Meet the District 6 candidates: Marco Santana

With experience in homelessness services, Santana is ready to take over District 6.

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Marco Santana has never held elective office, but a raft of powerful endorsements has propelled him to sudden prominence in the crowded field of candidates in the special Los Angeles City Council election to fill the vacant seat in the San Fernando Valley’s District 6. From Democratic clubs, newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, and influential politicians like current council member Nithya Raman, his long list of influential supporters put him as one of the top contenders for the role. His status as a veteran Latino political aide and nonprofit executive may also give him a leg up in the majority-Hispanic district formerly served by Nury Martinez, who was forced to resign in October of 2022.

Santana was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, one of the children of a Mexican couple who immigrated to L.A. At 32, he’s spent most of his life there, graduating from California State University Northridge and renting out a place in the area for himself and his dog. Regarding jobs, he’s also mainly kept things local, working in different political organizations and occasionally serving as an aide to other politicians, such as Congressman Tony Cardenas and Senator Bob Hertzberg. His most recent job, however, is as the director of engagement of L.A. Family Housing, a nonprofit organization that offers services to those experiencing homelessness and advocates for their needs.

While his connection with the valley is longstanding, Santana said he considered leaving it late last year.

“I was being recruited by another homeless service provider, and they were asking me if I wanted to take a job in Santa Barbara to be their regional homeless director, and I would oversee all homeless services in Santa Barbara,” he recalled. “So I was like. Wow! This is a huge opportunity. I’ve never thought about leaving the valley, let alone Los Angeles. Let me think it over.”

That was Friday, Oct. 7. On Sunday, a team of L.A. Times reporters published the now-infamous audio tape of L.A. City Council president Nury Martinez’s meeting with other council members and a union leader. In it, she espoused racial slurs toward the child of another council member, discussed the redistricting issue using racist language towards many local communities, berated other council members using offensive language, and demonstrated what the L.A. Times later described as the “bare-knuckle fighting” present behind closed doors. By the following Friday, Martinez had resigned, leaving her seat vacant and leading to the current special election.

For Santana, that was a defining moment. Although he acknowledged having his grievances about Martinez’s policies in a recent podcast with former council member Mike Bonin, he was still glad to see a Latino like her leading a mostly Hispanic district. But after hearing the tapes, Santana confided to Bonin. He was scared that L.A. would plummet back into the tension-ridden days of the early 90s, with minority communities being hostile to one another instead of working together. Still, this was insufficient to convince him to run for the vacant seat.

“I started having friends reaching out, telling me, ‘Hey, this is your home. This is where you grew up. This is where you’ve worked. You should run,’” he said.

After a while, though, he thought about the leadership he’d like to see and considered, why not step up himself?

“I told myself ... why not (run for city council)? I’ve stayed here,” he said. “I’ve given back. I’ve found more ways to give back, and I’ve continuously tried empowering and providing resources to this district. So, if I’m already doing that work, why not take it to the next level?”

Santana’s policies are detailed, especially those concerning homelessness. On his website, recently updated to reflect his platform, there are several paragraphs concerning the issue from various angles, from how to build more housing using current policies to how to keep it affordable and accessible to people in the district. For example, he advocates for more houses in transit corridors, to allow religious organizations to build housing on their vacant land, and creating more accessory dwelling units while emphasizing the city’s role in promoting equity in homeownership in a proposed system like Detroit’s neighborhood initiative, where the city provides cheaper and less constraining mortgages for citizens in need.

His policies regarding other matters, including the contentious lack of public transportation that plagues the San Fernando Valley, are vaguer but still detailed enough compared to his competition. In general, his solutions are more progressive than not by his acknowledgment.

Santana also seems to be comfortable in a leadership position, which is even clearer when contrasted to other first-time candidates with no political experience. In endorsing him, the L.A. Times outlined how he is a “respected leader, someone equally comfortable working with homeless clients or speaking at a conference.”

Unsurprisingly, this up-and-coming profile, paired with these policies, attracts a particular type of voter who routinely supports more progressive causes and candidates. And, certainly, Santana has his fair share of those.

However, as the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission page reveals, his support also extends to those who usually would rarely support such a candidate, including executives at real estate companies and law firms. Because of such discrepancy, some criticized him for being too willing to compromise on his ideas. Some, especially business owners, go almost as far as calling him hypocritical for it. For example, in that same Bonin podcast, when asked whether he would enforce the zones where homeless people cannot stay, Santana gave a lukewarm response, highlighting the importance of providing them with services while protecting the “few green spaces” that the district has.

That ambivalence and overall vagueness have also cost him a run-in with the county’s Democratic Party over one of his fliers. A door hanger distributed around the district read that Santana was supported by the “Democratic Party,” which is untrue. While supported by various Democratic clubs, including the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, he is not officially endorsed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. His fellow candidate Imelda Padilla criticized him, describing his attitude as “very slick.”

Santana is aware of these criticisms. In his eyes, this attitude is desirable and proves he is pragmatic about his campaign objectives.

“You’re identifying that I care about progressive values but that I’m realistic in what we can accomplish,” he commented.

Even if he believes it to be one of his strong suits, Santana still sometimes struggles to exercise that pragmatism and toe the line between his progressive values and moderate supporter base, leaving him wide open to harsher criticism. According to the L.A. City Ethics Commission page, Santana is the only candidate in the race with independent expenditures levied against him. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the LAPD union, has spent almost $60,000 to mount a mail campaign criticizing his homelessness policies. In that mailer, they cite two times when Santana talked about repealing the city’s anti-camping laws, prohibiting homeless encampments from being built near schools and parks. Although limited circulation, the mailer still managed to capitalize on moments where Santana was “too” progressive and may be effective in convincing part of his moderate support base to reconsider their votes.

Despite these criticisms, one of the main reasons he believes he has such a vast amount of support is his image as a local, down-to-earth leader. He bets on the idea that, regardless of your political background, you can appreciate someone you know.

“I think one of the biggest things that stood out is that, and I’ve had a lot of folks tell me: ‘Hey, Marco, I’m so excited because I know you. Even if you’re not my friend, you’re not speaking like a politician; you’re speaking like a regular person, and that gets me excited about your candidacy. You’re not posturing yourself as someone you’re not. Whatever the case, you’re talking to me as a friend and person, so I think that’s made people more inclined to get involved.”

The race is tight, less than a week away from the election. Although he ranks third among the candidates in a long list of significant endorsers, Santana does not believe his victory is inevitable. His campaign still faces an obstacle many believed to be behind him: to be known.

“At the end of the day, the money, the endorsements, none of that matters. If we’re not out there getting our message out... if I’m not the first person that knocks on that door that gives them a phone call...that would be the downfall,” he concluded.