Four Anglo City Council members in the overwhelmingly Latino community of Bell Gardens were defeated Tuesday in an historic recall election led by grass-roots activists who accused the city's leadership of racism.
The four--Mayor Robert Cunningham and council members Allen Shelby, Letha Viles and Douglas O'Leary--were ousted when 60% of the voters cast ballots favoring their recall.
The targeted council members conceded defeat, but vowed to continue the battle against the recall leaders they described as "fanatics."
"We never thought it would get this far," Cunningham said. "I have only one thing to say, and that's . . . bye."
City officials in Bell Gardens, located nine miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, said voters turned out heavily under rainy skies to cast their ballots. But no figures on voter turnout were immediately available.
The election was seen as an historic attempt by Latinos to wrest power from the city's Anglo political and business Establishment.
Anglos have long held political power in the mostly blue-collar community, but the influx of Spanish-speaking residents in the last 15 years has turned the once Anglo enclave into a city in which Latinos now make up nearly 90% of the population.
Rosa Hernandez, a Latina who was appointed to the five-member council earlier this year, was not targeted by the recall effort.
A special election to replace the recalled council members is expected to be held in March.
The election was the culmination of a raucous yearlong fight to keep the council from implementing a sweeping zoning proposal which critics charged was nothing more than a thinly disguised plan to drive Latinos from the city.
The zoning plan, which has been approved in concept by the council, would control how many homes could be built in the city. Critics say such controls would eventually force housing beyond the price range of most of the town's residents--now among the poorest in the state.
The four embattled council members defended the zoning plan as a necessary move to keep city services from being overwhelmed by the tiny town's burgeoning population. With nearly 43,000 people living within its 2.4-square-mile boundaries, Bell Gardens is one of the county's most densely populated cities.
Cunningham, Viles, Shelby and O'Leary said that the Anglo vs. Latino issue was being falsely exploited by the city's numerous absentee landlords, many of whom would be affected by stricter zoning laws.
But Latino activists accused the council of trying to limit political power for Hispanics by adopting the stricter zoning requirements.
"The council has lost touch with the community," community activist Maria Chacon said a few days before Tuesday's balloting. "They are arrogant. They are ignorant. They are racist. They don't belong here and the people want them out."
The recall campaign was closely watched from here to the nation's capital by Latino leaders who said it could be a harbinger of greater political activism in the Latino community.
In Spanish, jubilant recall supporters chanted, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" as they savored the election results.
Times staff writer George Ramos contributed to this story.
Recall Election * Voters were asked whether four council members should be recalled:
5 of 5 Precincts Reporting
CANDIDATE YES NO Robert Cunningham 1,095 717 Allen Shelby 1,115 700 Letha Viles 1,109 711 Douglas O'Leary 1,102 722
NOTE: Majority vote needed to recall each council member.
* If recalled, should the vacancies be filled by appointment or special election?
VOTE % Special Election 1,385 80.6 Appointment 332 19.4