The Savage Politics of South Gate

Sam Quinones is author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press). He last wrote for the magazine about one man's failed dream to create an authentic Koreatown

South Gate voters can be forgiven if they choose not to participate in democracy. Why bother if your choices at the ballot box are boozers, psychopaths, child molesters, deadbeat dads and child killers?

Take Joseph Ruiz, for instance. Ruiz is a plumber and youth football coach who, by all accounts, is an honorable man and dedicated father. But when Ruiz ran for South Gate city treasurer last March, an anonymous flier sent to voters said of him: "Can you trust a man who has been accused of child molestation, even though this has been found not to be true?" The phrasing would seem nonsensical, unless you knew that two years earlier, when Ruiz ran for a City Council seat, he was accused in a similar mailer of being charged with molesting boys during a swimming party at his house. Aghast, Ruiz, who doesn't have a swimming pool, had demanded an investigation by South Gate police--and was cleared. So in the latest campaign, his enemies, no doubt in the spirit of fair play, added that phrase "even though this has been found not to be true."

Carmen Avalos, a candidate for city clerk last March, found herself accused of drunk driving in a mailer headlined: "Carmen 'The Drunk' Avalos." The mailer included an official looking but utterly fabricated DUI citation. "We just can't trust nor vote for the boozer Carmen Avalos," said the hit piece, which, like all the others, was produced anonymously. Avalos, a high school biology teacher and mother of two, was reduced to tears on election night--even though she won.

The price that South Gate Councilman Hector De La Torre paid for running for reelection in March was being accused in an anonymous mailer of having a love child named Irma with a "Mexican teenage girl named Guadalupe, whom Hector later left for a Norwegian bombshell named Tina." It wasn't true. Nor was the smear against Bill De Witt, who was accused in his City Council reelection race of not supporting a child living in Nevada. That mailer went on to call him "Bill De Wittless" and to say he was "so stingy" that it was "rumored" that he cut his own hair. "When you see him examine his bad, self-inflicted hair style."

In most communities, attacks like these almost certainly would fail. Voters familiar with American politics would be suspicious of outrageous charges, and the local media would report the fabrications. Not so in South Gate. This city of 96,000 people in southeast Los Angeles County has no local media. Many of its citizens are newly naturalized and unfamiliar with American democracy, making them vulnerable to political manipulation in a way that new immigrants from other countries have been throughout American history. In the void, the scurrilous attacks and other underhanded political tactics in South Gate are flourishing--and succeeding. This city once known mainly for its Firestone Boulevard car lots is infamous today as the home of the Southland's most savage politics.

More disturbing to Latino leaders around the state is the possibility that the cancer will spread. As South Gate's politics turned rank, other majority Latino cities in southeast Los Angeles County have seen the tenor of campaigns degenerate even as Latinos are gaining political strength statewide.

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SOUTH GATE HAS EXISTED SINCE 1923, AND FOR ITS FIRST 60 years was a white, working-class suburb. Families worked at the General Motors and Firestone factories that were its economic heart. The town added the institutions of white suburbia: Rotary Clubs, Protestant churches, a Chamber of Commerce, an annual Christmas parade. It also was home to race discrimination; Latinos couldn't buy homes in the better areas of the city.

South Gate voters elected their first Latino councilman, Henry C. Gonzalez, in 1982, about the time that GM, Firestone and other factories closed and the city lost more than 10,000 jobs. Departing white families were suddenly happy to sell to Latinos. So South Gate and its neighbors--Paramount, Downey, Bell Gardens, Lynwood and others--morphed into a beltway of Latino suburbia. In the 1980s, South Gate went from 80% white to 80% Latino. In 1997, the city, by then more than 90% Latino, elected its first majority-Latino City Council.

Opinions differ about when South Gate politics entered the cesspool, but it was definitely there by the 1999 election. Some say it happened April 13 of that year, the day Gonzalez, who had just been chosen by the council to serve another term as mayor, was shot in the head. He escaped with a superficial wound. His attacker has never been found. Others say the 1999 child-molestation mailer against Ruiz signaled the start of the nastiness.

The villains are unknown, at least officially, because the mailers are sent anonymously, despite laws requiring disclosure of the sources. But there is a clear pattern: Most of the falsehoods are created to help candidates backed by Albert Robles, city treasurer and former mayor who has built a political organization intent on running the city. Ruiz, Avalos, De La Torre and De Witt had all run against members of the Robles slate.

"Politics is always a rough game," says Charles Brady, pastor at the Redeemer Lutheran Church in South Gate for the past 23 years. "But these extraordinary, remarkable things--and they really are remarkable--really do date from him." Robles denies involvement with any of the anonymous hit pieces.

If nothing else, Robles is a fascinating politician. He was an eager 26-year-old, fresh from UCLA and a stint as a legislative aide to former Los Angeles Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson, when he moved to South Gate in 1991. Robles, a Democrat, says he settled there "because nature abhors a vacuum. Albert came to fill a need for leadership within the community."

Robles says he grew up as a foster child, was abused by his birth father, and lived in garages as a youth. He is a Mormon who has gone on a mission in Mississippi and earned a political science degree at UCLA. He won a council seat in 1992 and spent a quiet five years as city councilman and mayor. Then, in 1997, Robles decided to run for the far more lucrative post of city treasurer, which paid $69,000 at the time. He was reelected to the office in March. Robles also has been a member of the Central Basin Municipal Water District, at a salary of $23,400, since 1997.

Robles, now 36, can be an affable man, and he possesses an engaging wit. He works harder at politics, sometimes more imaginatively, than anyone else in town. A few days before the March 6 election, he managed to appear on "Cristina," the hugely popular Spanish-language international TV talk show, to speak about his tough upbringing. Landing on that show is akin to appearing on "Oprah"--a remarkable feat for a small-town city treasurer. "I don't think anybody else around here is as smart as he is, or as driven," Brady says.

In Robles' view, the struggle in South Gate is between the old establishment and the aggressive and inventive new challengers who want to give more voice to poor immigrants. "They're trying to create the illusion that these bad apples, led by Albert Robles, have power. That's not the truth," he says. "The truth is these institutions have always had the power. We're saying bad, bad, bad, and finally there's a change, and now they're scared."

In building his power base, Robles has ingeniously avoided local organizations with older roots--Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce and the regional Latino power structures set up by Democrats Sen. Richard Polanco and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

In contrast, the Robles organization is not deeply connected. Few of his candidates participate in community organizations or do much precinct walking. Instead, Robles uses other means to communicate. He has a 10-line phone machine in his garage capable of dialing registered voters continuously to play recorded messages. He and his allies also send birthday and Christmas cards to registered voters.

Those methods are hardly revolutionary. But they stand out in South Gate because there are few alternative methods of communication. The town has no local daily newspaper. Television and radio hardly cover the area. La Opinion, the Los Angeles Times and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, hard pressed to cover the hundreds of governments sprawling across Southern California, assign only one reporter apiece to all of the Southeast. "Without media coverage, there's no accountability," says Father John Provenza of St. Helen Roman Catholic Church in South Gate. "Nobody cares." City Council meetings are sparsely attended.

In the information void, poisonous-attack mailers carry unusual weight. That is especially true among South Gate voters raised in Mexico, where political corruption was a way of life. "They get a brochure in the mail. It'll say: 'Here's an individual who's a thief,' " says Henry C. Gonzalez, who is no longer mayor but remains on the City Council. Faced with "this kind of propaganda, they say: 'I just left that. I'm not going to vote for this guy.' "

Those echoes of Mexico are the governing theme of the Robles slate of candidates. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 71 years, hands out bags of beans, T-shirts and sandwiches at election time. Robles' candidates gave away potted plants in 1999, and on Election Day, they sent out fliers inviting voters to a convenience store for free hot dogs and sodas. For the election last March, Robles and his candidates held an enormous Christmas toy giveaway, in which children got toys and their parents got to meet the Robles slate. Then, as the election neared, his main candidates didn't canvass neighborhoods. They staged a hunger strike--a media-grabbing tactic common to Mexican dissidents under the PRI.

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MANY PEOPLE ACTIVE IN SOUTH GATE AND OTHER SOUTHEAST CITIES once viewed Robles with the same alarm they might show a passing hurricane. But no more, for there is no evidence that he is passing. Robles' team has won a 3-2 majority on the City Council, thanks to the recall of De Witt in a special election last November that elected a Robles ally in his place.

The recall drive was based on pure fabrication. As a white Republican, De Witt was an easy mark in heavily Democratic South Gate. Robles and others charged that De Witt favored an unpopular proposal to build a power plant on the east side of town--an idea on which De Witt remained neutral. Robles' sister, Susan Carrillo, president of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, sent a mailer to voters on district stationery suggesting that water rates in South Gate were exorbitantly high because De Witt and De La Torre were "mysteriously spending" money collected for water.

Even with the support of many Latino politicians inside of the city and out, and of the city employees union, voters turned De Witt out of office and elected Maria Benavides. On the council, Benavides joined Robles allies Raul Moriel, whom the majority quickly chose to replace De La Torre as mayor, and Xochilt Ruvalcaba, a cousin of Benavides.

Benavides won the seat even though she swore in a county divorce-court document last October that she lived in El Monte. She listed her South Gate address as an apartment unit, but the occupants of that apartment told a reporter she does not live there. "People do ask about her," a woman living in the apartment said. Robles' brother, Gandhi Robles, gave the same address in registering to vote.

Strangely, city employees also have no way to contact Benavides directly. The only telephone number she provides is that of Ruvalcaba, who passes along messages. The Los Angeles Times Magazine asked Ruvalcaba to relay a request to interview Benavides. Weeks later, Ruvalcaba said: "She doesn't want to talk to you."

In the March election, the Robles team did lose one important race: city clerk. Avalos won despite the drunk-driving hit piece. A few days after her election, she awoke to find a large teddy bear in her yard. Its throat was slit and its body mutilated.

Robles' allies on the council responded to her election by voting to reduce the clerk's annual pay from $72,000 to $7,200. They reversed themselves after Avalos threatened to sue. Next, acting City Manager Sam Nassar had workers wall off her private office and convert it into space for the city public information officer.

The Robles majority then began calling meetings at strange times: in mornings, when most people are at work, or on Fridays, when South Gate City Hall is normally closed. A lawsuit is now pending against the council, alleging a violation of the state open-meetings law.

Among the steps the new council has taken is the firing of City Atty. Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, who was replaced by two lawyers--Robles' attorney, Richard Raynor, and "special legal counsel" Edward Olivo, at rates of at least $125 per hour. Most cities the size of South Gate require just one city attorney.

The new majority has been generous to Robles' supporters in other ways as well. In the past several months, at least two of Robles' associates have filed tort claims against the city, and the council responded by approving settlements rather than denying the claims, as most cities do, which forces the plaintiffs to file suit. "With their bloc of three votes, they can give away the bank and have been doing so routinely since December," says De La Torre, who with Gonzalez makes up the minority. He says the decisions amount to "insider deals to take care of their friends at taxpayer expense."

One of those claims involved GWS Wholesale Nursery, which had provided Robles' allies with the potted plants they gave away in 1999. The business operates on seven acres it leases from the city near the 710 Freeway. The council approved paying the nursery $18,000 to settle a claim that three of its vehicles, whose total appraised value was well below that amount, had been damaged by vandals during construction of an offramp from the freeway to Firestone Boulevard. The council also extended the nursery's lease agreement for five years--at $417 a month.

Another claim involved Richard Mayer, a Robles ally who unsuccessfully ran for South Gate City Council three times, the last time in March, even though a South Gate police investigation found he didn't live in the city. Mayer had been on the board of a water district representing the Whittier area and had run for state Assembly there.

County records show Mayer was registered to vote in both Whittier and South Gate between 1998 and 2000. Moreover, the Richard F. Mayer registered in Whittier tried to be identified as Ricardo Avalos Mayer on the South Gate ballot. A court disallowed the change.

After losing the election, Mayer filed an $85,000 claim against the city, insisting that the police investigation harmed his campaign. The Robles majority on the council voted to pay him a $40,000 settlement, but it reversed the decision in Februay after the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, using the results of the police investigation, charged Mayer with perjury. He has since been indicted by a grand jury.

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ABOVE ALL, ALBERT ROBLES IS AN ESSAY IN THE CONTRAVENTION OF small-town political customs in a town where those political customs are still weak. "Beverly Hills will have some pretty nasty fights, but it's done in a slightly different way where there's not an insurgency," says Fredric Woocher, an election attorney in Santa Monica. In South Gate and, to a lesser extent, other cities nearby that also have large Latino immigrant populations, "you're getting fights for the hearts and minds of new people who don't have a culture of voting, or voting one way or the other. It's a function of the maturing of the population, developing a culture of voting, getting turnouts up to the point where small numbers of them can't be swayed so easily back and forth."

Most small-town politicians have full-time jobs outside city hall and view politics as community service. Robles lives on politics, which his opponents say is his great advantage because they all have full-time jobs. His income comes from his jobs as city treasurer and as a member of the water district board.

At the time Robles ran for the water district post, he said his purpose was "to abolish the district. I think it's a monster created to suck money out of the pockets of people." As board member, however, he has charged the district nearly $16,000 for classes in acting, finance, flight simulation and seminars by inspirational speaker Tony Robbins. Robles says he was following the approved district education-improvement policy.

Running for reelection to the board last November, Robles used Rep. Loretta Sanchez's (D-Garden Grove) official photo in a mailer with a quote endorsing him. "That's not something she said or authorized," says a Sanchez spokesman. (Another last-minute, anonymous mailer had Sanchez attacking state Sen. Martha Escutia--a foe of Robles. Sanchez wrote a hurried letter denying the mailer, calling it "disgraceful and illegal.")

The City Council election upset Provenza because St. Helen Roman Catholic Church youth group was listed as a sponsor for the toy giveaway. The group did sponsor the event, but Provenza discovered it was for political ends--and held in the parking lot of a notorious nightclub, just down the street from South Gate's only strip club. "It really angers me," Provenza says. "They used our community and our name as a political tool."

He and other pastors in South Gate had stayed out of politics until the March campaigns, when Provenza blessed a campaign kickoff for a candidate and noted in a news bulletin to his congregation that three of Robles' opponents regularly celebrated Mass. Brady and Provenza appeared at a rally of Robles' opponents. "We pray for Albert," Brady says.

The attacks have also drawn responses from opponents of Robles' slate. They have begun responding with personal attacks and fabricated mailings of their own. The "love child" mailers against De Witt and De La Torre emerged after De Witt came to a council meeting during the March campaign with court documents--genuine records in this case--showing that Moriel was being sued for support for an out-of-wedlock child in Texas.

After the toy giveaway, opponents of Robles' slate sent a mailer showing a boy sucking his thumb. "They take your children," the mailer said, "and carve out their hearts for play." Another mailer attacking Robles used a photo of Brady without his permission. Still another showed a series of photos of Robles, each stamped with a different label: "Assassin." "Psychopath." "Gangbanger." "Sexual Pervert." "Lexus Owner."

Robles saw his opponents succeed last November in winning a voter-approved cut in his pay as treasurer, which had risen to $76,500, to the same amount council members are paid--$7,200. He also says city administrators have lashed out at him by urging an employee to sue him for sexual harassment.

As politics in South Gate spiraled down, concern spread among county justice officials and Latino state politicians. The district attorney is investigating the misuse of the seals of the state and the Los Angeles County Superior Court on a hit piece about City Council candidate Pat Acosta. The anonymous mailer was in the form of a sample ballot and court document. It claimed that Acosta, who opposed the Robles slate, had been disqualified from the election because she was being investigated for embezzlement. None of the claims were true. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has formed a public integrity unit that has investigations underway into allegations of conflict of interest, voter fraud, phony residency and open-meetings-law violations in other southeast L.A. County cities, including Huntington Park, Bell Gardens and Cudahy.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, state Sens. Escutia and Polanco, and state Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh are among the elected officials troubled by the tenor of South Gate politics. The Latino PAC--controlled by the Latino caucus of state legislators--donated $18,000 to two of Robles' opponents. Members of Escutia's and Firebaugh's staffs took vacation to volunteer for those candidates.

Asked for a response about the involvement of two of the state lawmakers who oppose him, Robles says: Escutia is a "pig at the trough." Polanco "can - - - - himself, if I don't first . . . literally."

After the election, Firebaugh announced he was pushing for legislation to require printers and mailing houses to keep public records showing who is sending out campaign literature. Among other things, such records would make it possible to pursue mail fraud charges against those responsible for the hit pieces. "We're looking for accountability in our democratic system," Firebaugh said. A press conference announcing the legislation was crashed by folks from neighboring Bell Gardens. "South Gate isn't the only place with problems," one man said.

That's the larger point. As Latinos are poised for more regional power in Southern California, the problems in southeast cities are even more foreboding. "We are ready to lead everybody," says De La Torre. "We're going to be there, sooner rather than later. We cannot be seen as not being fair, that we're incapable of doing the job, that we have recalls and fights and nasty hit pieces. We need to have some model cities being run by Latinos, and I don't see enough of them."

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