Novices threaten Cudahy's status quo

Times Staff Writer

They have no money, no name recognition and no political experience.

But that didn't stop Daniel Cota, an elementary school teacher, and Luis Garcia, a former city maintenance supervisor, from recently filing to run for the Cudahy City Council.

That's news in this tiny Latino working-class suburb southeast of Los Angeles because there hasn't been a contested election here since 1999.

"A lot of people want change," said Cota, who once worked on a city street crew. "They don't like the way things are being run."

The candidates said City Hall needs more independent voices. They worry about a City Council that often votes in unison and is closely allied with City Manager George Perez, considered by many to be the most powerful person in town.

For his part, Perez dismissed the challengers as "disgruntled former city employees," saying a united City Council is essential to progress in a town where fewer than a quarter of adult residents are believed to be U.S. citizens.

"Everybody gets along and everybody supports the council," said Perez, a longtime Cudahy employee who sports a tattoo of the city's logo on his leg. "It does scare me that special interests can come in and divide this city."

His critics say Perez -- whom some call a cacique, a Mexican term for political boss -- has created a political culture in Cudahy resembling Mexico's when it was a one-party state.

"It's kind of suspicious that on every issue," Garcia said, no one on the City Council has "a difference of opinion."

Cudahy started out as a ranch owned by Omaha meatpacker Michael Cudahy, who moved west in the late 1800s to raise sheep and hogs. Later, he subdivided his land into 100-by-395-foot parcels.

Known as Cudahy Acres, the town was defined for years by the large, narrow parcels that gave it a rural feel in an increasingly urban swath.

After World War II, Cudahy, like its neighbors, emerged as a blue-collar town of white residents. General Motors, Chrysler, Firestone and Bethlehem Steel factories formed the southeast area's industrial spine.

"When I first moved here, within a radius of five to 10 miles, you had good-paying union jobs," said Mayor Frank Gurule, a retired business manager for the local carpenters union. "All that's gone. Now all we have is McDonald's and Jack in the Box."

As factories disappeared in the late 1970s, so did the area's white residents. Neighboring cities subdivided into single-family homes, but Cudahy Acres gave way to enormous stucco apartment complexes.

Three decades later, the city of 25,655 is the state's second densest, after nearby Maywood. The town is 94% Latino, and almost half its population is younger than 19.

Of the city's 5,800 housing units, 5,000 are rentals. The median household income is $29,040 and the two largest employers are the Kmart/Big Lots Center and Superior Super Warehouse.

Most who remain settle at the bottom of the region's low-wage economy, said Francelia Vargas, 19, a cashier at a local market who has lived here most of her life.

"They settle for their American dream, which is a minimum-wage job," said Vargas, who is also an English major at Long Beach City College. "I'm trying to leave this city."

Against this socioeconomic backdrop, Perez, 46, has emerged as an unusually powerful city manager.

As a youth, Perez worked as a janitor for the city. By the mid-1990s, he was elected to the City Council. And despite lacking management experience or a college degree, he was hired as city manager in 2000.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's later investigated his hiring for the $120,000-a-year post, but no charges were filed.

Former City Councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez said Cudahy suffers from "democracy in disarray, without checks and balances."

Many of the city's residents are uneducated and come from Mexico and other Latin American countries where machine politics are the norm, she said. Many people can't vote; many who can vote don't, she said.

Perez has eliminated any organization that could pose a political threat, Gonzalez said. For instance, the city stopped funding the Cudahy Chamber of Commerce, which dissolved, and the nonprofit Cudahy Youth Foundation, she said. The foundation is now run by Perez.

"He got rid of all the support that any council member could have outside of him," Gonzalez said.

Perez said the city stopped supporting the chamber because "City Hall would be able to handle any and all issues that the business community may have."

But merchants along Atlantic Avenue complain that Korean investors are purchasing some of the town's few strip malls and dramatically raising rents, causing many businesses to leave.

Miguel Duenas, owner of a driving school on the avenue, said his rent almost doubled in the last two years. Nine shops in the strip mall are empty and tenants fear the owners may be using the shopping center as a tax write-off.

"You go to the city and no one's interested," Duenas said.

'Extremely hands-on'

Perez acknowledges he's viewed by some as a political boss. But he maintains that he has done a good job managing the city's finances and opening up City Hall jobs and services to Latinos.

The city, which has a $7.9-million annual budget, boasts a $3.8-million reserve, the largest in its history, Perez said. People are happy with their city government, he said, adding that town hall meetings regularly draw crowds of 200.

"We are extremely hands-on, dealing with every single issue that comes across [the City Council's] desk," he said. "There is nothing that gets past us."

Maria Espinoza, a Cudahy day-care operator, said she considers the city manager her friend. "Any problem I have," she said, "I call him and he takes care of it."

Gurule, who is running for reelection, said council elections have not been contested in the past because "we are doing a fairly good job.... Most of the people seem to be happy."

Others say the town hall meetings are examples of a machine culture that is meant to keep the same people in power.

After each meeting, the five City Council members together raffle off numerous toys and household items. Cudahy also holds monthly food giveaways.

People "are attracted to the gifts," Cota said.

The challengers said they want to provide more openness at City Hall and to keep people better informed. They point out that a city newsletter rarely circulates. And the city's website -- www.cudahy.ca.us-- hasn't been updated since 1999. It still lists the city's area code as 213 instead of 323.

"That's just a reflection of where we are right now," Cota said. "They want to keep the doors shut."

If elected, Cota and Garcia said, they want to improve educational opportunities, combat gangs and lure more businesses to town.

But they know they face an uphill battle.

A friend of the candidates, Tony Mendoza, had also planned to run for a council seat in the March 6 election. But Mendoza received threatening messages on his answering machine, telling him to leave Cudahy, Cota and Garcia said.

Mendoza didn't file his candidacy papers in time to meet the Dec. 1 deadline. He could not be reached for comment.

Recently, Garcia said, his Dodge Ram pickup truck was spray-painted with graffiti. Neither Garcia nor Cota is sure that the incidents are tied to their plan to run for council, which has been well known in Cudahy for weeks.

"That's for the police to find out," Garcia said. But "it's funny how this graffiti and these threats came in at the same time we were due to file for council."

As the campaign gets underway, Cota said, he and his allies know they will battle political apathy and resignation that many immigrants bring with them.

But Cota said he is undeterred.

"Once they see a few individuals out there trying to make a change, they wake up," Cota said. "They need that energy, that drive, that little push."

Meanwhile, Perez said, his supporters are happy about the challenge.

"We are not going to allow people who have worked with the city and are upset to come in and tear things apart."

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Cudahy profile

Population*: 25,655

Registered voters: 4,771

Housing units: 5,800

Renter-occupied: 5,000

Median household income**: $29,040

Race/ethnicity

Latinos: 93.8%

Whites: 4.4%

Asians: 0.7%

Blacks: 0.2%

Others: 0.8%

*2006 estimate **As of 2000 in 1999 dollars

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Note: Percentages do not add up to 100% because of rounding.Sources:

California Department of Finance, 2000 census, city of Cudahy Graphics

reporting by Sam Quinones

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