When Joe Cirilo learned a few weeks ago that he had been elected King of Cudahy, the retired machine shop worker and community volunteer was filled with pride. As honorary king of the mile-square municipality, Cirilo was to preside over three days of festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the city's incorporation.
But before the new monarch could ascend to the throne, Cirilo was deposed in what can only be described as a sort of small town coup d'etat.
City officials stripped the 52-year-old resident of his title, saying the selection committee had not used proper electoral procedures while picking a king and queen for the Rancho Cudahy Days celebration Nov. 8 to 10.
Cirilo, however, has a different explanation. As he sees it, the city's leaders did not want him to reign as Cudahy's king because he is a Latino.
"This is a clear case of racism," Cirilo said. "Sure, it's a Mickey Mouse contest and I can survive without having that title. It's the principle of the thing that bothers me."
Shakespeare Said It, 'Much Ado'
Still a different interpretation was offered by Councilman Lynwood Evans. "What he's saying is a bunch of garbage," Evans said. "All I know is that it was an illegal election . . . Shakespeare said it all too well. This is much ado about nothing."
Nonetheless, the brouhaha has Cudahy residents abuzz over a matter that normally garners about as much attention as a PTA cake sale. Cirilo says he has received more than a dozen telephone calls from residents eager to express their sympathy.
The royal flap began during the Oct. 21 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, the group that traditionally has selected the honorary king and queen for the annual Rancho Cudahy Days.
During the first four secret ballots, the commission split its votes, with Cirilo getting two while retired Mayor Leo Turner and Jimmy Dunlap, husband of current Mayor Faye Dunlap, garnered one vote each.
Telephone Vote Only Muddled Things
Hoping to get a clear winner, the group decided on the fifth ballot to telephone absent Commissioner Fran Travis to determine whom she preferred. Travis, however, only further muddled the picture, casting a vote for Dunlap. The tally: Cirilo, two votes; Dunlap, two; Turner, one.
A breakthrough finally came on the sixth ballot as Cirilo got three votes, making him the apparent victor.
Not so. When Mayor Dunlap learned the next day that the commission had telephoned an absent member to cast a vote, she decided the entire election process should be voided.
In an Oct. 23 letter to all participants in the contest, Dunlap said she had determined "an improper voting procedure was inadvertently used" in the election and that a new selection would be made by the City Council at its meeting this Monday.
Cirilo and other members of the community were miffed when they heard of the decision. With the decision in the council's hands, Cirilo felt he had virtually no chance of being elected because of his political ties with council members Joseph Graffio and John Robertson, arch foes of Dunlap, Evans and Councilman Gabe Zippi.
"I had about as much chance as the man on the moon of getting elected," he said.
Others also had complaints. Lenora Winger, a parks commissioner, was among those who felt Cirilo had won the vote fair and square.
Winger said she believed Cirilo, would make a fitting king for Cudahy, a city where more than 73% of the 18,000 residents are Latino. Winger also pointed to Cirilo's efforts to begin the city's first beauty pageant, as well as his work with the handicapped Olympics. Cirilo, she said, is "very civic minded."
"I just think they gave Joe a bad break," Winger said. "He should have had the title. The whole thing has been ridiculous. We had no idea we were breaking the rules."
'Maybe Next Time'
Faced with such opposition, Dunlap decided to throw the matter back to the Parks and Recreation Commission.
"Joe probably did win it fair and square," Dunlap said. "But when they called the other commissioner, to me that invalidated the whole thing. I just made a quick decision to have the council take a look at it. Maybe next time I won't be so quick."
On Wednesday, the Parks and Recreation Commission again considered the matter. This time, the four members who attended the special meeting at City Hall voted unanimously to elect former Mayor Turner and his wife, Mildred, as king and queen.
Winger did not attend the meeting, saying her absence represented a sort of moral protest against the whole affair.
"I felt that the first election was the right election," she said Thursday. "It would have been against my ethics to vote again. We were right the first time."
Cirilo, the man who would be King of Cudahy, was taking the matter philosophically.
While he believes that pressure from Evans and Dunlap convinced the commission to reject him as king--something Evans and Dunlap deny--Cirilo said he is not angry with the results.
"I'm just disappointed and disgusted to know that this kind of thing can still go on," Cirilo said. "This is too small a town to have any room for racial problems."