As the summer heat wave is reaching 120 degrees in Calexico, California, politics is at its boiling point once again as a signature gathering to force a recall election against Mayor Raul Ureña and Councilman Gilberto Manzanarez has begun.
Calexico politics has always been the hot stop of politics as its residents are always extremely vocal about its affairs and passionate debates about the state of the city are the everyday supper. The phrase “Only in Calexico” has hunted the city for decades referring to the bizarro politics of the Twilight Zone Calexico seems to belong too. “It only happens here and never in other cities,” some say.
For outsiders, Calexico’s political drama is better to watch with a bowl of popcorn.
Calexico residents have long been cynical of their elected officials to the point that a political newcomer is elected on their first try since many voters want new blood on the council and to get away from the same group of politicians that have been in office for a long time. A vicious cycle of change for the sake of change has become the norm in the Calexico election for the past ten years and has caused a constant overturn in the city council every two years. Despite the low voter turnout and the “change” that never comes, Calexico residents are never happy with their local government.
Ureña’s time as a member of the Calexico City Council has always been controversial, to say the least. Being the first openly transgender Mayor has brought mixed reactions from the community but also a sector of the community is not happy with his work and is planning a recall against him and his ally on the council, Gilberto Manzanarez.
Ureña was elected in 2020 after the voters of Calexico decided to clean the house and elect a brand new council by replacing four out of the five council members. Months before, two sitting council members were engulfed in scandals that put the image of Calexico in hot water. One was sentenced to Federal prison for bribery and the other one was charged with a DUI. Add that the loss of the biggest swap meet due to a fire and the covid quarantine created a perfect storm for Ureña to get elected for a two-year term in a landslide victory.
The voters elected a council member that went against the political establishment that many believe was blocking the progress of the city and promised to change things for the better. The voters gave him the benefit of the doubt. However, his initial months were not easy as he clashed with other council members when trying to put his ideas forward. It was until sometime later that he managed to create a supermajority in the council.
Ureña was appointed Mayor on February 2023. With four council members on his side, his policy initiatives can be approved with no opposition. But despite having all the advantages, a growing number of opponents are trying to set a special election to remove him from office since they believe his ideas are destroying the quality of life of a once vibrant city.
The honeymoon is over and now the Mayor is facing possible removal from his position. Calexico had been suffering from a fiscal deficit for nearly a decade. To make matters worse, several department head vacancies are hindering much-needed services for residents.
Former Calexico Mayor Maritza Hurtado is leading this recall and has seen an increase in support since it was announced. This is the second recall Hurtado is part of. In 2013, she was involved in another recall against two of her fellow council members during a chaotic political time where they were a power struggle between two groups that battled over control of the city. The recall attempt failed to gather signatures due to the invalidation of many of them.
The Recall Committee was contacted to answer questions about the Ureña-Manzanarez saga but declined to participate in this article.
However, information about this recall is public domain.
“This recall will not focus on the personal lives of anyone due to personal and sexual choices. Although all comments are welcome please refrain from this line of discussion,” Hurtado wrote on the recall’s private Facebook group.
Ureña and Councilman Gilberto Manzanarez were served recall notices arguing that their policies and actions will collapse the city if they are not removed from office.
The official recall intent for Ureña states that the Mayor has proven poor leadership with open and public indecency and intoxication on social media with absolute reckless disregard for accountability towards families and children.
“Ureña policies have made crime worse in Calexico by actively voting to deny essential weapons to the police, referring to the police as too militarized and pursuing to defund our first responders. His voting record continues to jeopardize us all.”
It also states that Ureña does not have a personal interest in supporting downtown merchants and demoralizing them and not addressing safety. It further reads that he has strained relationships with other city elected officials and law enforcement because of the use of derogatory insults like racist and transphobic that alienates those with different views.
“Instead of uniting the community, he is hostile and verbally assaulting resulting in the loss of growth opportunities,” the recall notice stated.
In his response, Ureña said that those supporting this recall have no credibility in the community.
“They are political families that have damaged the city with millions of dollars that forced half of the city personnel to be let go in 2014,” Ureña stated. Ureña blames Hurtado and the rest of the council at the time for creating the problems and budgetary constraints that Calexico is still suffering today.
Ureña singled out Director Javier Gonzalez who represents Calexico at Imperial Irrigation District Board of Directors. The response reads: “Director Gonzalez remains censured by his board due to his racist comments against Chinese investors.”
Gonzalez is known to be an outspoken individual and didn’t hesitate to respond on social media.
“I signed the petition because of Raul Ureña’s accusations of racism against anyone he disagrees with, including me. Funny how Raul continues to make accusations of racism, he has practically accused everyone in Calexico and Imperial Valley that he disagrees with of being a racist. Yes, I was censured for saying that under a U.S. presidential executive order, companies from adverse nations cannot get involved in the construction of the U.S. energy grid, something that is so very true. So Raul Ureña used the word “Chinese company” in his recall response, which makes him a racist under the same rules that I was censured with.”
Ureña said that among his achievements is the reallocation of funds to reallocate two fire and police dispatchers, approved roof repairs to the police station, and the allocation of funding to hire a city engineer for the first time in 9 years.
But this recall campaign has been heating up on social media as some anonymous pages have attacked Ureña’s sexual orientation. The authors on those pages have argued that Ureña lied to the public when he first ran for office since he wasn’t openly transgender as he is now.
“They have no shame. My Instagram profile was hacked during my first campaign to try to discredit me as a transgender person. They put pictures of me in dresses and with very few clothes everywhere on the internet so everyone sees them, I’m not being dishonest about the path I’m taking,” Ureña said.
Some of his Instagram pictures where he is wearing a dress were used by his political opponents during the city council campaign and continue to circulate online.
Calexico resident Leticia Aldana Cota, a counselor that has known Ureña since Middle School, said that Ureña continues to bring proposals to the table and some have been supported by the council and have advocated for the need to assist the homeless by securing a location to place the homeless to remove them from downtown.
“I find the attacks despicable, hateful, and in very poor taste and discriminatory, I for one think it is an act of cowardliness to hide behind a pseudo name to spew hate at someone only because they do not like his political views but if one reads through the lines and listens closely to what is being said they are attacking his persona and his sexual preferences and the way he dresses which has no bearing on his abilities to do good for the city. It’s easier to find fault and to blame than to come up with proposals and solutions to present to the current council for them to see if such proposal and solution is viable,” Cota said.
Calexico native Marlene Thomas has known Ureña since he was in high school when he started his activism in the community. As a student, Ureña was a critical voice at city council and school board meetings regularly. Thomas said the beginning of the recall was a sad day for Calexico since this recall is not in the best interest of the residents.
“This is done by a small group of people, a clique, that are facing change and can’t control,” Thomas said. “Raul’s record as a leader has been outstanding.”
Thomas credits Ureña for making sure there is a balanced budget after years of deficit, bringing more funding in more funding for police and public works, bringing a new transportation system for Calexico, and funding for the new transit center. In addition, she praised him for working to fix the issues of Highway 98 that halted construction for months thus affecting the nearby businesses.
“What are these people complaining about? This is just personal and homophobic,” Thomas stated and noted that a special recall election would cost the city $146,000 dollars.
“People know Raul and his leadership. He’s been elected to city council two times as the top vote-getter because citizens believe in him,” Thomas added.
But not everyone is happy with Ureña’s work on the council and some believe he has not delivered the change he promised.
“Honestly, I think Ureña doesn’t know anything about politics and he is only doing this for himself. He cares more about the farm workers that come from Mexico than the residents that work hard every day,” said Manuel Campoy, 53, from Calexico. “I don’t care about his personal life at all but this city is going backward every day that goes by.”
Gloria Mancillas, 44, from Calexico, shared similar feelings but she is against Ureña public displays.
“I don’t believe in the gay movement or putting a flag that only caters to a minority,” Mancillas said. “I’m embarrassed by that and even worse that our kids have limited recreation opportunities.”
The peak controversial moment of this unfolding story was the raising of the Progress Pride Flag at Calexico City Hall. The Calexico City Council was the only city in Imperial County to pass a resolution celebrating Pride Month.
The resolution stated how LGBTQ individuals continue to suffer persistent inequalities in access to affirming healthcare, mental health resources, housing, and economic opportunities in our border region and continue to be targeted by hate and bigotry in the Imperial Valley and across borders.
Imperial County once voted to ban same-sex marriage under Proposition 8 with 69.7 percent of the vote Countywide.
Towards the end of the ceremony, a local woman by the name of Rebecca Lemon walked toward Ureña to shout at him to his face but she was detained by police and taken away. The video of the incident went viral on several social media platforms and appeared on all the local news.
Lemon did have a legitimate reason to be angry at Ureña as he was quoted on a television news interview in Mexicali where he said Lemon was a “racist person from El Centro that has made attacks to the Mexican race.” This drew the ire of Lemon on social media and went to a city council meeting to respond to Ureña and comfort him with his remarks.
Lemon had served recall papers to Ureña and Manzanarez in the early stages of the recall process. But in a gesture similar to Nancy Pelosi’s, Ureña got up and ripped the recall papers from the city council dais after they were handed to him.
Ureña said he didn’t feel threatened but he would have acted in self-defense if he would have been touched.
“It is unfortunate because this is the year transgender and LGBTQ hate crimes and murders have been going up nationwide. It’s unfortunate but it makes you fight harder,” he said.
Calexico had always been the hot spot for politics in Imperial County. As passions continue to flare regarding the state of a city that has been near bankruptcy for almost a decade there are many issues that Calexico residents are getting tired of. The recall group is targeting Ureña and Manzanarez for the current state of the city, the increase in homelessness, and their lack of support for downtown Calexico business owners, and support for the police.
During the July 19 City Council meeting, both Ureña and Manzanarez requested that their medical insurance is terminated, and those funds be transferred to the police department for salaries and Recreation Department for programs respectively. Retired Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo, who is also actively supporting this recall, reacted to this proposal on the Calexico Recall Facebook Group:
“The $13k should just go to the Recreation Department. It will go farther. Salaries for the PD won’t make a dent. If they weren’t being recalled, they would’ve never done this. Smoke and Mirrors,” Gerardo wrote. “We all know it’s a political stunt because of the recall. Manzanarez, (Mayor Pro Tem) Romo, and him (Ureña) are not Police allies. In the past, they have shown it many times.”
The recall will determine if the progressive movement that brought Ureña and Manzanarez to politics remains strong or collapses like a house of cards. The recall group has 120 days to gather 4,500 signatures to force a special election later this year.
Article developed for “Stop the Hate” California State Library and Ethnic Media Network.