The Freebies Pile Up as South Gate Goes to Polls

Times Staff Writer

Julia Barraza knew campaign season had arrived in her Mexican pueblo when politicians in open-bed trucks rolled by offering sombreros, sarapes and food for votes.

She moved to South Gate years ago, but Barraza sees a similar thing happening: free trash service, free boxes of food, and even a free three-bedroom house for one lucky resident.

"Igualito ... igualito," -- the same, the same, Barraza said. "It's like I never left Mexico."

Have Third World politics come to South Gate? As three council members and the treasurer face a closely watched recall election Tuesday, many residents say the answer is yes.

South Gate, of course, didn't invent patronage or rough-and-tumble politics -- even if it's famous for both. What distinguishes South Gate, City Hall critics and outside observers say, is the intensity and scope of what's happening there.

"It's more blatant, more coarse than a lot of the other sorts of either patronage or pork barrel politics that we see," said David R. Ayon, a political analyst at Loyola Marymount University.

American politicians of every stripe have long used pork barrel politics to woo voters. As elections approach, potholes are magically repaired and tax breaks are promised. Last year, secessionists in the San Fernando Valley noted that once the secession question finally reached the ballot, city services suddenly improved in the Valley.

But City Hall raffling off a house?

"It more directly approximates buying votes from people," Ayon said. "It used to be more common in the old [American] urban machines, and certainly has been standard fare in Mexico until very recently."

The four recall targets portray themselves as misunderstood reformers whose efforts to improve services have met with vicious resistance by the city's old guard.

Critics call them self-dealing "klepto-crats" who have awarded sweetheart deals to cronies while spending almost all of the city's $8-million reserve.

The recall targets the city's most powerful politician, Treasurer Albert Robles and his City Council allies: Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Councilwoman Maria Benavides.

Recall proponents, led by the city's two police unions, tick off a long list of reasons to oust the four. In the last two years, the council majority has tripled their salaries, stripped the elected city clerk of most of her duties and have a convicted embezzler working as their litigation specialist. Last summer the council hired an officer once fired from the city Police Department for tipping off suspects of a federal drug investigation.

The city has spent more than $1 million on the legal fees for Robles, who last month stood trial on charges of threatening to kill four people, including two state legislators. (Robles was appointed to the $111,000-per-year post of deputy city manager after his arrest last spring.) His trial ended in a hung jury and the judge this month dismissed the charges.

It was while Robles was standing trial that many city-funded giveaways began, prompting jokes about Santa Claus taking up residence at City Hall. In December, the city offered residents free trash service for the month, and newly registered voters were signed up for a city-publicized raffle of a television set.

Next came the house raffle, held last week on the park-like grounds of City Hall. Amid a carnival atmosphere of rainbow-colored lights and thumping Mexican ranchera music, the recall targets played host to hundreds of residents -- many of them working-class immigrants -- hoping for a picket-fenced paradise.

Just before announcing the winner, Ruvalcaba, the mayor, took a swipe at Councilman Hector De La Torre, who voted against the giveaway. Asked by the master of ceremonies if the city would give away another house in the future, Ruvalcaba, in Spanish and English, told the crowd: "If God permits me, gives me life and I'm reelected, we'll do this again."

Some people applauded, others booed.

"Do they think we're a bunch of idiots?" said Hilda Morales, one of several citizens protesting the event. "They're just trying to cover up their corruption."

Others were undecided. One day it's corruption allegations, the next a free home. It's enough to make your head spin, said Sonia Partida, a mother of three.

"I'm confused," she said. "I get information from both sides. I don't know what to believe."

To Councilman Henry Gonzalez, the issue is clear enough. He considers the recall targets political opportunists who think municipal freebies will drive a wedge between Latino immigrants and Latinos who have lived there generations. The city of 98,000 residents is 92% Latino.

"They're playing to the crowd, that's all they're doing," Gonzalez said. "They're trying to manipulate people by using old gimmicks from Mexico."

South Gate's leaders are Latinos raised in this country. Two of the most prominent politicians -- Robles and Ruvalcaba -- are young UCLA graduates who took the traditional route into politics by doing fieldwork for established politicians.

They deny charges that the giveaways are politically motivated. Ruvalcaba said the home raffle was a way to draw national attention to the shortage of affordable housing.

Ruvalcaba's supporters say the mayor and her allies have provided a community resource center and tutors for children and improved the aging sewer system. "They have done good things for the community. They aren't corrupt," said Eric Sandoval, a 19-year-old city employee.

Although South Gate's politics occur in a U.S. context, many residents use old-style Mexican politics as a reference point when describing their city. The 37-year-old Robles, to many residents, is the city's cacique, or political boss. They say he has modeled the city's government in part on the Institutional Party of the Revolution, or PRI, that ruled Mexico for decades.

Critics say the council majority rolled out more freebies this week, when it approved a measure that gives $90-per-month rent subsidies to more than 400 low-income families for a year.

Hilda Morales, the house raffle protester, said she hasn't seen such campaigning since immigrating from Jalisco more than 20 years ago. Mexican candidates, in those days, she said, always gave out what people desperately needed. In summer, it was sombreros; in wintertime, sarapes or blankets. And always, food and clothing.

"When you're poor, you don't think about it," said Morales. "The people would leave wrapped in their sarapes and carrying off food.... They would be very happy,"

If the recall targets prevail, residents and political observers say, South Gate-style politics could spread to other Latino-majority communities, since candidates like to lift pages from other successful politicians' playbooks.

South Gate's election season, many say, carries a note of irony -- the recall comes as Mexico works to stamp out campaigning on the basis of gifts for votes.

When some residents journey back to their Mexican hometowns, relatives note that Mexican democracy is moving in one direction, and South Gate in the other.

"It's sad because we came to the country, and it has given us so many opportunities for our families, and now our own people are eroding our democracy," said Sonia Miranda, who owns a taqueria in town. "If we don't stop them now, I fear for what the future holds for my children."

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