When Barbara Messina of Alhambra sets out on a political mission, there’s no stopping her, even if she is confronted with threats or public disdain.
Take the case of El Cid, an adult bookstore targeted for closing by community groups shortly after it opened on Main Street in 1975. Unfortunately for the store owner, Messina headed the picketing campaign, which lasted five years, ending only after the store burned down in 1980. Fire officials suspected arson but closed the case due to insufficient evidence.
Seven days a week, rain or shine, Messina dispatched picketers to the store, where volunteers took one- or two-hour shifts from 9 a.m. to midnight. Messina was frequently in the picket line herself, carrying placards and marching quietly.
Some passing motorists honked in support, Messina said, whereas others heckled them, accusing them of infringing on free speech.
“They took a lot of abuse, especially at night,” Messina said of her fellow picketers, who were members of a group called People Against Obscenity. On at least one occasion, occupants of a passing car “mooned” them, she said.
Nowadays, Messina, 49, is championing her principles from City Hall, where she has become influential after 2 1/2 years on the City Council. As a councilwoman, she also sits on the redevelopment agency board, and her vote has often decided the fate of major Main Street projects crucial to revitalizing downtown.
She is also a member of a committee that will advise the City Council on the development of Valley Boulevard, and as such will play a key role in the development of one of the city’s key commercial strips.
A short, energetic woman whose black curls are trimmed in an easy-care, no-nonsense style, Messina juggles a hectic schedule of family and city affairs, dashing from City Hall meetings to ribbon-cutting ceremonies to the family’s new pizza restaurant, Artino’s, which, it is planned, will be renamed Messina’s Trattoria, or Messina’s Little Eatery, to add a family atmosphere.
In the mid-1970s, when she was caring for three young daughters, Messina said, she joined People Against Obscenity after she saw grammar school children being allowed inside the adult bookstore. She visited more than a dozen Alhambra church and community groups to sign up scores of picketers. On Mondays, members of St. Thomas More Catholic Church took the shift. Tuesdays it was Atherton Baptist Homes, and Wednesdays it was the Knights of Columbus.
“I lived my life on the picket line,” Messina said. The campaign took its toll, nearly breaking up her marriage, she said. Her husband, Michael, who had helped to schedule the picketing shifts, said the campaign got boring.
“It took a lot of time, and it seemed nothing was happening,” he said.
But Barbara Messina never considered giving up the fight.
“Maybe I’m just a stubborn Italian,” she said. “It just became a matter of principle with me.” Even after an anonymous sender mailed her a tarantula as a warning to quit, she held her ground.
As a council member, Messina has a reputation for being outspoken and accessible to people. Critics, however, say she can be obstinate and emotional in her decision-making. But all agree that she is hard to ignore.
Messina sits on a council that includes two attorneys, an accountant and a health administrator. She is credited with doing her homework before meetings but often consults her husband, a former mayor and councilman whom she succeeded in office, for advice.
“Of all the council people in Alhambra, Barbara Messina is the most loyal to the people of Alhambra,” said Ralph Gilliam, a former Planning Commission member who is a regular at council meetings. “She speaks out.”
Vocal at Meetings
Herman Schwab, a 42-year Alhambra resident, agrees. In 1986, when Schwab and his neighbors on Violeta Drive were fighting a proposed theater complex near their homes, Barbara Messina met with the residents and spoke up for them at council meetings.
More recently, Messina met with and agreed to help Ramona Avenue residents opposed to a controversial 78-foot sign. Resident Clifford Chen said that Councilman Michael Blanco, who also opposed the sign, “let his vote speak for itself,” while Messina “talked to us.” The city obtained an injunction to halt the sign’s construction.
“I try to put myself in the other person’s position,” she said. “I’m a bleeding heart, as they like to put it. It’s true.”
Gilliam said that after being called for the least little thing, Messina “will call City Hall and make things happen.” As a result, Messina receives 20 or so calls a week from residents, and she follows up on all of them, she said.
Stubborn Under Stress
Messina admitted to being stubborn when she is under stress, but added, “If you show me I’m wrong, I’m flexible.”
For example, she said, she had originally opposed installation of a dance floor at a proposed restaurant downtown, but after learning that there would not be nightly dancing there, she voted to approve it.
When Messina first took office, her relations with other council members were “a little strained,” she said, because they probably believed accounts of her stubbornness circulated by her opponents. But tension eased after council members attended a retreat and “put their cards on the table,” she said.
Messina’s colleagues on the council said she is hard-working but can be hardheaded.
“I enjoy working with Mrs. Messina,” Boyd Condie said. “I think she feels fervently about things.”
Blanco, who backed one of Messina’s opponents during her 1986 bid for office, said: “It’s easier to work with Michael than it’s been working with Barbara.” He said he felt Michael Messina was better at understanding city issues. But Councilman Talmage Burke said Barbara Messina is good at talking with residents.
“If she has all the facts and listens to all the discussions, she comes to a reasonable conclusion,” he said.
Parker Williams, a former council member who at times had clashed with Messina over redevelopment and other issues, said: “She’s got a heart of gold, but she doesn’t understand things.”
“I can say the same thing about him,” she responded.
She said Williams thinks she doesn’t understand the economic consequences of city policies.
“I understand,” she said. “I just don’t agree with him.” She said she tends to side with the underdog, mainly residents and small business owners.
Messina acknowledged that 20 years ago she was thin-skinned, but said she feels that now she has learned to take criticism in stride. What made the difference was the 1973 death of her daughter Kathleen, 10, from a brain tumor.
“Life is too short,” Messina said. “I don’t harbor any hard feelings for anybody that’s done anything to me. I just don’t think it’s worth it.”
Now her biggest problem is learning how to say no so that she doesn’t stretch herself too thin, she said.
She is close to her daughters, two of whom are married--but “no grandchildren yet,” she said. Teresa Messina Juarez, 27, and Maryann Messina-Doerning, 25, are both teachers in Alhambra. Kristen, 18, is a cheerleader at Alhambra High School.
“We really grew up with a sense of civic responsibility early on,” said Juarez, who is a library board member. Daughter Maryann helps manage the family restaurant.
Barbara Messina knows that the restaurant’s location on Main Street may raise a conflict-of-interest issue if future city projects are proposed nearby, but she said she has informed the city attorney that she will disqualify herself from voting based on his advice.
Hates to Cook
Messina admittedly hates to cook but agreed to help run the restaurant as a family investment. She works there four or more hours a day and whips up a 10-gallon batch of spaghetti sauce and meatballs every Monday.
One recent weekday, Messina, dressed in a tailored gray skirt, white blouse, and black pumps because she had just come from a city-related meeting, stood behind the restaurant stove and served up a heaping portion of the spaghetti lunch special. The mild sauce, made from her grandmother’s recipe, is jazzed up with sweet bits of fresh garlic, which she loves.
“I think it’s a better spaghetti sauce,” said Steve Francis, a 19-year-old who started working at the restaurant before the Messinas bought it in February. He also credits the councilwoman for getting him back on the job, which he had quit after an argument with Michael Messina.
“It was my fault,” Francis said. “She helped me own up to it.” Michael Messina, who said his wife is much better than he is at dealing with people, now mainly concentrates on the business side of the restaurant while she supervises the employees.
Barbara Messina shuttles to her appointments in a new Cadillac sporting personalized plates that say “HOT ITLN,” for Hot Italian. “It caused such a stir,” she said, wincing in disbelief. The plate elicited uninvited comments from truck drivers and raised eyebrows from neighbors, she said.
Politically, she has come a long way since 1969, when she headed a citizens group to defeat proposals for a new courthouse and library that would have raised taxes for homeowners such as the Messinas, who had just bought a house.
Picketing the bookstore further piqued her interest in politics by introducing her to Sacramento legislators she described as “so liberal.” But she did not run for the council until 1986, when she won a close race to fill a seat previously held by her husband.
In 1983, after then-Mayor Mike Rubino left office after a conviction for accepting a bribe, Messina’s husband urged her to run, but she demurred, saying she didn’t feel she was qualified.
“I guess I did have the housewife syndrome at the time,” she said. She said she no longer suffers from that but acknowledges that she frequently consults her husband on city policy.
“I respect him, and I respect his opinion,” Messina said. She said her husband, who owns Messina Development Co. in Alhambra, is an expert on development issues and also the person she most admires. He said his company does not take on projects in Alhambra.
Asked to name the accomplishment she is most proud of, the councilwoman names the renovation of Almansor Park, a project completed when her husband was on the council and she was his field representative.
Councilman Blanco said that Messina’s penchant for consulting her husband has made it more difficult for the council to reach decisions on various projects.
“At times she sounds like what he says is what she’s going to do,” Blanco said. “But he’s not there (at council meetings) to discuss things.” He said that as a result, progress on the city’s redevelopment projects has slowed.
Michael Messina said he advises his wife, but they do not always agree and she often turns out to be right. “We each have certain talents and skills,” he said. “We feed off each other.”
He dismisses as “typical political talk’ accusations that although his wife is on the council, he is running the show.
He said he is quieter than his gregarious wife. When he was a councilman, he said, the talk was that “he may be running, but it’s her that’s running everything.”
The Messinas’ team approach did get them into trouble in 1985. Then Councilman Michael Messina, saying his job was requiring him to travel more, offered to resign--but only if the council named his wife to replace him.
Critics accused Messina of trying to broker the selection of his successor, and the council rejected the conditional resignation on a 2-2 vote.
“It was just taken the wrong way by people,” Barbara Messina said of the resignation offer. “I just didn’t feel it was out of line.”
For some politicians, such as former Monterey Park Councilman Matthew G. Martinez, who went on to be a state assemblyman and now U.S. congressman, a City Council seat has turned out to be a steppingstone to higher office.