The contest for Municipal Court judge in the Southeast Judicial District joins the list of races that mirror the region's rapidly changing political profile: a Latino challenger seeking to unseat an Anglo incumbent accused of being insensitive to the growing Latino population.
The race pits incumbent Judge Frank Gafkowski Jr., 55, who was appointed to the bench in 1973 when Ronald Reagan was governor, against Salvador Alva, 42, a Maywood attorney in private practice. The district covers Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate, Vernon and Walnut Park.
Alva's campaign manager has characterized the election as one that "places a qualified Latino against an undeserving Anglo in a predominantly Latino area." Alva said the "primary reason I am running is that I understand a community that feels that the judiciary is unresponsive to them."
But Gafkowski said he can apply the law fairly to Latinos who come before him in court.
"I don't think that the community thinks that if there is a Latino judge on the case, the trial will be more fair," he said. "Any judge has to be understanding to all cultures."
Gafkowski, who calls judging an "art form learned only through years of experience," is endorsed by Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Assn. He was given a well-qualified rating by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Before being appointed to the judicial district, he served as the Tulare County deputy district attorney and was in private practice in South Gate. After three six-year terms, this is his first contested race.
Alva received a qualified rating from the county bar and is endorsed by Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and County Supervisor Gloria Molina. He also is endorsed by the Mexican-American Bar Assn.
Alva has worked for the California Rural Legal Assistance migrant program in Santa Rosa and served as the organization's directing attorney in its Coachella Valley office. There, he fought farmers who wanted their workers to use illegal and outdated tools such as short-handled hoes.
Alva agreed that "the law needs to be applied equally," but said the "hostility people are feeling toward the judicial system arises from subtle cultural misunderstandings."
For example, he said, many Latinos use either their mother's or father's last names, or both, so they often are accused of using aliases.
"They are treated with a lack of respect," Alva said. Without directly accusing Gafkowski, Alva said, "These things continue to happen in this court every single day."
He also said Gafkowski cannot possibly represent the best interests of the community because he is a Republican appointee in a district that is more than 60% Democratic.
"What (Alva) doesn't understand is that the judiciary is a calling, not a political position," Gafkowski countered.
Both vow to canvass the community and help residents, many of whom are recent immigrants, understand the judicial process.
"The judge can play a very activist role in a community," Alva said. "There are social issues that need to be explained."
Gafkowski said domestic violence cases have become the majority of his caseload in recent years.
"These are crimes that no society should condone," Gafkowski said. "But a judge has to be sensitive to cultural nuances," and understand that a serious crime in the United States is perhaps more tolerated in other cultures.
In what has become an increasingly heated race, both candidates have complained that the other has used unfair campaign practices.
Gafkowski points to a recent mailer that pictures Alva in a judicial robe, which he says indicates that Alva is already on the bench. He has filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. Fair Judicial Practices Committee, and says the mailer "reflects negatively on Mr. Alva's ability, competence and integrity."
Alva said the picture was taken in late 1991 on one of three days he served as a substitute judge in Huntington Park.
"It's clear that looking at the material, that I am an attorney in private practice," he said.
Alva accuses Gafkowski of taking large sums of money for his campaign from attorneys who appear in his courtroom.
Gafkowski acknowledges that he sought funds from attorneys, calling it a "practical matter, since attorneys are the most interested in seeing the quality of the courts maintained." Gafkowski said he has raised about $15,000 and is using $30,000 of his own money in the campaign.
Alva, who expects to spend about $60,000 on his campaign, has raised about $46,000.