Son of Migrant Worker to Be Norwalk's Mayor

Times Staff Writer

Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriquez strolled through the crowd outside a city courtroom, exchanging greetings with friends as he moved purposefully toward the man everyone was staring at--a tall, dapper businessman in a gray suede Stetson.

As a councilman, Rodriquez is nonchalant about meeting congressmen and senators, so he was hardly intimidated by the famous Texas oil man who was in Southeast Superior Court on business. Extending a stumpy arm from a size-48 suit jacket, the 5-foot-8 Rodriquez introduced himself to J. R. Ewing.

Posed for Pictures

"Let's face it, we all still put our pants on one leg at a time," said Rodriquez, explaining why he brushed past a publicist and a bodyguard in an effort to talk actor Larry Hagman into both posing for pictures with city officials and wearing a Norwalk city pin while filming "Dallas." The cast of the CBS nighttime soap opera was on location here, filming in an unused courtroom.

Rodriquez fared better than most people who encounter J.R. on "Dallas."

Hagman apologetically explained that he couldn't wear the pin because "we're supposed to be in Dallas, and this would blow our cover." But he did pose for pictures.

Score another victory for Rodriquez, whose enthusiasm and self-confidence make him effective in dealing with all kinds of people, say friends and colleagues.

A successful insurance salesman, Rodriquez also is doing well at politics. In two months, Rodriquez, a councilman since 1982, is scheduled to be sworn in as mayor, continuing a remarkable rise for a man who began life in this city 52 years ago as the son of a migrant farm worker.

Known as Hard Worker

Rodriquez is known on the council as a hard worker who pushes programs that benefit children. He also plans to lead what will probably be a politically unpopular campaign to keep poker clubs out of the city.

Once he takes office as mayor, Rodriquez, who voted for the ordinance that authorized a poker club in the city in 1983, hopes to convince the other four City Council members to rescind the measure.

Rodriquez said he is disturbed by financial and legal problems of card clubs in Bell and Commerce.

"Because of all the negative things that have been happening, I don't want it for the city anymore," Rodriquez said. "I don't think we need it."(Attempts to build the poker club on an unused Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District campus have been stymied by numerous lawsuits by the school district and three would-be developers.)

In advocating programs for youth, Rodriquez last December made a motion to donate $44,000 to the Norwalk All-City Youth Band, a city-sponsored marching band that is planning a trip to Europe this year.

When another council member objected, Rodriquez reminded the council that the city spends as much money every week fighting gang violence and juvenile delinquency, so why not do something for the "good kids." The council unanimously approved the donation, under the condition that the band try to raise money to pay it back.

Anti-Gang Activities

"Any time we can take our youngsters and put them in a Little League, or girls' softball . . . those youngsters don't have the opportunity to stray into gang involvement," Rodriquez said.

Fellow council members say Rodriquez is a "team player" who has filled a necessary role in the community.

"He (Rodriquez) has fulfilled a role as the leading Hispanic officeholder and spokesman in our community," said Councilman Lou Banas. "He knows a lot of people in this community, he's sold a lot of insurance policies."

Banas said the council dedicates each meeting to the memory of a Norwalk resident who has died recently, and that Rodriquez is usually the council member who nominates people for the honor.

"I usually kid Rod that he's ahead of us in knowing who passed away because he probably sold them insurance," Banas said.

Rodriquez indeed seems to know almost everyone in the city. He said that he is involved in so many organizations that he has never counted them. He sits on the board of directors of United States-Mexico Sister Cities Assn. and is a member of virtually every city and community organization, from the Rotary Club to the Southeast Mosquito Abatement District.

Farm Worker's Son

Born in his grandfather's house in an orange grove off Studebaker Road in 1932, Rodriquez, the son of a domestic and a migrant farm worker, recalls the family bathroom was outdoors, "next to the hogs."

He remembers working as a farmhand and walking barefoot to Little Lake Grammar School in patched jeans. But he also remembers family holidays, where the Rodriquez clan ate just-killed pork, drank homemade alcohol, and sang and danced all night.

As a child, Rodriquez was first exposed to politics when he played Patrick Henry in a fifth-grade play. As a junior high student, he became involved in politics of another kind on the school playgrounds.

"In my eighth-grade picture I was a pretty big bruiser at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds," Rodriquez said. "I was always kind of the overseer, the protector of those less fortunate."

In junior high school, Rodriquez was as heavily involved in activities as he is now, playing football for the "B" team at 6 o'clock, then jumping into his band uniform and carrying out his the tuba for the playing of the National Anthem at 8 o'clock, and the kickoff of the varsity football game.

Served in Air Force

After serving as an Air Force radio operator for four years, Rodriquez returned to Norwalk and took on a succession of sales jobs--camping equipment, clothes, and finally insurance--to support his wife, Jennie, and two children. He now has his insurance business down to one day a week, which leaves plenty of time for city business.

Rodriquez said selling insurance is basically the same as playing politics.

"You have to be sensitive to people's needs," he said.

As mayor, Rodriquez will earn the same $8,000 a year earned by the other council members, but his time at City Hall will probably increase due to the demands of being the city's top official.

Rodriquez said as mayor, he hopes to improve communication between government and city residents by increased use of the city's newsletter and cable television station and the media. But other than improved communication, Rodriquez does not have any other plans at present for when he takes office.

He is looking forward to the job, though.

"To be the mayor of the city I was born in, knowing I've got four generations living in this community, knowing the base for my business has been this community. . . it's exciting," Rodriquez said.

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