LYNWOOD — Nine years ago Robert Henning stopped by City Hall to protest a council proposal on trash collection. He found the occasional rough-and-tumble political infighting to his liking and decided to stick around and run for the council.
In 1983 he became Lynwood's first black council member. And last month Henning, 42, became the first black mayor of this predominantly minority city of 51,000.
"This is historic," said Henning, a supervisor in the unemployment insurance adjudication branch of the state Employment Development Department in Compton.
Lynwood, which had remained a largely white community since its incorporation in 1923, began to change in the early 1970s as the black and Latino population swelled. Today, the city is 43% Latino, almost 35% black and 20% white.
Henning received the council's unanimous endorsement for the primarily honorary position of mayor. He served as vice mayor in 1985, and although it is not automatic, the vice mayor usually is named the following year to the one-year mayoral term. All members, including the mayor, receive a monthly salary of $500.
Councilman John Byork, who was mayor and handed the gavel over to Henning, said the new mayor's race should play second fiddle to the fact that Henning "is a gentleman and he is capable."
"This isn't a black and white issue. I've been here since 1940 when the city was lily white. My neighborhood changed, I'm now a minority, but my neighbors are just as good or better than the ones that are no longer here," said Byork, who has served on the council for 21 years.
"Mr. Henning is very intelligent. He can handle the job. If we didn't think he could do the job, we wouldn't have voted unanimously for him." Councilman E. L. Morris said.
The position is basically "a symbolic one, with the mayor cutting a lot of ribbons and representing the city at ceremonies and affairs outside Lynwood" as well as presiding over City Council meetings and serving as a liaison between the city and other government agencies, said Byork, 77, who has served as mayor four times.
Henning was nominated for the position by Councilwoman Evelyn Wells, who became the second black on the council when she was elected in November. During the election, Henning campaigned for Wells.
No Latino Members
Wells, 38, also the first female council member in 25 years, said she nominated Henning because she believes "he will do a tremendous job." She said she believes Henning's selection "indicates that the city fathers, black and white, can work together."
Henning said he also believes his selection means the council "is willing to work together for the good of the entire community."
There has never been a Latino council member but Henning said that should also change. "Everyone should be represented. That's the ideal situation," he said.
There were no Latino candidates in the November election. The reasons for that are difficult to determine, said Rachel Chavez, a longtime community activist. Chavez said many Latinos appear "to prefer working behind the scenes," volunteering support of other candidates.
When he was first elected, Henning said, there appeared to be apprehension by the council majority. He said he believes that has changed.
Started With Protest
"They know we (blacks) are not here to destroy. We just want to be part of the decision-making process," said Henning, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology from California State University, Los Angeles.
Henning did not make his first appearance before the council in a mellow mood.
He came to City Hall in 1976 with about 80 others to protest a proposed ordinance requiring residents to move their trash cans from the alleys to the front streets for collection. The group did not want the trash in the front of homes, said Henning, and as a result the council dropped the issue.
The council appointed him to the Traffic and Safety Commission shortly afterward, but he quit after three months because, Henning said, he wanted to have the freedom to speak out on a wide range of city issues.
He said he began to observe the council more closely and believed decisions were made without giving consideration to the citizens who came before it. For instance, he strongly opposed the council's 1977 decision to eliminate the Police Department without putting the issue to a public vote. Henning said he did not oppose the Sheriff's Department, which is now Lynwood's law enforcement agency on a contract basis, and is satisfied with the job it has done, but that voters should have had a chance to express themselves on the issue.
Lost by 115 Votes
He decided to throw his hat in the ring in 1978, but lost by 115 votes. In 1983 he won by 130 votes. Henning, who said he has no political aspirations other than being a "good City Council member," describes himself as "being aggressive" on the issues he really believes in.