THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Coming Home : Don’t let that baby face fool you--Mayor Fidel Vargas, 26, has a grand vision for Baldwin Park. But some worry that he is changing the city for the worse.
The kid knows how to pack a room.
For two hours now, one of the youngest mayors in the country has been hearing from his constituents, many of them old enough to be his parents.
First up is Teresa Filner, mother of two boys. Her hair is pulled under her uniform cap, her right hand raised to take an oath, as she stands in front of 26-year-old Fidel A. Vargas. The mayor, in corporate wear and refreshed from a workout in the police gym, leans his boyish face into a microphone to welcome Baldwin Park’s newest cop.
Next is Kenneth Moore. Nervously, he admits that this is his first time to address His Honor. Then he unabashedly lays into the city council, griping about the deafening music blared weekend after weekend by the kids on his block. The police, he says, have done nothing. Vargas glances toward Police Chief Carmine Lanza, sitting three down on the tiered dais. Later, the chief is at Moore’s side, on bended knee, jotting down details.
Vivian Ross takes her turn. Softly, respectfully, she tells the mayor of being caught in a nightmare as one of the trailer park residents who must buy a new mobile home and move because the Vargas Administration is apparently the first to enforce a 15-year-old zoning ordinance. The law is the law, Vargas says. And then, with reciprocated respect, he tells her not to worry, that the city will help her. “We should work with the folks down there,” he instructs his staff.
One by one, others approach the lectern.
A 33-cent-per-month sanitation rate increase is debated. Brighter lights along Ramona Boulevard are suggested. A town hall meeting to discuss street repairs is scheduled. And Bette Lowes, defeated in her 1992 mayoral reelection bid by Vargas, suggests to her successor that something ought to be done about the beer guzzlers who gather after work at an entrance to the city.
The mayor orders it stopped. The police chief makes a note of it.
That persistent monster Vargas calls “perception” is again challenging the “reality” of Baldwin Park, a city of 72,000 in the center of the San Gabriel Valley. Truth be told, it is not a town full of drunks, or a place on the down and out, or one without vision, he says. But many outsiders see it that way, which is why Vargas brought his Harvard social studies degree and youthful vigor to City Hall three years ago.
He was drawn to the mayor’s race while driving to work in the fall of ’91. A graffiti-covered wall stopped him cold that day--and later fired his campaign.
“I had seen that wall before,” he says, “but for some reason the graffiti really aggravated me. I said, ‘Why aren’t we doing something about this? Why are we accepting this?’ ” The vandalism, he says, sent a dangerous message, not only to kids but also to the community, “that we don’t really care enough” to give people a decent and dignified environment.
Since taking office--a part-time job that pays $3,000 annually--Vargas has fulfilled his promise of a strong anti-gang stance, a graffiti-removal program and hot line, and a Morgan Park Community Center expansion. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who would later tap Vargas for his Social Security advisory council, made a campaign stop there on Mexican Independence Day.
Graffiti is indeed scarce now, and the crime rate has steadily dropped with the introduction of police bike patrols. Weekend helicopter flybys have been started to further curb gang activity.
“Fidel has raised the city’s self-esteem,” says Robert Ochoa-Schutz, a city planning commissioner.
The mayor is also credited with maintaining a balanced budget, pushing for a city-assisted first-time home buyer program and for looking ahead with Baldwin Park 2000, a long-range plan being developed by business and community leaders and residents.
But his earliest and perhaps most noteworthy changes involved replacing several commissioners, committee and board members to create a city work force that better reflects the local demographics: 70% Latino, 12% Asian American, 12% Anglo, 5% African American and 1% other.
Not everyone is thrilled with those changes. Vargas knows that many residents are averse to diversity. He has been criticized to his face for paying too much attention to all-things Latino. Some longtime residents also accuse him of using Baldwin Park as a steppingstone to a higher public office and would be happy to see him move on. And Vargas knows that many equate his youthfulness with inexperience.
But the mayor, who gets a periodic postcard from a local addressed to “The Boy-Mayor of the Wetback Capital of the World,” presses on.
Up by 5 a.m. on weekdays, he reads the newspapers over a bowl of bran flakes--unless he’s taking a 7 a.m. meeting over hot cakes at a local cafe or at the Pantry in Los Angeles--then reports to his full-time job. As a senior policy analyst for another mayor, Richard Riordan, Vargas monitors public safety initiatives such as community-based policing.
“Fidel is one of the most focused, confident young leaders I’ve ever come across, and he’s been a great asset to the city,” Riordan says.
Vargas is usually home by 7 p.m. and devotes his evenings to his wife and kids. They love to swim in the back-yard pool, play baseball and eat out at McDonald’s.
On this particular Wednesday, a council-meeting night, Vargas doesn’t pack it in until 10, after yet another confab with city officials.
Behind the wheel of his red, phone-equipped Saturn, he heads for home, less than 10 minutes away. His wife, Melissa, is up. Their two sons--Max, 4, and Julian, 18 months--are asleep. The dog, a friendly German shepherd mix that chewed up Vargas’ baseball glove days earlier, is comfortably slumped, like a rug hung out to dry, over the fence.
Vargas cracks up. “It’s good to be home,” he says.
Use your brain before you make up your mind.
Vargas--this time in sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt designed by his wife for a local AIDS benefit--is standing outside the Baldwin Park Commuter Rail Station and plaza that he dedicated in May. It’s a Saturday morning and instead of taking his usual golf lesson, Vargas is pointing to walls carved with unattributed quotes--part of a public arts project designed by artist and community activist Judy Baca.
“That’s something I always say,” Vargas says about the using-your-noggin quote, one of three he contributed. “What I mean by that is, don’t just react to what you initially hear or what you initially read.
“Don’t always take as gospel somebody’s argument. I mean, really analyze it before making up your mind,” he adds, recalling his father’s advice.
Says Melissa Vargas: “Fidel is very focused and analytical. Everything with him has a plan and a goal at the end. That’s how he’s always led his life. He’s always trying to get me to get more structured, like get a schedule. But we’re opposites.”
For starters, Melissa is extremely private. Fidel is definitely not shy. She hates to have her picture taken. He autographs his. She is African American. He is Latino.
The couple met at Shout, a Baldwin Park restaurant-nightclub, during Christmas break of his senior year at Harvard University. After he graduated, he proposed. They trekked across Europe for seven months before marrying in Florence, Italy, in 1990, then returned to Southern California to begin a family. She is expecting their third child in February, and they hope to have three more.
Melissa started a business last year called Cards of Color, featuring whimsical hand-painted drawings of children in “shades of black and brown.” But the greeting cards and classes at Mt. San Antonio College come after “being the mom, not the mayor’s wife.”
The hardest part about the latter role is “learning to keep my mouth shut and not being defensive about some of the things that people say about Fidel when I know those things are not true.”
She recalls one encounter in the community center indoor pool when she and son Julian met up with a woman--a Vargas adversary--who was caring for her grandchild.
“She asked me if I lived in Baldwin Park and I said, ‘My husband is the mayor.’ She almost drowned. Since that day she has not been the same with me. She stayed on the other side of the pool and that’s really silly because this is a child’s swim class that has nothing to do with politics.”
The kind of community that people dream of, rich and poor, brown, yellow, red, white, all living together.
“This is the kind of place we all dream about living in,” Vargas says as he waves to a police officer driving by the rail station. “Where you have people who are just different--financially, culturally, ethnically--all living together, striving for the same thing, which is to raise a family, to make a better life for themselves and their children. It’s the American dream.”
But cultural diversity is not always easily accepted.
“There are still people in this community who resent the fact that (it) has changed. There are some people who really do believe diversity doesn’t matter. They aren’t ignorant of it, but they really believe that it doesn’t matter. I’ve met people like that here,” he says.
Longtime resident Dan Steffane, whom Vargas dismissed as a city planning commissioner, believes that Baldwin Park has changed for the worse in the past few years.
“I’m not mad because I got ousted. I’m upset over what is going on in the city,” he says, referring to such changes as the replacement of the city manager with Vargas’ E-team, or executive staffers, who run various departments.
Steffane and his wife “don’t feel welcomed in the community anymore,” he says. They may retire elsewhere because of what he sees as “more attention on Hispanics” under Vargas. Others share that impression, he says, “including elderly Hispanics who just want to be known as Americans.”
The mayor “has separated all of us,” he believes, by hiring younger, ethnically diverse commissioners and by spotlighting individual cultures--particularly that of Mexico--with public celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day.
“I’m not a bigot. I want to be a part of the community. But this is the United States of America, and the Hispanics here, if they want to be in Mexico, they should be in Mexico,” he says.
Talk like that displeases Vargas. His parents and thousands of other local residents are from Mexico. But he understands that “politics and government isn’t about pleasing everybody.”
Doing a guest spot recently on a radio talk show, Vargas gets another dose of bad-mouthing from a Baldwin Park resident who identifies himself as Ed.
“You guys hype up Fidel,” the caller admonishes the two hosts. “The place is a dump. Just because he’s 26 doesn’t mean he’s good.”
Vargas jumps in, defending his city’s reputation and reciting enough positives for Ed to start agreeing. Clearly, in Vargas’ mind, it is a knockdown for perception and a win for reality.
If this place was good enough for me to grow up in then, it is good enough for my children.
“I want my kids to dream,” says Vargas, strolling along the railroad tracks. “I want my kids to know that there isn’t anything that they can’t accomplish if they work hard enough.”
He and his wife also want their children to be proud of their dual cultures and to give back to their community.
Max, his mother says, is hometown proud, always policing his neighborhood from the front lawn, dog at his side, or picking up litter in the park. Whenever he gets the chance, he tells people his dad is the mayor. “He thinks the city belongs to us,” she says.
Her husband’s love for Baldwin Park also “has rubbed off on me, majorly,” says Melissa, who was born in Los Angeles but moved around a lot as a child. “I didn’t understand community love, but after we married, I found myself getting mad about people saying negative things about the city.”
Vargas says his civic loyalty stems from strong family values that stressed an allegiance to community.
His parents--Fidel Sr., a carpenter, and Margarita, a homemaker and community activist--lived in South-Central Los Angeles after their eldest son’s birth, then moved to Tijuana to save money for a house. They later settled in Baldwin Park, where seven siblings--two bilingual teachers, three in college and two younger students--were also raised.
“If you’re a kid in Baldwin Park, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can go outside and play. I didn’t have that fear growing up. In fact, I don’t think it’s an issue for very many kids,” Vargas says.
To prove his point, he explains that while the city has 20,000 school-age youths, police have identified only 150 hard-core gang members and 450 wanna-bes. He hopes to continue to whittle that number down “by raising the expectations of kids” through recreational programs, jobs and a strong message that gangbanging is unacceptable.
Vargas’ own leadership skills were honed, unknowingly, through osmosis, he says. His mother, a grass-roots organizer for more than two decades, would take her children to meetings, marches and voter registration rallies.
“Oh, yes, (Fidel) saw me very involved in this community,” Margarita Vargas says. “When Michael Dukakis was running for President, we registered a lot of people to vote and we made sure that a lot of people went to vote. Fidel walked the precincts with me.”
A cheerful woman who’s always on the go, Margarita remembers Fidel’s early attempts at leadership.
“He organized a work schedule board for his brothers and sisters on the chores they should do around the house. He put the board on the refrigerator door. It lasted two days before the other kids tore it down,” she says, laughing.
First-grade teacher Roberta Serafin saw similar signs of things to come.
“Nobody took the initiative like Fidel. I could see then he was a leader, always organizing the other children. He had charisma.”
He also was an overachiever. When Serafin assigned a few pages of math homework, Vargas, who was struggling to learn English, misunderstood and completed the entire workbook in one night.
“The next day my teacher was stunned,” Vargas says. “But I remember liking the challenge. I was so eager to do my best. But I also learned early on to pay attention and to listen.”
Later, in high school, he founded the school’s Lettermen Club. To join, the athletes had to have a C or better average and perform community service. In his senior year, classmates voted him “most likely to succeed.”
Former Little League team mother Kika Rubalcava says Vargas was the consummate competitive athlete. She’s glad that the man she still calls “Fidelito” became mayor. “We needed a young kid to guide us, to give us fresh ideas,” she says.
No one would agree more than Ochoa-Schutz, Baldwin Park’s openly gay “citizen of the year” and chairman of its planning commission.
“When I was approached to be on the planning commission, I said, ‘Fidel, you need to know that my being gay might be an issue.’ He said that wasn’t an issue with him. He was looking for the best qualified people to serve and he was committed to that.
“The success of any town is the return of its youth,” says Ochoa-Schutz, who, with his lover, will open a combination bookstore, art gallery and espresso bar in Baldwin Park next month.
But former mayor Lowes, a 41-year resident who now serves as a councilwoman at large, says she deserves some of the credit heaped on Vargas.
“Things were in the pipeline or just being completed before Fidel was elected,” she says, referring to the Metro Rail Station and the Morgan Park expansion. “He was there to sign his name or hire the contractors.
“He says he wants what’s best for the community and I believe that’s true. But sometimes I think he wants to decide what’s best. I think he tends to be dictatorial. He can be very charming. He’s ambitious. He’s smart. And I’ve got two more words for him: cunning and arrogant .”
Aileen Pinheiro, the 72-year-old director of the Baldwin Park Historical Society Museum, says she didn’t vote for Vargas in 1992 because she believed his age meant inexperience. She told him so. Last April, during his reelection campaign, she had a change of heart.
“I was so impressed with him that I actually had tears in my eyes,” she says. “When Fidel makes a mistake, like he did a few weeks ago, he admits it. And believe me, there is not a single one of us who hasn’t made a mistake.”
The “mistake” involved a possible conflict of interest over a chat Vargas had with the head of the Los Angeles Animal Regulation Department concerning a contract to collect delinquent license fees.
The contract, held for eight years by the Mid-San Gabriel Valley Consortium, on which Vargas served as a paid director, had not been recommended for renewal. One day in the elevator, Vargas says he mentioned to the department head that a letter would be forthcoming from the consortium urging refusal of the opposing contractor.
“I didn’t write the letter. I should have recused myself totally,” Vargas says now. “I had no bad intentions in mentioning (the letter) to him and I wasn’t trying to influence his decision . . , " he says, adding that he has since resigned from the consortium “to avoid any appearance of any future conflict.” He also belatedly filed a disclosure statement with the city Ethics Commission.
Potential is man’s greatest burden.
Vargas says often he repeats that quote--one that has yet to find its way onto the rail station plaza walls--to himself as a reminder of what he has accomplished in his young life and how much more lies ahead.
“My friends didn’t have the guts to tell me that I was crazy to run for mayor,” he says. “A lot of people told me after I was elected, ‘I didn’t think you had a chance.’
“And some people said, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew you could do it all along.’ And I knew they weren’t telling me the truth,” he says. He remembers having the same experience in high school. “For a while I just stopped telling people that I wanted to go to Harvard because everybody would look at me like I was crazy, or tell me, ‘You can’t do it.’ ”
But, Vargas says, it’s a mistake to underestimate him or to box him in. “I’m an original thinker. I believe in myself. You’d be amazed at what wonderful things can happen when you believe in yourself.”
He shares that message--one learned from his parents--with others, especially children. He raises their expectations, asking not if they’re going to college, but rather which college they will attend.
Developing leaders for the next century is critical, Vargas says, because he won’t always be the mayor. He’s uncertain about taking on a third term because, maybe--or so rumor has it--a higher office beckons.
But “The Kid,” as some of the locals call him, is certain of this: “I want to be here as long as there’s something for me to contribute.”
Fidel A. Vargas
Native?: Yes; born in Lynwood, lives in Baldwin Park.
Family: Wife Melissa is expecting their third child in February.
Passions: Community organizing and baseball.
On attending Harvard: “I loved the experience so much that I applied to Harvard’s Business School. I might go back one day. I definitely didn’t feel isolated being one of about 300 Latinos at Harvard. There were a lot of Californians there. And I actually enjoyed the snow.”
On his interracial marriage: “To be honest, I don’t even think about it--me being Latino, Melissa being African American. I’m sure some people might be, you know, surprised, initially, but it’s not an issue with us. We’re human beings and that’s all that matters to me.”
On his recipe for success: “You need to be passionate. You need to be enthusiastic about what you’re doing and about what you want to achieve. You gotta have that fire. And that comes from paying attention to other people who are successful. They have self-confidence. They dream. They’re not afraid to ask questions and knock on someone’s door and say, “I’ve seen you accomplish some of the things I want to accomplish. How did you do that?’ ”
On his lifelong dream: “My ultimate dream is to have my own business and to travel the world. . . . I remember when I was a little kid people would ask me, ‘What do you want to be?’ and I’d say, ‘I want to be a millionaire.’ People would tease me, some would laugh because in the Latino community it’s not a good thing to say you want to be wealthy. Where did that come from? Who said that being Hispanic meant being poor?”