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South Gate mayor who could take a punch — and a bullet — is stepping down

"Hammerin' Hank" rolled his wheelchair down a slick hallway and struggled to open a door to the handsome Art-Deco council chamber of South Gate's City Hall.

He hobbled to a black leather chair on the dais, teetering on his one remaining leg. He held a magnifying glass over his left eye — the only one he has left — to get a good look at the agenda.

Age and diabetes have taken their toll on South Gate Mayor Henry Gonzalez, but that's nothing compared to the scars — at least one of them literal — from a nearly three-decade career in a town where politics was once a blood sport.

Other southeast L.A. County cities have had their own scandals, perhaps none so notably as nearby Bell, where officials' stratospheric salaries inspired a question on "Jeopardy!" But for years, South Gate was the dark tower of municipal malfeasance — a landscape of public wrongdoing so cartoonishly over the top that it almost seemed made up.

Gonzalez, 79, was one of the good guys. That meant having thick skin — and a strong jaw.

There was the time he got slugged in the face by a councilwoman during a council meeting.

Or the time he was called a crook in a city that once produced so many scurrilous campaign fliers that some people — including Gonzalez — collected them like Pokemon cards. (One councilman was accused of leaving a teenage girl and his love child for a "Norwegian bombshell." One candidate was accused of being a child molester.) Gonzalez's own face appeared in a flier depicting a milk carton and the caption: "Lost! Have you seen this senile, dirty old man?"

Look closely beneath Gonzalez's shock of white hair, and you see a tiny dent.

That's from the time someone shot "Hammerin' Hank" in the back of the head.

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When Gonzalez retires next month, it will be the end of an era.

He was South Gate's first Latino council member and mayor. And he will leave the city drastically different from the South Gate that made news.

It is one of the few working-class, strongly immigrant cities in the area with such amenities as gleaming shopping centers and a cineplex. The most telling difference, however, is in South Gate's political culture. Disagreements are not unusual at City Hall. But that no longer means someone is going to get politically kneecapped.

David Demerjian, a prosecutor, used to run the public corruption unit for the L.A. County district attorney's office. The unit was established in 2001, around the time South Gate began to command attention from the outside, including the FBI.

"Bell was crazy. But I don't think it was nowhere close to what was going on in South Gate," Demerjian said. "In South Gate, they were willing to shoot somebody."

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Gonzalez's father, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and his mother's family were all involved in the unions. Growing up in Watts, Gonzalez was only 9 when he started to attend union meetings with his father. He stood on picket lines with him and other workers.

"You tell the people the truth," Gonzalez recalled his father telling him. "They'll come back later and say you're right or they'll tell you they disagree with you, but they respect you because you never told them what they wanted to hear."

In 1955, Gonzalez began working as a paint sprayer for General Motors in South Gate, joining the United Auto Workers International Union and climbing up the ranks.

His negotiating skills for the union would win him the nickname "Hammerin' Hank."

Gonzalez moved to South Gate in 1961. Finding a home wasn't easy. There was a lot of discrimination at the time. Gonzalez said he had white friends who offered to look at homes for him. But he eventually settled into the city, even as white families began to leave.

Gonzalez was elected to the South Gate City Council in 1982, around the time General Motors, Firestone and other companies closed and thousands of jobs were lost. He tried to use his elected position to persuade companies to stay, without success.

"He was the bridge of white South Gate to Latino South Gate," said Hector De La Torre, a former state assemblyman who was a council ally of Gonzalez during the city's most bruising political years.

In 1988, Gonzalez was voted out of office after he tried and failed to municipalize South Gate's electricity by taking over a Southern California Edison plant.

He was reelected to the council in 1994. By then Gonzalez had gotten to know a young councilman, Albert T. Robles, who had graduated from UCLA and seemed full of promise.

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On April 13, 1999, Gonzalez and his wife pulled into their driveway after an uneventful council meeting. Using a cane to walk, the councilman approached the side door of his kitchen when he felt a blow to the back of his head. He had been shot.

Gonzalez lay in a pool of blood as his wife screamed and chased after the gunman. The bullet, for whatever reason, didn't strike him squarely in the head. He was rushed to the hospital, but he was up on his feet and back at City Hall soon after.

"After getting shot, who goes back for more?" De La Torre said.

The shooting led to endless speculation. Residents all seemed to think they knew who did it and why. Even Gonzalez had his suspicions. But nearly 16 years later, no one knows. The shooting remains unsolved.

The next several years were tumultuous. There were allegations of bribes and strong-arm political tactics. Council meetings devolved into chaos, with residents who stood up to the council majority often kicked out. Robles had become city treasurer; he and his allies gave lucrative contracts to supportive contractors and law firms, nearly bankrupting the city.

Gonzalez was a frequent target of political attacks. The milk carton ad depicting a "lost" Gonzalez went on to say he was "recently seen wandering in a vacant parking lot … unaware of his whereabouts, and mumbling, 'Where did that sexy lady go?'"

A candidate for city clerk was falsely accused of drunk driving. The mailer included a fabricated, but realistic-looking, DUI citation.

"It was completely made up and shocking," Demerjian said. "I couldn't believe that in America, we had something like that."

South Gate Councilman Gil Hurtado said Gonzalez played a vital role in ending the culture of corruption and repairing the city's credibility.

"We have the Gandhis of the world, the Mandelas of the world, the Martin Luther Kings of the world, and we have Henry Gonzalez in our city," he said.

In 2003, in the face of a popular uprising, Robles and his allies were recalled from office. During the next three years, the city treasurer would be convicted in a massive public corruption scheme and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. He was released in 2013.

"The community just came together perfectly. Let me tell you, I never saw anything like it," Gonzalez said.

Days after the recall, a councilwoman who was one of Robles' staunchest allies on the council threw an overhead right that struck the then-67-year-old Gonzalez in the cheek during a tug-of-war over a document.

Gonzalez brushed it off with humor.

"A bullet bounced off my head, so I can take a punch," he said at the time.

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Gonzalez, who became mayor for the seventh time last year, said he is ready to retire. He can't get around as he used to. And the city's future, to Gonzalez, looks bright.

He says he'd like to write a memoir. He has the memories, boxes of documents and the dent in the back of his head to fill at least a few chapters.

Some council members joke that he's not going anywhere.

"Henry's really not going to retire," Hurtado said. "He's going to be the old man in the cave, and we're going to knock on his door and get his input when we need it.

"And whether we want it or not, he's going to give us feedback."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Twitter: @latvives

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