Lynwood Faces Its Own Recall

Times Staff Writer

Councilman Paul Richards of Lynwood took the city’s political reins when gangs and blight threatened to make a mockery of this working-class community’s official nickname: the All America City.

Two decades later, Lynwood has rebounded. Crime is under control, modern strip malls are rising on vacant lots, and an enormous Mexican-themed shopping center has replaced an abandoned department store that was long a symbol of the city’s decay.

It’s a turnaround that Richards says defines his political career. But the councilman’s real legacy, critics say, is more a tale of corruption and crony politics.


In California’s other recall campaign, Richards, a 47-year-old attorney, is trying to fight off a recall drive by Latino activists in a corner of southeast Los Angeles County that has become a hotbed of local recall activism. The special election Tuesday comes nine months after voters in neighboring South Gate tossed out four of their elected leaders in their own recall election.

Unlike the South Gate campaign, which generated significant local and outside interest, the Lynwood contest is unfolding in the shadows of the recall against Gov. Gray Davis. Many residents see the “Say no to the recall” signs up and down Atlantic Boulevard, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cruz Bustamante spring to mind, not Richards or one of his six challengers.

“People don’t know what’s going on,” said Maria Santillan, one of the candidates.

But the stakes are high for this mostly Latino city of 70,000, where residents will decide whether it’s time to steer a new course after 17 years of Richards in office.

The campaign has been ugly, as Richards, who is African American, accuses recall proponents of a racist plot to oust him. He has said that they have gone door-to-door asking residents to get rid of the “two black guys” on the council. Louis Byrd, a Richards ally, is also African American and is on the ballot in a regularly scheduled election in November.

Recall proponents, in turn, have cried foul because only three polling stations will be open to residents. For general elections, the city typically has at least eight stations. Proponents reject the racism accusations, saying it’s part of Richards’ disingenuous effort to portray himself as a victim.

Proponents have been circulating records of Richards’ city-issued credit card, which show trips to beach resorts and purchases of expensive steakhouse dinners. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office announced last week that it has opened an investigation into alleged misuse of public funds by Richards and other council members. Richards denies any wrongdoing.

The councilman, many critics concede, helped turn Lynwood around. But they say Richards, who is among California’s highest-paid part-time politicians, with an income that has topped six figures, has diverted the revenue to himself and his family.

“Maybe he deserves some credit,” said Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker. “But that doesn’t give him the right to misuse our tax dollars.”

Recall proponents, a loosely organized group of activists, businessmen and rival councilmen, have thrown their support behind Santillan, a benefits administrator. The other candidates are: Edwin R. Jacinto, a Realtor; Jim Morton, a local businessman; Katherine Wicker-Amey, a teacher; Adolph Lopez, a former businessman, and Joe Araujo, a sheriff’s deputy.

If anyone can survive the recall onslaught, it’s Richards. A snappy dresser and motorcycle enthusiast whom critics and supporters alike describe as a savvy and intelligent politician, Richards has been reelected five times and has overcome numerous recall efforts, none of which has reached the election stage.

Richards has triumphed, and managed for many years to retain control of the five-member City Council, despite numerous scandals. He has steered contracts to relatives and is under federal investigation for alleged corruption involving his deal-making in neighboring Compton. In the late 1990s, the IRS and State Franchise Tax Board slapped tax liens on his Lynwood home, claiming he owed more than $50,000 in taxes. According to county records, the liens were released. Richards did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Richards dismisses many of the controversies as “old news” and attributes his political durability to the city’s ongoing transformation.

“This city has been rebuilt during my term in office. You see new hospitals, schools, parks, streets, shopping centers. The city has benefited bountifully from my active participation,” Richards said.

Richards was first elected in 1986, a difficult time in Lynwood. The city was still reeling from the construction in the 1980s of the Century Freeway. About 1,000 homes were razed, and for years property values declined and businesses left.

The downward spiral was reversed in recent years. Handsome street lamps and signs now serve as gateways to the city. Once-shuttered storefronts have been filled with eateries and businesses run by immigrant families. And crime has plummeted, from 28 gang-related murders in 1988 to 14 total murders in 2002.

Richards, who once said the city “began its rebirth” when he was first elected, says the turnaround came about in part through his past leadership roles in numerous national and state associations.

His contacts, said Richards, have resulted in business and funding opportunities for Lynwood, and justify his extensive traveling and use of credit cards.

“We don’t have to take a back seat to some of the larger cities,” said Richards at a recent City Council meeting where he defended his spending habits.

But many others disagree. Recall proponents say Richards’ work has little to do with a redevelopment trend that has swept across much of southeast Los Angeles County. And they say Lynwood’s turnaround was actually delayed for years because of what they call selfish leadership. They also note that despite its progress, Lynwood is still among the county’s poorest cities and suffers from regular budget deficits.

Though Richards has overcome every political challenge so far, some think, his time has come.

Richards once trounced opponents in elections, but critics note that in the 2001 election, he won a council seat by fewer than 100 votes.

“Everyone says he’s a survivor. He’s slippery. He’s this and that. But the math is against him this time,” said recall candidate Lopez.

Melanie Andrews, a Richards supporter, urged residents to look at the larger picture. “You have to give people who serve you well the benefit of the doubt.”