Cover Story : Feuds, accusations. Just another political campaign in Hawaiian Gardens. You can bet this race for 2 council seats will be . . . : A Fight to the Finish

STEVE EAMESSPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Placido Alvarez says two men recently showed up at the traffic school where he works and threatened his life if he didn't drop out of the City Council race in Hawaiian Gardens.

During a heated council meeting last month, an ally of Mayor Kathleen M. Navejas threatened to clobber candidate Alan Calcote after he complained that the city's newsletter is just a campaign organ for the mayor.

And Navejas, who is seeking reelection, has accused her political enemies of selling drugs to her son and trying to discredit her by planting drugs in a car driven by City Administrator Nelson Oliva, who was arrested last month on charges of drunk driving and cocaine possession while on his way to Nevada. Navejas has not offered evidence to support either allegation.

It's election time in this tiny blue-collar city of about 14,000, and personal attacks again are dominating the council campaigns.

"Hawaiian Gardens is a tough place to be involved in elections," said Navejas, who is seeking her third term on the council in Tuesday's election. "If you can do this, you can do anything."

Navejas is running on a slate with Planning Commissioner Rene Flores. Councilman Domenic Ruggeri, a Navejas foe, is also seeking reelection and has teamed up with real estate agent Alvarez. Calcote, a junior high school English and history teacher, is the fifth candidate. The two top vote-getters will win election to the City Council.

Navejas' and Ruggeri's four-year terms originally were set to expire in April, 1994, but the City Council decided to extend the terms to March, 1995, so that subsequent elections will fall on odd-numbered years and avoid a conflict with the California presidential primary. The primary, traditionally held in June of even-numbered years, is next set for late March of 1996, and Hawaiian Gardens officials were concerned that its proximity would reduce turnout in the city's local elections.

Whoever wins next week's election will help govern a city plagued by a budget deficit, chronic poverty, high unemployment and rampant crime. Residential streets in this square-mile suburb are filled with dilapidated homes with bars across their windows. The recession still lingers along the main business thoroughfare, Carson Street, which features many vacant storefronts and empty, weed-strewn lots.

But the city's problems have often taken a back seat to personal feuding during council campaigns.

Rivals have accused one another of defamation, harassment, vandalizing campaign signs and leaving threatening messages on answering machines.

Navejas said she has been a target of several election-related attacks.

During a failed recall effort four years ago, someone allegedly broke into her house and her office and stole her mail in what she believes was an effort to dig up information that might discredit or embarrass her. At one point in the recall effort, she also found two dead rabbits, their necks broken, on her lawn.

During her reelection bid in 1990, Navejas found a container of drugs on the ground under her car, according to a police report. She also said her car battery was stolen on Election Day. No one was arrested in the incidents.

One of Navejas' opponents sent out a racy mailer just before Election Day in 1990 that superimposed the faces of Navejas and her daughter on the bodies of scantily clad women. The mailer accused Navejas of promoting sex in Hawaiian Gardens because she supported a plan for a motel. Opponents of the project said it would attract prostitution.

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Unsuccessful candidate Richard Vineyard was fined $8,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to identify himself as the author of the mailer and the person who paid for the piece, among other violations. Vineyard and his wife, Maggie, were also sued by Navejas, who ultimately accepted an $8,000 out-of-court settlement.

"It's been like this for as long as I can remember, and it's getting worse," current candidate Alvarez said of the city's rancorous elections. Alvarez said he takes the recent threat against him seriously. He reported the Jan. 26 incident to authorities, who have not arrested anyone.

While others have played parts in the turmoil, it is Navejas who has managed to capture center stage during most of her tenure on the council.

Opponents and supporters agree that she has become the dominant figure in the city's clannish political world since she was first elected to the City Council in 1986.

Supporters call Navejas a tireless champion of such social causes as affordable housing for low-income families. They point out, for example, that she was instrumental 2 1/2 years ago in launching the Hawaiian Gardens Coalition for Youth Development, a nonprofit agency that enables dropouts to finish school, get counseling and learn job skills.

"She's done wonders for the city," said Helen Rosas, a longtime friend and former co-worker at a Head Start preschool program in the city. "Since she came into the political arena, the city has improved tremendously."

Other admirers speak of Navejas' personal charm and her compassion toward people seeking advice for their troubles, often at her front door.

Navejas readily acknowledges the praise. "Sometimes God gives you special gifts that enable you to work with people," she said.

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But detractors describe Navejas as a dictator who commands a three-member City Council majority, runs council meetings with an iron fist--hammering those who oppose her--and even decides who gets hired and fired by the city.

Tony Gutierrez, for example, says he was fired in December from his job on a city crew that helps build affordable housing after Navejas learned that he was campaigning for Alvarez. Officials who head the 16-member building crew said Gutierrez was let go because of a lack of funds. Gutierrez was the only employee fired, even though he had more seniority than others on the crew.

Navejas denied she was involved in Gutierrez's dismissal. But the incident has reinforced a widely held belief among city employees that the mayor dictates personnel decisions. Many workers say a climate of fear pervades City Hall.

"Everybody is under her thumb," said one current city staffer. "You only have job security as long as you make the Big Three (Navejas, Prida and Robert Canada) happy."

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City Administrator Oliva, who is highly regarded by Navejas, denied that the mayor has undue influence over personnel matters. "She has no more power than any other member of the council," Oliva said.

Critics also say the Navejas-led council readily rewards friends and allies.

The mayor's opponents say longtime Navejas associate and political supporter Leonard Chaidez was hired as recreation director and later promoted to assistant city administrator even though he was not qualified for the jobs.

Chaidez was hired for the recreation post in 1988 despite placing fifth in a field of seven applicants who were interviewed by a three-member independent panel, sources said.

Before joining the city, Chaidez served as executive director of the Hawaiian Gardens Social Services Agency, a nonprofit food and clothing bank founded by Navejas and her husband, Carlos, the agency's chairman.

Chaidez says his work in various neighborhood social programs--including the Hawaiian Gardens chapter of Head Start--prepared him for the job as recreation director. Five years in that post gave him the administrative skills necessary for his current position, he said.

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Navejas said Chaidez was originally hired because he was the only applicant who was a local resident, is bilingual and Latino. Navejas and others at City Hall said they try to hire local residents whenever possible.

Detractors also charge that the Navejas-led council majority has pressured the operator of a lucrative bingo parlor in the city to donate funds to the Hawaiian Gardens Social Services Agency in exchange for keeping a business license.

A charitable foundation that runs the bingo club onates about $30,000 a month to the social service agency, accounting for about 80% of its budget, Carlos Navejas said.

Carlos and Kathleen Navejas both deny exerting any pressure on the foundation to fund the agency. Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz, the foundation's president, insisted that the contributions are voluntary and added that the philanthropic organization gives money to numerous churches and service groups.

But Navejas' opponents say the funding for the agency is one more example of how the mayor controls the city.

"If this keeps going on, they're gonna be calling this place Navejas Gardens," said candidate Calcote. "She's creating a kingdom where you've got one person in power and everybody has to see that viewpoint or you're nothing. She is the queen."

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Calcote, who made an unsuccessful bid for a council seat three years ago, says he is running to break up what he calls Navejas' "political dynasty." The two have been at odds for several years and each has accused the other of harassment. Calcote and Navejas have obtained restraining orders requiring them to stay at least 50 yards from each other's homes.

Ruggeri says he is seeking a second term to stop favoritism at City Hall and to end Navejas' grip on the city. Ironically, Navejas and Ruggeri were running mates in 1990, but parted ways. Ruggeri said he refused to vote as she wanted.

Ruggeri and other critics say that council members Prida and Canada are Navejas' puppets, and that Navejas' running mate, Rene Flores, will fit the same mold, further securing her control over the city.

Prida and Canada vote with Navejas on virtually every council decision. They insist they are independent voices, and Flores says he will be independent, if elected. "I've always been my own man," he said.

Opponents say there is strong sentiment in the community against Navejas, but acknowledge that her aggressive, well-orchestrated campaign makes her tough to beat.

Navejas has been concentrating on lining up absentee votes, which have determined the outcome in previous elections because of the relatively small numbers of voters in Hawaiian Gardens.

In the 1992 election, absentee ballots accounted for 40% of the votes. This propelled Prida to victory after he initially trailed as results on Election Day were tallied. Councilman Lupe Cabrera, the top vote-getter in the election for three seats, received just 498 votes, followed by Canada, with 432 votes, and Prida, with 420.

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On the campaign trail this time, Navejas and Flores have been filling out absentee-ballot applications for potential voters, and offering to turn the forms in at City Hall.

In all, Navejas says her campaign has distributed absentee applications to about 400 voters. Her campaign workers followed up with calls reminding residents to turn in the forms by the Feb. 28 deadline. The three other candidates also passed out the absentee-ballot applications, but left it up to residents to fill out the forms and return them.

Navejas has the added advantage of being a volunteer deputy county registrar, which has enabled her to personally register about 200 new voters during the campaign.

"She is a master politician and she has a well-organized political machine that would make (former Chicago Mayor) Richard J. Daley envious," opponent Calcote said.

Navejas is also hoping to win support by trumpeting the city's new 20-officer police department--the only issue that seems to be getting attention from the candidates.

But Ruggeri and other critics say Navejas led the drive to create the Police Department purely to increase her chances of reelection. Critics argue that the city, which has a $1.3-million deficit, can't afford its own police force. The city will spend $2.1 million annually for the force, $500,000 a year more than it paid for sheriff's patrols.

"We're broke already, but we're going to take on another expense. It's ludicrous," said Councilman Cabrera, who is often at odds with the mayor. "Everything she does is for political gain."

Navejas acknowledged that the city is facing a deficit, but said that cutbacks over the last year have trimmed it to about $400,000. City Administrator Oliva said the deficit is about $600,000.

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Navejas said there is strong support for the new department among residents, who are weary of drive-by shootings and crack dealers who openly sell drugs on some street corners.

Navejas and other city officials say a new utility users tax adopted by the council Tuesday will raise as much as $700,000 a year to cover the added costs of the new force. But Cabrera, Ruggeri and others argue that the tax may generate only half that amount because of exemptions for senior citizens and low-income households.

Although they raise the deficit issue when criticizing the police department plan, none of the candidates has proposed any measures to balance the budget. Instead, the campaign has deteriorated into a flurry of personal attacks in recent weeks.

During a public debate over the utility tax last month, Navejas accused Ruggeri of failing to pay his taxes--saying the state had garnished his City Council paychecks--and she suggested that her political enemies had sold narcotics to one of her sons, who she admits has a drug problem.

Ruggeri acknowledged that the state had threatened to garnish his wages for failure to file his 1991 tax return but said he cleared up the matter before any money was withheld.

He and his council ally, Cabrera, accused Navejas of spreading unsubstantiated rumors.

"She's good at pointing the finger but never shows anyone the proof," Cabrera said.

Observers and candidates alike expect the campaign to get nastier as Election Day approaches.

"There'll probably be false accusations without time to respond to them," Ruggeri said. "I hope everybody keeps it a nice, clean race but that's impossible."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Placido Alvarez

Age: 37

Occupation: Real estate agent.

Remarks: "I want to change the city's image and see if we can have a more professional council, one that deals with issues, not personalities."

Alan Calcote

Age: 39

Occupation: English and history teacher, Los Angeles Unified School District.

Remarks: "My priorities will be law enforcement, responsible government spending, improving our residential areas and helping our residents."

Rene Flores

Age: 46

Occupation: Department head, aerospace parts manufacturer.

Remarks: "My priorities are . . . to help better the lives of our community through continued commercial growth, financial stability, and residential and social programs.

*Kathleen Navejas

Age: 40

Occupation: Owner, cruise and tour company.

Remarks: "I believe in government servicing the needs of people first. In so many other cities, government just takes care of government."

* Incumbent

*Domenic Ruggeri

Age: 72

Occupation: Sales executive, office supply manufacturer.

Remarks: "I'm running because I have a lot of unfinished business. My aim is to beautify the city and make it a much better and safer place to live."

* Incumbent

Hawaiian Gardens

Incorporation: April 7, 1964

Area: 0.9 square mile

Population: 13,639

Registered voters: 3,589

Median household income:

$29,510

Ethnic breakdown:

Hispanic: 8,940 (65.5%)

White: 2,692 (19.7%)

Asian: 1,284 (9.4%)

Black: 583 (4.3%)

Am. Ind.: 126 (0.9%)

Other: 14 (0.1%)

Sources: City officials, U.S. Census.

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