Political candidates in this city of 56,000 these days are sized up in two ways: whether they are born and bred Montebellans and how they voted on eminent domain last spring.
A balanced budget, more police protection in south Montebello, a senior citizens center and youth programs all have their place as campaign issues, and some say these are the only real issues. But the ghost of eminent domain, which would have granted the city power to take land for redevelopment, has been resting uneasily since May 2 when ordinarily peaceful residents, stirred into a frenzy of fear, political backbiting and plain nastiness, killed it in a special election.
Sixteen days from now, at 7 a.m., polls will open for a City Council race early bettors figure will be one of the most volatile in a history of volatile elections, because it is bound to see the resurrection of eminent domain.
"When you talk about eminent domain in Montebello, it's not just two words. It's a whole list of issues and feelings and a lot of bitterness," said candidate Joseph Coria, 46, who supported the issue.
So far, it seems the days preceding the election are whizzing by without incident. Aside from the posters and placards poking out of lawns and plastered to the sides of buildings, the streets have been eerily quiet.
But no one is fooling himself. Candidates say this is just the lull before the storm and from the looks of things, it is getting ready to pour. "Eminent domain" are the first words out of the mouths of each candidate. And if that is not a sure sign of trouble, someone has been stealing Coria's election signs.
Coria, a medical administrator making his first foray into politics, is one of nine people running for three open City Council seats. Incumbents Ed Pizzorno, 51, and Arnold M. Glasman, 36, are up for reelection. Former Councilman William Molinari, 50, paralegal Shirley Garcia, judicial administrative assistant Betty Escobar, marketing director Larry Salazar, 32, florist Michael Baldenebro, 25, and senior aide Albert Phillips are the other six contenders.
Phillips could not be reached for an interview.
All candidates agree there are many things they would like to see happen in Montebello. There is no theater, no city auditorium or gymnasium. They want wise planning, better businesses, better communication with city leaders and anything else that will keep this place comfortable for residents who have settled here with their children and their children's children.
"It's a town where everyone knows each other," said Pizzorno. "It's comfortable and we want to keep it that way."
Montebello is a place where families settle for years. Children go to school together, they grow up and marry classmates and their children go to the same schools. It is important to residents that their political candidates be part of this extended family. Outsiders are welcomed but looked upon as in-laws until they have been around a couple of decades.
If keeping the extended family happy were all there was to it, this campaign would fade into the town's history as a blur of election signs, handshakes and fund-raisers. There is no doubt many would like to see just that happen, but candidates Coria and Escobar said there are, what Glasman calls, "factions" in town that are going to make sure it doesn't. These factions, otherwise known as Garcia, Escobar, Salazar and Molinari, are all opposed to eminent domain and they are sure to drag the defeated referendum out to wave in the air like so much dirty laundry in order to build a constituency, say Glasman, Coria and Escobar.
"It's a dead issue, but they are going to try to bring it out of the political coffin and say, 'Hey remember when . . .?' " Coria said.
Glasman and Escobar agree.
"Eminent domain was settled," Escobar said. "The people made it clear they don't want it, so all right, let's move on."
Salazar, Garcia, Molinari and council member Pizzorno, who alone voted against eminent domain when his four colleagues on the council pushed for it, said moving on is not going to be easy.
For these four candidates there were two problems with eminent domain: the issue itself and the way it was handled.
They still bristle when they recall a town meeting in the high school auditorium that stretched until 4:30 a.m. Or the council members they said treated them like children who did not know what was good for them. Or the presumption of people from north Montebello and even from out of town that spoke in favor of establishing the power of eminent domain from Whittier Boulevard south.
"The council dug in its heels and tried to force it on the community," Molinari said. "If those are tactics that the City Council is going to use, then it doesn't matter what the issue is."
"This is still the main issue," said Salazar, who is a member of South Montebello Area Residents Together, a neighborhood organization formed by Molinari which rallied against eminent domain.
"The fact is, people don't trust City Hall at this point," Garcia said.
Coria agreed that a major part of the problem with eminent domain was the way it was presented. Residents were afraid their homes would be taken, businessmen on aging Whittier Boulevard feared their businesses would be paved over for mini-malls. But, Coria, Glasman and Escobar say, Garcia, Salazar and Molinari created the fear and then fed on it to create a political base.
No one was going to take homes willy-nilly, Glasman insists.
"The opposition misled people," he said. "They were saying Arnold Glasman wanted to take property without discretion. That wasn't true."
If Glasman was not prepared for the outrage caused by the City Council's vote in November, 1988, to give the city Redevelopment Agency the power of eminent domain, he is now.
The council member is running the most expensive campaign to date with contributions totaling $29,524 as of Sept. 23. He is followed by Escobar, Coria, Pizzorno, Garcia, Salazar and Molinari. Phillips and Baldenebro did not file campaign contribution reports with the city clerk.
BACKGROUND On May 2, voters in Montebello went to the polls to decide whether the Community Redevelopment Agency should be given the power to take land for redevelopment. The referendum was defeated by a margin of 3 to 1. The election followed six months of bitter campaigning after the City Council in November, 1988, voted to give the CRA the power of eminent domain.
Arnold M. Glasman. Glasman, 36, has been a resident of Montebello for more than 24 years and has served on the City Council for the last four. He counts among his achievements in office a city investment policy that he said has added several hundred thousand dollars a year to the general fund; the signing into law of a DARE program for schoolchildren, and strengthening the Fire and Police departments. Glasman said Montebello needs controlled growth and crime-and drug-prevention programs. He was a supporter of eminent domain.
Ed Pizzorno. Pizzorno, 51, owns Steveson's Hardware on Whittier Boulevard. He has lived in Montebello for the past 20 years and has served on the City Council for the past four. As a council member Pizzorno considers among his greatest accomplishments the elimination of utility taxes, strengthening the Police Department and helping balance the city's budget. He said he would like the city to build a new community center and start involving young people in government. Pizzorno was the only City Council member to vote against eminent domain.
Michael Baldenebro. Two years ago, Baldenebro's San Gabriel Valley flower shop was destroyed in a fire. Baldenebro said city officials refused to let him rebuild it, instead they took the parcel under eminent domain. He said he does not want to see what happened to him happen to residents and businessmen of Montebello. Baldenebro was born in Montebello and attended its schools. He said what he is most interested in is seeing the town revitalized, but not, he said, if residents are going to pay the price.
Betty Escobar. Escobar was born and raised in Boyle Heights and has been a resident of Montebello for almost 30 years. A former member of the Planning Commission, Escobar is a judicial administrative assistant in the U.S. Central District Court. In 1986, Escobar received her bachelor of arts degree in political science. She is an 18-year member of the PTA and said she would like to see joint meetings of the Montebello Unified School Board and the City Council. As a planning commissioner, Escobar supported eminent domain.
Shirley Garcia. Garcia is known in Montebello for her fight against eminent domain. Her family has lived in Montebello since 1948 and she attended Montebello schools. Today she works as a paralegal. Garcia said she would like to see a theater, nicer stores and restaurants built in town, but she said residents should have a greater say in what development the town supports. Garcia would like to see City Council members limited to two terms and more informal town meetings with residents.
Bill Molinari. Molinari, 50, is a former mayor and city councilman. He is a building contractor who has lived in Montebello for 40 years. He is the founder of South Montebello Area Residents Together (SMART) and is a member of St. Benedict's Church. Molinari said he is adamantly against eminent domain and said special interest groups from outside Montebello are threatening longtime residents. Molinari said he would work to protect residential neighborhoods and provide programs for youths and senior citizens.
Albert Phillips, a senior aide, could not be reached.
Larry Salazar. Salazar, 32, is best known in Montebello for his vocal opposition to eminent domain. He owns a marketing management firm and has lived in Montebello since 1979. He is on the board of directors of the South Montebello Area Residents Together (SMART), a neighborhood organization, and is a lector at St. Benedict's Church. Salazar said the most important issues facing Montebello residents are slow growth and what he says is a growing separation between residents and City Hall.