Calexico resoundingly ousts town's first transgender mayor and a council ally

Calexico, CA - March 25: Raul Urena, the first transgender mayor of Calexico and current council member, speaks with farmworkers after they teased him from across the street for wearing a dress, near the USA-Mexico border wall on Monday, March 25, 2024 in Calexico, CA. He said that many people will make fun of what they do not know and wanted to speak with them so they could be more familiar with his choice to wear a dress. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Raúl Ureña, the first out transgender mayor of Calexico, speaks with farmworkers who teased her for wearing a dress. Ureña contends transphobia was a factor in the city's recall campaign. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Voters in Calexico have resoundingly ousted the first out transgender member of the City Council and her council ally after a bitter recall campaign rife with accusations of transphobia and political cronyism in the struggling city on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearly 74% of voters in the April 16 special election supported the recall of City Councilmember Raúl Ureña, according to early results released by the Imperial County registrar of voters Wednesday night. Ureña, who uses all pronouns but prefers "she," publicly came out as transgender after taking office, becoming a target for harassment online and in person.

Nearly 73% of voters supported the recall of Councilmember Gilberto Manzanarez, another outspoken young progressive.

Roughly 77% of ballots received had been tallied by early Thursday, said Linsey Dale, the registrar of voters.

Both Ureña, 26, and Manzanarez, 30, said they believe the recall campaign — which thrust the almost entirely Latino city of 38,000 into America’s culture wars over gender identity — was largely motivated by transphobia. Recall organizers said that their campaign was rooted in concerns about rising homeless numbers and lagging economic development, and that Ureña's personal life and sexuality were not factors.

After the election, Ureña said she remained "hopeful and optimistic, even with these results."

"We will not give up on social justice in the Imperial Valley," Ureña said. "We're not going anywhere."

A bearded man in glasses and a black shirt poses amid red blossoms.
Calexico City Councilmember Gilberto Manzanarez says recall organizers unfairly blamed him and political ally Raúl Ureña for downtown blight that preceded their tenure. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

At a City Council meeting Wednesday night, Manzanarez said the city's political old guard, some of whom were leaders in the recall movement, unfairly blamed the young council members for problems — such as the deteriorating downtown and understaffed police, fire and public works departments — that existed years before Manzanarez and Ureña were elected.

"It's very easy to point to downtown and make sure that people understand that it's not OK. How long has it been that way? Did it start being that way in 2022? Absolutely not," said Manzanarez, who was elected in November 2022.

Maritza Hurtado, a leader of the recall campaign and former mayor, declined to comment on the results.

Read more: A California border town's first transgender mayor faces recall. Is gender the reason?

In a previous interview with The Times, Hurtado, a member of the City Council from 2010 to 2018, called Ureña and Manzanarez "toxic" left-wing activists. She said they dismissed downtown merchants' concerns about crime, public drug use and rampant homeless encampments, focusing instead on what recall proponents saw as more frivolous projects, such as installing charging stations for electric vehicles that most people in town cannot afford.

Hurtado, 58, said Ureña used gender "as a card this whole time," dismissing people with legitimate political grievances as transphobic and racist.

Turnout for the special election — which cost Calexico more than $128,000 — was about 23%, with an estimated 4,933 votes cast. Dale said that number could fluctuate, with additional ballots arriving by mail in coming days.

"Imperial County, unfortunately, and I hate to say this, we're generally at the bottom end of the state when it comes to turnout," Dale said. During the March 5 presidential primary, she noted, 22% of registered Imperial County voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout in California.

Still, she said, the Calexico special election "was very passionate on both sides, and I feel that it encouraged a lot of voters to come out who might not have done so before."

A woman in business attire poses in front of a farmworker painting
Maritza Hurtado, a local businesswoman and former mayor of Calexico, helped lead the effort to recall two young progressives on the City Council. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

When they first came into office, Ureña and Manzanarez were hailed as young changemakers in Calexico, an impoverished town separated from the sprawling city of Mexicali, Mexico, by a steel border fence.

Ureña was first elected in 2020, at age 23, with 70% of the vote. In 2023, she held the rotating one-year title of mayor.

Ureña was ushered in to finish the term of David Romero, a council member who went to federal prison after taking bribes in exchange for providing a guaranteed city permit for a cannabis business. Another then-council member, Rosie Fernandez, had pleaded guilty earlier that year to driving under the influence; she was sentenced to probation and had to install a court-ordered alcohol-detection device in her vehicle. She later lost her bid for reelection.

In October 2022, state auditors released a scathing audit that said Calexico had been in the midst of a "financial crisis" for a decade and was at high risk for potential waste, fraud and mismanagement. Previous city councils, the audit said, approved budgets based on unreliable financial data, and the municipality overspent, pushing its general fund into a deficit from fiscal years 2014-15 through 2018-19.

Ureña was reelected in November 2022, a month after the audit was released. She and Manzanarez were the top vote-getters in an at-large contest for two seats.

Soon after, Ureña publicly came out as gender-fluid and transgender and started wearing dresses and makeup in official appearances. Ureña and Manzanarez were handed recall papers the following May.

A homeless encampment with a shopping cart and walker.
Recall proponents cited a visible rise in homeless encampments in Calexico's downtown as a major concern. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Manzanarez and Ureña regularly clashed with other council members and citizens, especially when they criticized the police. They and another council ally, Gloria Romo, often spoke during public meetings in Spanish without translation — infuriating some prominent recall supporters, who called it exclusionary.

In January, Hurtado served Romo with intent-to-recall papers, a signature-gathering effort still underway.

The ouster of Ureña and Manzanarez will leave two of the council's five seats empty. At Wednesday's meeting, City Atty. Carlos Campos said the two seats will be vacated once the City Council certifies the results. The council then will have 60 days to decide whether to fill the seats through special election or appointment.

Ureña said she and Manzanarez watched together as the first batch of election results came in Tuesday night. They had "a great party," she said, even though it quickly became clear they would lose.

"I did not stop dancing," Ureña said. "Nothing gets through my happiness."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.