It was supposed to be one of those routine awards banquets where the liquor flows, the band plays, lots of plaques are handed out and everyone gets a little bored midway through the speeches.
By the time the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner ended last week, however, several audience members had stalked out in anger and others cheered in delighted astonishment after outgoing Chamber President Rodney L. Houts' speech. The mixed response indicated that the city's recent political turmoil has split the business community and left the chamber divided as to how--or even whether--it should react.
The speech began innocuously enough as a Bible story.
"I'd like to tell you all about my recent trip to Italy," Houts said, "where I saw Michaelangelo's statue of David, the boy who slew Goliath with a slingshot.
"You know who the Goliaths are--those people who have gained a little power. Goliath probably was unemployed when he found a job speaking for the government of the Philistines. In every society there are Goliaths. They frequently seem a lot larger and more invincible than they really are."
Audience members shifted uncomfortably in their seats as they began to see the parallel Houts was drawing between the biblical Goliath and Iglewood Mayor Edward Vincent.
Vincent has come under attack in recent months by factions who accuse him of trying to be the boss of a political machine that would control the city and its school district. One group of residents has begun a recall against Vincent's allies on the school board and says it intends to lead a recall against Vincent himself. The rehiring this week of a superintendent fired by the mayor's allies less than two months ago is viewed as an embarrassing blow to his power.
"Goliath made the mistake all Goliaths made," Houts said. "He came to believe his own hype; that he really was invulnerable, that he didn't need the people. That is the downfall of every politician."
One chamber member grabbed his wife by the wrist. "I don't have to sit here and listen to this crap," he said. "Let's go."
"Justice came to Goliath and it will come to others as well," Houts continued, glancing at Vincent, who sat a few feet away from him at the head table, listening dispassionately.
"Oh, my God," moaned one city administrator, "I can't believe he's saying this."
"The time has come for us to behave as David," Houts continued, his voice rising. 'I urge you to step forward with your slingshots and cast your eye toward certain Goliaths. The day of justice in Inglewood is yet to come."
Scattered but fervent applause and a small standing ovation greeted Houts at the end of his speech. Others in the audience sat in stony silence or immediately walked out.
Vincent, clearly discomfited by the thinly disguised attack, said, "I won't badmouth anyone. I just want to work with everyone as a team." He left immediately.
Surrounded by well-wishers, Houts said afterward that he "weighed for weeks" what he would say and whether the chamber dinner was the place to say it.
"I finally decided this was the time to make my stand. Certain things needed to be said and this seemed an appropriate way to tell everyone that I believe the chamber needs to act as a watchdog on the city. There are always Davids out there. We just need to get them organized and give them a little support. I think the chamber can do that."
Houts said he was neutral toward Vincent until the mayor and three of the four council members voted earlier this year to award an $11-million refuse contract without bids or a public hearing.
Incoming chamber Vice President Frank Denkins later said he considered Houts speech "very apropos," and said he would try to take the chamber in a "more political direction."
"The chamber has not been as political as it should be regarding the situation in Inglewood," Denkins said. "We've tried to stay neutral. I think that time has passed."
New President Wesley Greenwood, however, regretted the speech. He said the chamber should stay out of politics.
"I wish it hadn't happened," he said. "I don't believe the majority of the chamber was supportive of the speech. We just don't feel that a divisive, politicized chamber will do the city any good."