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LOCAL ELECTIONS : Bell Gardens Recall Vote Tests Latino Power

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine miles southeast of Los Angeles, in a town where nearly nine out of 10 residents are Latino, a flap over zoning has become a revolution.

An attempt by white city leaders in Bell Gardens to control housing density has sparked an uprising among some Latinos who say it is a racist plot designed to run them out of town. The result has been a fierce campaign by Latinos to seize power in a pocket of the county long run by whites.

At council meetings once devoted to weed abatement, residents are waving copies of the Declaration of Independence in the faces of city officials. Protesters have been dragged, kicking and screaming, from council chambers during the past year over such issues as redevelopment and code enforcement. Letters warning of “Latino extremists” have circulated through town. City meetings are guarded by police.

On Tuesday, the battle moves from City Hall to the voting booth where residents will decide whether to recall the council’s four white members.

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“The sleeping giant has awakened,” proclaimed Maria Chacon, a Bell Gardens property owner who has helped lead the recall drive. “The council has lost touch with the community. They are arrogant. They are ignorant. They are racist. They don’t belong here and the people want them out.”

Mayor Robert Cunningham and council members Allen Shelby, Letha Viles and Douglas O’Leary deny that they have been insensitive to the Latino community. All four dismiss as preposterous the idea that they would try to drive out Latinos.

But the conflict has mushroomed beyond the boundaries of tiny Bell Gardens, capturing the attention of Latino leaders statewide who say this 2.4-square-mile city could be tomorrow’s Latino political power base.

“I predict that what we’re doing in Bell Gardens we will soon be doing statewide,” said Julian Nava, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and founder of NEWS of America, a Mexican-American group dedicated to the political and economic growth of Latinos.

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For more than 10 years, Latinos have been the majority in cities such as Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Cudahy, South Gate and Maywood. Yet, due in part to apathy and low Latino citizenship rates, the cities have long been controlled by voting blocs of aging whites.

Today Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood and South Gate each have only one Latino council member. Bell has none. Three Latinos hold council seats in Huntington Park, but as recently as last year, the council was all white. Latino leaders say that 85% of the residents in southeast Los Angeles County are Latino, but only 45% of those Latinos are registered to vote.

“In many of our communities, Latinos have been left out,” said Raul Nunez, president of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn. “Part of the problem is that Latinos have been passive and there’s been an absence of leadership in these communities . . . but it is a new day as far as I’m concerned. No longer are we going to sit back passively and allow those in power to control the destiny of Mexicanos.”

Latino leaders said that although they have specific concerns with the white leadership in Bell Gardens, they are also simply seeking the political power commensurate with their numbers.

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Nearly all Bell Gardens residents are Latino. But it was just this year that the city began translating into Spanish its monthly newsletter, that translators have been made available at council meetings and that the entire city staff underwent “cultural sensitivity” training.

A state civil rights committee recently held a daylong hearing into charges that the city’s housing code enforcement officers discriminate against Latinos. The committee has yet to release its findings.

The embattled council members say they were unaware that the community was dissatisfied because no one complained. Cunningham, Shelby, Viles and O’Leary point out that this year they published their phone numbers in the city newsletter and invited suggestions on improving communication. To this day, they said, none of their critics have taken up their offer.

“We are not mind readers,” said Viles. “It’s just like a marriage that goes bad. One person thinks everything is going peachy dandy and then all of the sudden the other person files divorce. We didn’t know anything was brewing until it erupted.”

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The spark was the council’s approval of a new zoning map that will reduce the number of homes that could be built within the city. The map was passed despite protests from hundreds of residents who said that such a law would reduce affordable housing and shut out the poor.

The map was approved 5 to 0 before the council’s first Latino member, Rosa Hernandez, was appointed in April to fill the position of Ron Bird, who resigned in March.

City Council members argued that housing density had to be controlled to prevent further strain on city services. They say that they recently allocated $1 million to a church-based group that plans to build 126 townhomes for low-income families in the city.

But council critics, Latino and white alike, say all that was too little, too late. “If they had reached out five or 10 years earlier, they would be our allies,” Nava said. “But they did not, and now their hands are trembling.”

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The four council members facing recall have launched a massive mail and door-to-door campaign to save their jobs. Hernandez, who supports the rezoning plan, is helping them. All five incumbents say the race issue has been exploited by out-of-town “slumlords” who fear the council’s strict housing rehabilitation laws and its new zoning.

Council members say that on the most recent campaign statements filed with the city clerk, two-thirds of the contributions for the recall come from absentee landlords. They also say that several recall leaders have been prosecuted by the city for refusing to clean up their property.

“Race has nothing to do with this,” Shelby said angrily. “We are just trying to make this a nice place to live, and some people don’t want that.”

Political Push

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Many of the cities in southeast Los Angeles have been transformed since the mid-1970s from white suburbs to Latino barrios. The following cities have been identified by several Latino groups as places where Latino political power is considered overdue.

1980 % Latino 1990 % Latino Latino council pop. in 1980 pop. in 1990 members Bell Gardens 34,117 64% 42,355 88% 1 of 5 Bell 25,450 63% 34,365 86% 0 of 5 Cudahy 17,984 70% 22,817 89% 1 of 5 Huntington Park 46,223 81% 56,065 92% 3 of 5 Maywood 21,810 80% 27,850 93% 1 of 5 South Gate 66,784 58% 86,284 83% 1 of 5


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