader implications in a state where recall elections funded by right-wing forces have become a new norm, from San Francisco to Sacramento.

“It’s a tool that is being misused, and the voters of California are suffering for it,” Anna Bahr, a political strategist, said of the recent spate of recalls. “Jessie did exactly what she told voters she was going to do when she was first elected, which was to protect and expand rent control and make sure that their taxpayer dollars were being spent for the betterment of her community. She did exactly what she was elected to do. And that was at odds with folks who have a vested interest in things going a different way.”

Now that she has been returned to office, Lopez said she wants to continue fighting for good governance and working people. “This is the fundamental fight that so many of us have been a part of for so long — of who gets to have power in their communities,” Lopez said.