MONTEREY PARK — The next municipal election here is nearly five months away, but the campaign is already charged with accusations of racism, bigotry and hatred.
"I don't know if I want to live in a community with this much hate," said Councilman David Almada after listening to more than three hours of emotional argument Tuesday night over an issue that is headed for a vote at the April 8 election. The controversy surrounds efforts to declare English the official language of the city, a measure that Almada and three of the other four council members oppose as a slap at Asian and Latino immigrants.
"Racist," "bigot" and "scumbag" were some of the epithets shouted from the audience at Tuesday's council meeting as people on both sides of the English-language issue traded insults. Mayor Rudy Peralta several times threatened to stop the meeting and clear the council chamber of the 200 spectators.
"It was the most difficult meeting I've ever had," Peralta said afterward. "It pushed me right to the brink."
The mayor said he thought that some members of the audience were trying to provoke an incident, the mayor said. "I think they wanted to have someone thrown out or arrested."
Peralta said he expects the English-language proposal to be a central issue when he and two other council incumbents seek reelection in April. Both Peralta and Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen said they will seek new four-year terms and Almada said he too will probably run. One of their opponents probably will be Frank J. Arcuri, a leader of the English-language initiative campaign. Others behind the initiative are also talking about running, Arcuri said.
The incumbents have accused Arcuri of using the initiative to advance himself politically. Arcuri's response is that the council is desperate.
"They're fighting for their political lives," Arcuri said. "They're the ones who are introducing feelings of racism and bigotry."
At Tuesday's council meeting, Arcuri and Barry Hatch filed petitions with the city clerk calling for a ballot measure in the April election that would declare English the official language of Monterey Park. The initiative will qualify for the April 8 ballot if 2,266 of the nearly 3,500 signers are verified as registered voters in Monterey Park.
The council could have voted to adopt the measure without putting it on the ballot. Instead, the council voted 4 to 1 to put an opposing measure on the ballot saying that making English the official language would lead to violations of constitutional rights.
Arcuri said the fact that the council voted to put the English-language issue on the ballot in the form of a statement of opposition to his proposal indicates that council members want the issue there so they can claim to be fighting racism and bigotry.
All three council members up for reelection voted for the measure opposing Arcuri's proposed initiative. Councilman G. Monty Manibog voted for the measure and Cam Briglio was against.
Francis Hong, a member of the city's Community Relations/Neighborhood Improvement Commission, said he regards the English-language initiative as a "direct attack on the new immigrants, especially the Asians." He told the council that the issue is going to produce a long, bitter campaign. "The battle is just beginning," he said. "It will be a painful, nasty process."
Arcuri denied that the initiative is racially motivated, but in his speech to the council he railed against the changes that have occurred in Monterey Park with the arrival of Asian immigrants and the proliferation of Chinese signs on businesses. He said Monterey Park has become "the new West Coast Chinatown" and accused the council members of being the "puppets" of developers in allowing businesses to post signs predominantly in Chinese.
In response, council members accused initiative leaders of encouraging bigotry.
"I am not going to say that the 3,500 people who signed the petition (for the English-language initiative) are racists, bigots and so on," Almada said. "I don't believe that. However, I cannot say this all across the board on the leadership."
Almada called the initiative leaders "extremists" and said they are willing to divide the community to seize control of the council.
The only council supporter of the English-language initiative is Briglio, whose term does not expire until 1988. Briglio said it is not Arcuri and his allies who are exploiting the English-language issue for political gain, but the council majority.
"We've got a few idiots up there (on the council) who want to make this a political issue, so it's going to become a political issue," he said. Briglio said that he sees no harm in declaring English the official language of the city and that the council could have diffused the issue quietly, but chose instead to heighten the controversy.