Lynwood politics a stage for region's racial power shift

Times Staff Writer

For years, the battle for control of the city of Lynwood has been shrouded in accusations of political corruption and cronyism.

A former mayor is serving a 16-year sentence in federal prison for embezzlement. Five current and former City Council members have been charged with padding their salaries with public funds. And an effort is underway to recall four of the five current City Council members.

But beyond the allegations of graft and corruption, a different war -- rife with racial and ethnic stereotyping -- is being waged in the working-class city south of Los Angeles.

Latinos, who make up more than 80% of the city's 72,000 residents, are vying for power with African Americans, who, despite smaller numbers, maintain considerable influence by virtue of superior voter strength in a city where 40% of the residents are foreign-born.

A decade ago, when blacks controlled the city's political landscape, Latinos complained that they were being denied city jobs and lucrative municipal contracts. Now Latinos dominate and African Americans complain of being frozen out.

The problem is emblematic of emerging tensions throughout Los Angeles County, where the Latino population has surged as African American numbers have dwindled.

The tensions are playing out in cities such as Carson, Compton and Inglewood, where traditional black political muscle -- concentrated largely among older working- and middle-class homeowners -- is showing signs of weakening as a generation of Latinos reaches voting age. Tensions are also playing out in the race to succeed Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, where the competition between two well-positioned African American candidates may result in their canceling each other out, paving the way for a Latina to capture a seat blacks have held for decades.

The black-Latino friction in a city such as Lynwood is exacerbated by a lack of resources and decent jobs and by poverty -- all problems common to both groups, said Harry Pachon, a USC professor and head of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which released a report in April titled "Beyond the Racial Divide: Perceptions of Minority Residents on Coalition Building in South Los Angeles."

One conclusion, he said, was telling.

"Each group is buying off on the negative stereotypes held by the majority [white culture], rather than questioning them," Pachon said. "Blacks say that Latinos don't take care of their housing, and Latinos felt that blacks don't value families as much."

In Lynwood, some of the strongest evidence of stereotyping can be found on Lynwood Watch (lynwoodwatch.blogspot.com), a website created by an anonymous blogger to keep watch on city officials. The blog encourages readers to voice their opinions, and they do. But many of the comments are laced with calls for Latino unity that include racist rants -- in English and Spanish -- directed at African Americans.

City Hall is eye of storm

In Lynwood, a center of political and racial strife is City Hall, where council meetings are often stormy. Political opposition has mobilized to challenge the council -- on proposed development projects, utility and water tax increases, and criminal charges -- and members of the city staff bicker over promotions and salaries. Disputes often break along racial lines.

"It's all about race," said City Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez, who says she has been denounced by fellow Latinos for joining ranks on some issues with two African Americans on the council, Louis Byrd and the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson.

"We don't have to retaliate against each other," said Vasquez, 34, who is a senior field deputy for Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Democrat who represents nearby Compton. "We can work together on issues that cross racial lines."

Lynwood elected its first black to the City Council in 1983, nearly a decade after African Americans began arriving in the bedroom community once known as "Lily White Lynwood." Blacks soon dominated City Hall, but the Latino population was starting its rise; and six years later, the city elected its first Latino council member.

By 1997, a newly elected three-member Latino majority sat on the council and moved quickly to wipe away one symbol of African American success: The name of Mervyn M. Dymally Congressional Park, named in 1990 for the former congressman and the state's first black lieutenant governor, was changed to Lynwood Park.

The new majority -- consisting of the city's first elected Latino councilman, Armando Rea, and two businessmen, Ricardo Sanchez and Arturo Reyes -- embarked on a campaign to clean up the "unethical practices" of the previous council majority. Black employees were let go. City contracts with independent African American businesses, approved by a lame duck council against the advice of city staff, were canceled.

In 1998, three black contractors filed an $800-million civil rights lawsuit against the city and its three Latino councilmen, alleging discrimination. The city eventually settled, renewing two of the contracts; the third contractor died.

Former City Manager Faustin Gonzales, who ran the city on and off from 1993 to 2003, doesn't remember any discrimination lawsuits filed by Latino contractors.

"They put their hope in their numbers," he said.

But not everything was harmonious among the Latinos at City Hall. Vasquez, who was elected in 2003, soon ran into trouble with three other Latino members of the council.

In some of the closed-door meetings, the three other Latinos would sometimes speak only in Spanish, ignoring Byrd, by then the lone African American member. Vasquez remembers: "I was appalled."

Two years later, she encouraged Johnson to make a run for the council, and when he was elected, she found she was part of a new majority, along with Byrd. But she also lost support among Latinos.

"She snubs her nose at the people in the community," said Silvia Ortiz, a community activist and organizer in the recall against Vasquez and three others on the council.

Lynwood Watch emerged in 2004, around the same time the city found itself involved in a series of corruption investigations that included both Latinos and African Americans. A Times investigation uncovered more than $600,000 in unauthorized travel credit card expenses between 1998 and 2003, including New York musicals and a samba show in Rio de Janeiro.

The municipal government remained under a microscope. By 2005, former longtime Mayor Paul Richards had been convicted of steering city contracts to a front corporation he secretly owned. He collected more than $500,000 before authorities put an end to a scheme that could have netted millions of dollars.

In April, the district attorney accused two current and three former council members of padding their official $9,600 salaries to receive as much as $100,000 for part-time services.

Byrd and Councilman Fernando Pedroza, a Latino, were charged with using city credit cards and other city funds for personal expenses, including trips abroad and airline tickets for spouses, and in Pedroza's case, a session with an exotic dancer in Mexico. Former councilmen Rea, Sanchez and Reyes, all Latinos, were also charged.

The accusations of corruption have fueled a recall effort that started after the council launched an effort to lure a National Football League team to the city with a proposal to build a new stadium that called for razing at least 100 homes. The recall targets Vasquez, Pedroza, Byrd and Johnson, but not Councilwoman Maria Teresa Santillan.

It's not about race, said Ramon Rodriguez, a former city councilman who supports the recall: "Greater accountability is what the community has been asking for."

Racial enmity seen

Over the years, more than a dozen African Americans have lost civil service jobs as Lynwood has tightened its budgets and cut positions.

Former City Manager Enrique Martinez, who now manages the city of Redlands, said he was "pushed" both by African Americans and Latinos, who were in the majority when he arrived in the city in 2005. But he singles out one example in particular:

"I was given a list of seven or eight names -- all African American -- and told to cut their positions, supposedly because there was no money in the budget," he said. "Well, there was money in the budget, and those seven or eight African Americans stayed."

Meanwhile, two African American contractors remain wary even though they reached settlements in lawsuits accusing the city of discrimination and have continued doing business with the city.

One of them, Lee Duncan, who owns California Western Arborists Inc., worries about the safety of his tree-trimming crews after one of his trucks was torched on a city street.

"I'm just guessing someone was upset we had the contract," he said. But he added, "I don't have any enemies."

Many residents of Lynwood are concerned about the racial enmity they see playing out in the city and on Lynwood Watch.

For Phyllis Cooper-Lyons, 60, a Recreation and Parks official, the almost daily barrage of comments about her appearance and work habits are a form of racial harassment.

"It affects you even though you know you are bigger than that," she said.

"I don't want to even look at it, but something draws me to it. Like, 'What can they say about me today?' "

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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Lynwood demographics

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1990

Population: 61,945

Latino: 69%

Black: 22%

Other: 9%

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2007

Population: 72,426

Latino: 87%

Black: 9%

Other: 4%

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Sources:ESRI, TeleAtlas, Census Bureau, Claritas

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