When national and international issues touch local communities, local leaders can struggle with their role when residents look to them for action or support.
Recently, residents have been asking city councils to do what they can to influence the war waging half a world away between Israel and Hamas, leaving community leaders divided on what their responses should look like, or whether they should respond at all.
Last week, Santa Ana councilmembers split over what their place is in the 2-month-old conflict from the dais in City Hall. Stanton elected officials are expected to continue having that same conversation this week, and it’s been held in council chambers in Huntington Beach, Irvine and elsewhere around Southern California.
“A lot of our residents are, and have family members that have been, directly affected by this conflict,” Stanton City Councilmember Donald Torres said. He pitched his colleagues on having the council adopt on the city’s behalf a resolution in support of the Palestinian people of Gaza, condemning violence committed by both Hamas and Israel, and calling for a ceasefire. The council is expected to vote Tuesday, Dec. 12.
He recognized that some of his own constituents and colleagues have asked, “‘Why would a small city like Stanton choose to take on a resolution like this?’ And the truth is that international issues affect our community, 40% of our residents are born out of this country,” he said. “So, of course, geopolitics is going to affect our residents.”
Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez voiced a similar thought at the last Santa Ana council meeting when he proposed with Councilmember Benjamin Vazquez a resolution in support of Palestine and calling for a permanent ceasefire in the conflict.
“Oftentimes, the matters that we talk about here are very local, but this is a matter that is affecting us internationally,” Hernandez said. “I am proud to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I also stand in solidarity with any group of people who are being subjected to violence. Who are being subjected to war. Who are being subjected to genocide.”
The two councilmembers failed, however, to garner enough support from their colleagues, in part because of the question of local government’s role.
In Irvine, where many protests in support of Palestine and pro-Israel vigils have taken place the past couple of months, members of the community recently pressured city leaders to adopt a resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.
“We as a city stand by all of our residents, their safety and their right to free speech,” Mayor Farrah Khan said at a recent council meeting following a string of community members addressing the council to take a position. “Today, we are seeing a growing number of elected officials from the local to the state and federal levels asking for a ceasefire and I stand with you and I continue to stand against violence and war anywhere in the world.”
Local leaders have made statements about the war since its early days in October. Huntington Beach officials previously passed a resolution on Oct. 17 condemning the Hamas attack and supporting Israel.
Huntington Beach Councilmember Gracey Van Der Mark, who was recently appointed as the city’s mayor, said “every person, every county, every government around the world” should condemn Hamas. Councilmember Tony Strickland, then-mayor of the city, said it was “imperative” that the city stand with Israel.
Councilmember Natalie Moser said at the time she was concerned the resolution presented by Van Der Mark and Strickland was not appropriate because it lacked inclusivity.
“I think we have a community, which was expressed earlier tonight, of many different peoples,” Moser said at the October council meeting. “We have a very diverse community. I think potentially acknowledging that within this would be helpful.”
Santa Ana Mayor Valerie Amezcua said her job as the city’s elected leader is to take care of all her constituents.
“We’re addressing city issues. We’re addressing our residents and our constituents,” Amezcua said. “Again, as a policy maker, we have no control, none whatsoever, over international matters. No matter what anybody says up here, we do not.”
But Councilmember Jessie Lopez pointed to the council’s previous public stances in support of Ukraine, in support of the Armenian community of Artsakh and lighting up the water tower blue in support of Israel.
It is far more common for state and federal elected officials to speak out on international affairs.
California Assembly Republicans have said they plan to introduce a resolution as soon as the legislature reconvenes next year “condemning Hamas” for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed more than 1,200 people.
Their hope is for the California legislature to “condemn the terrorist organization and its violent actions,” said Assemblymember Diane Dixon, R-Newport Beach.
“This is a grievous situation. I’m proud the Republican Caucus is choosing to make a statement. Why hold back? To me, that’s a mistake in history when people hold back when they hear about grievous acts against fellow human beings, women and children,” Dixon said. “We cannot be silent.”
The assemblywoman, who previously served on the Newport Beach City Council, said besides state representatives potentially having a louder voice, she does not see much of a difference when it comes to speaking out on international issues.
“We all have constituents that we serve,” Dixon said. “They should know where their elected officials stand on these major issues.”
Last year, some California lawmakers called on state agencies to divest funds from Russia and Russian-state entities following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The state of California has incredible economic power and strength and we must use this clout for good,” Sen. Mike McGuire, who introduced the bill, said at the time.
The legislation never made it out of the Senate and eventually died.
U.S. Rep. Young Kim, R-Anaheim Hills, recently led a bipartisan letter signed by about 90 House lawmakers pressing the UN Women, an organization of the United Nations that works for gender equity, to publicly condemn Hamas for its attack and brutality against women.
The Democratic Party of OC last week considered a resolution of “solidarity with the Palestinian people” that also called for a permanent ceasefire and end of United States military aid, but it did not receive enough support from the organization’s central committee.
Chair Ada Briceño said the voting body had already passed a statement in November calling on the U.S. government to “urge that Israel, Hamas, and any other entities immediately and permanently cease-fire.”
Pressure rising on U.S. after vetoing U.N. call for a cease-fire in Gaza
University of Pennsylvania president resigns as antisemitism testimony draws backlash
While Palestinians suffer, Hamas reaps the benefits
UN warns that Gaza aid operation is ‘in tatters’
Israel designates a safe zone in Gaza. Palestinians and aid groups say it offers little relief