James Rowe: Maverick on Lynwood Council

Times Staff Writer

Though James Rowe has been on the City Council for a total of 18 years, he has served during each of the last four decades.

And he has seen the city grow from a sleepy suburban-type town to an urban community of 54,000.

Rowe, at 76 the oldest councilman on the five-member council, was first appointed in 1958 to fill an unexpired term.

He was elected on his own in 1960. He was defeated four years later and remained out of politics for eight years until he was elected again in 1972.

"I had to find something to keep me busy after retirement from my construction business," Rowe said about his entering politics.

He's known as something of a maverick on the council.

"He loves a good fight," said Councilman Robert Henning, the newest member of the council who was elected in 1983. Henning, 41, who is black, is the first minority elected to the council.

He and Rowe and have formed an alliance of sorts. It is not unusual for them to vote together on matters.

They were able to persuade the majority of the council to vote to give city employees a paid holiday off in celebration of the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Henning said.

Before Henning arrived, Rowe often was on the short end of a 4-1 vote on some council matters.

"I'm viewed by some as a maverick, but it hasn't always been that way," said Rowe, who during his tenure has been elected mayor twice by his colleagues.

"We are all mavericks from time to time. We have disagreements but we manage to get along," said Mayor John Byork, who has been on the council since 1965 and is a few months younger than Rowe.

Rowe said the episode that set him apart from the council occurred in 1981, when members took advantage of a state law that allowed elected city officials to extend their term of office. The law, which allowed municipal and school board elections to be combined, had been enacted as a money-saving measure.

Dissented From Council Vote The Lywood council voted to extend its term by 19 months. The regular municipal elections scheduled for April, 1982, were postponed and combined with the Lynwood school board elections in November, 1983.

"I voted against it because I thought it was wrong," Rowe said. "The voters had elected us to serve four years, and extending that time without giving them a say was not right."

Rowe, who was born in Hastings, Pa., said he dropped out of high school around 1925 and got a job as a mechanical engineering draftsman to help his mother support the family, which included a younger sister.

He joined the Army Signal Corps in 1932 and was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he remained a while after discharge. He left about a month before the bombing of the harbor by the Japanese and "somehow ended up in Lynwood" and remained there.

Rowe started a small construction firm that built bowling alleys, markets and homes. He was married in 1944. His wife, Eva, died in 1972.

Saw City Facilities Grow Rowe said he looks at his city through the eyes of someone who has been in construction and sees progress through the building of City Hall, the county library and recreation center with swim center, among other projects.

In 1961, the city, with a predominantly white population, was named one of 11 All-American Cities by the National Municipal League, a private organization that makes the awards.

Today, the six-square-mile city is made up primarily of black and Latino residents.

The change in the city's population has not affected the way Rowe conducts council business, he said. "The voters are my boss and I'm their employee."

Rowe said that since his retirement his entire life revolves around council business. "I get a kick out of going to City Hall and trying to solve citizens' complaints," he said. "My recreation comes from serving on the council," which pays $347.50 a month.

"Jim Rowe isn't a stick-in-the-mud. He is in tune to the heartbeat of his constituents. He is a champion of the underprivileged," said Ida Honorof, one of the community activists who led the unsuccessful fight to rescind the consolidation of the elections.

The 1980s promise to be a boom era for the city, Rowe says.

Freeway Project Seen as Boon He predicts that the decade will see the development of the 17-mile Century Freeway route, which runs through the center of town and has left a blighted area where hundreds of homes and businesses were removed by the state Department of Transportation.

The construction of the freeway, which has been debated for more than 20 years, is now under way. The city's central business district, which was designated a redevelopment area in 1973, will benefit, Rowe believes. The redevelopment agency hopes to develop a regional shopping center before the end of the century, he said.

"A great future is staring us in the face. I hope to still be on the council to see it," Rowe said.

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