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Old South Gate Foes Dominate District Race

Times Staff Writer

Tuesday’s primary balloting in the 50th Assembly District encompasses all or part of nine cities and communities in southeast Los Angeles County, but it seems to boil down to just one of them: beleaguered South Gate.

Only two candidates, both Democrats in their mid-30s, appear to have much of a chance of claiming the seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic, largely Latino district. They are South Gate Mayor Hector De La Torre and Hector Chacon, a member of a board that oversees schools in several cities surrounding South Gate.

The seat, which includes all or parts of South Gate, Bell, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, City of Commerce, Cudahy, Downey, Florence and Lynwood, became available when Democratic Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh of South Gate reached the state-mandated term limit.

De La Torre, probably the best-known candidate, was a member of the South Gate City Council minority that eventually saw the recall of the political machine overseen by then-South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles. Robles was indicted last year, along with two associates, for allegedly masterminding a wide-ranging conspiracy to violate election laws and misuse public funds.

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Now, the Chacon campaign is accusing the South Gate mayor of “unscrupulous and shady dealings” as bad as those of which Robles is accused.

De La Torre denies the accusations and says they apparently originate with Ricardo Hernandez, a Robles associate indicted with him in the South Gate scandals. Hernandez’s printing business is listed in state records as a paid consultant in the Chacon campaign.

“The Chacon campaign has been taken over by the Robles brain trust,” De La Torre said last week. “It’s the same old Robles smear campaign, all over again.”

Chacon said that Hernandez’s firm was simply paid to print some campaign literature.

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“I’ve never met Hernandez,” Chacon said. “I don’t have any connections with Robles and I never have.”

A third candidate for the Democratic nomination, educational program director Xavier Reyes, is listed on Tuesday’s ballot, but Reyes said last week that he is short of funds and is dropping out.

Vying for the Republican nomination are Gladys O. Miller, an insurance-management official with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and Juan Carlos Mendez, an administrator for a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Miller, 56, a member of the Los Angeles County Republican Central Committee and a resident of South Gate, has won the Republican nomination in the district six consecutive times, losing each time in the general election.

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“I don’t give up,” she said. “There’s always a chance.”

Mendez, 35, who lives in South Gate, said it’s his first try for public office, and he’s optimistic about his chances.

“I’m Latino, and I have experience outside South Gate,” said Mendez, an official in the evangelical Church of God in Christ. “I’m interested in the whole district. I’m not part of the problem, I’m part of the solution.”

De La Torre, 36, says he has been endorsed by Firebaugh, the California Democratic Party, the United Farm Workers, the California Federation of Teachers and the County Federation of Labor. He is married and has three children.

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After being elected to the South Gate City Council in 1995, he and Councilman Henry Gonzales formed the minority opposing the three council members supported by Robles. Robles, the city’s perceived political boss, had been accused over the years of threatening government officials and giving friends lucrative city contracts and low-interest loans.

Anonymous mailers falsely accusing De La Torre of having a secret “love child” in Mexico and using city funds to buy a car were circulated during his reelection campaign in 1999. De La Torre said Robles was behind the mailers; Robles denied it.

A year ago, in an effort supported by De La Torre, Robles and his three council allies were recalled from office.

The new council chose De La Torre as mayor a few months later, shortly before Robles was indicted on five felony corruption charges. Robles’ associates, Hernandez and Angel Gonzales, were named co-conspirators.

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Trials for the three are pending. In the meantime, the city is struggling to recover from financial problems that stem, in large part, from the years of political turmoil.

Chacon, 36, a member of the Montebello School Board since 1993, says he has been endorsed by the National Latino Peace Officers Assn., the Los Angeles County Probation Officers Assn., the California School Employees Assn. and council members from several cities in the Assembly district.

Chacon, his wife and their daughter live in the City of Commerce. In addition to his duties on the school board, he works as an independent political consultant.

Regarding statements in his campaign mailers that De La Torre has been involved in shady deals, Chacon said the accusations center around loans South Gate made to a local car dealer who subsequently contributed to the De La Torre campaign. De La Torre voted to forgive part of those loans, which is a clear conflict of interest, Chacon said.

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De La Torre said the loans were made before he was a member of the City Council that approved them.

He said he and the four other members of the council voted to forgive part of those loans to help the dealer, who is expanding operations in a move that will increase tax revenues by more than the amount forgiven. De La Torre said he returned the dealer’s campaign contribution to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing.

De La Torre said that, if elected, he would focus on heathcare issues. Chacon said that if he wins, he will concentrate on education.

But both men agree that such issues are on hold until Tuesday.

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“Right now, it’s all about South Gate,” Chacon said.


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