Controversial Santa Ana Councilmember Jessie Lopez, a 34-year old member of the city council’s ruling progressive bloc, has defeated what she terms the “illegitimate” attempt to recall her from office as Ward 3’s representative. Her current margin is 858 votes, or more than 12%.
There are only an estimated 230 ballots left to process. The turnout was low – slightly more than 25%.
Ward 3 is considered the most moderate of the council wards, but is still heavily Democrat in registration, outnumbering Republican votes by 2-to-1.
Nearly 52% of completed ballots came from Democrats, versus 29% from Republicans.
Lopez is a Democrat and her campaign was backed by the OC Democratic Party and Democrat-aligned interest groups. Her campaign portrayed the recall as an attempt by “right-wing special interests” to get rid of her.
The high-profile recall was primarily funded by the Santa Ana Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and housing providers. Lopez is on record supporting the defund-the-police movement and was instrumental in passing the state’s most draconian local rent control law in 2021.
The rent control ordinance is currently being sued by the Apartment Association of Orange County for allegedly violating several sections of the United States Constitution. Decades of studies have concluded rent control actually retards access to existing affordable housing stocks and discourages the development of additional affordable housing, but tends to be politically popular with voters who already live in an apartment and are favorably disposed to using the government to cap their rents at someone else’s expense.
The Lopez recall is something of a case study in being the first local government recall election conducted since AB 2582 went into effect.
For more than a century, recall elections were in essence two elections that put two questions to voters: 1) shall the elected official in question be recalled? and 2) which of the candidates in the replacement election shall be elected in his/her stead?
The 2018 recall of Sen. Josh Newman, and the 2021 Newsom recall election spurred legislation by the Democrat supermajority in the state legislature to pass laws intended to make to more difficult to recall elected officials.
AB 2582 abolished the replacement election in local government recalls – the theory being that without replacement ballot candidates driving up the “yes” vote turnout, recalls would be more likely to fail. Essentially, local recall elections no longer offer voters to the ability to choose an alternative to the official being targeted for recall.
Would Lopez still have beaten the recall had there been replacement candidates making their case to the voters? Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but the results of the Lopez recall would seem to vindicate the intent of AB 2582’s supporters.
It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out in the current drive by UNITE-HERE Local 11, the militant hotel workers union, to recall Anaheim City Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava. UNITE-HERE Local 11 opposed the Lopez recall and supported the Ward 3 councilmember.
Lopez and her political allies worked very hard to defeat the recall, pounding the pavement and going to door-to-door. In addition to Lopez, other allies knocking on doors included Councilmembers Johnathan Hernandez, Thai Phan and Ben Vasquez, and Supervisor Vince Sarmiento – in addition to fielding paid canvassers.
While pro-Lopez forces were significantly outspent by the pro-recall campaign, they still raised significant campaign funds. District elections can mitigate spending gaps between opposing campaigns. Given their smaller electorates, there’s only so much voter contact voters can absorb before returns begin to diminish. This dynamic is even more pronounced when turnout is low.
Lopez issued a victory statement in which she claimed Ward 3 voters had “rejected the influences of special interests in city hall” before proceeding to thank the various special interests that had supported her campaign:
Lopez also used the occasion to take a shot at her council colleague, Councilman David Penaloza – calling him “Penaloser”:
Penaloza supported the recall campaign, but withdrew that support earlier this month following the controversy over whether or not the recall certification was legal.
Lopez is up for re-election in November 2024. Doubtless she views the result as a personal vindication, and her supporters view it as affirmation that voters support their efforts to turn Santa Ana city government hard to the Left.
It’s hard to predict how beating a low-turnout recall election in which voters lacked alternative candidates, will impact a higher-turnout election a year from now in which she will face actual opponents making their own case to voters, while having her record scrutinized and criticized by organizations that remain opposed her ideological agenda.
But she can take satisfaction for now in a hard-won victory.