After a heated exchange over development in the city, Monterey Park City Councilman G. Monty Manibog challenged English-language activist Frank J. Arcuri to a fight.
Arcuri stuck out his chin and dared Manibog to hit it, but Manibog held back.
Still fuming months later, Manibog said he never would throw a punch to start a fight, but "believe me, I wanted to."
Arcuri recalls that he was hoping Manibog would hit him. "I thought it would end his political career."
Nothing came of that confrontation late last year, but verbal blows between Arcuri and council members have become common as Arcuri has led a crusade against city policies that he says have converted Monterey Park into "the new West Coast Chinatown."
Arcuri, who wants to make English the official language of Monterey Park and is seeking a seat on the council in the April elections, likes to think of himself as a combination Don Quixote and Rocky Balboa.
"I don't like people telling me what to do," he said. "Never did. I hear a different drummer."
Arcuri's wife, Nancy, explains her husband in simpler terms. "He's a New Yorker," she said. "New Yorkers are aggressive, loud and obnoxious, but they get a lot done."
The man who regularly infuriates Manibog and other members of the Monterey Park City Council is a chunky, 45-year-old, self-employed photographer who began battling city officials over building regulations concerning his home two years ago.
These days Arcuri's office in that home is cluttered with clippings, press releases, a duplicating machine, a computer and other trappings of a political operation. Although he manages to squeeze in some photography, Arcuri said much of his time is occupied by his political work. For 24 hours a day, he said, "I think about it; I dream about it."
Every city has its gadflies, self-appointed watchdogs over city government who scrutinize spending, possible abuses of power and other follies. But observers say no one else in Monterey Park has stirred as much controversy as Arcuri.
Mayor Rudy Peralta said Arcuri's first few appearances before the council were unremarkable. But people were quick to take notice one night when Arcuri voiced a complaint, then hoisted a video-camera on his shoulder and taped the council's response, moving in on each council member to get close-up shots.
The mayor said Arcuri's use of the video camera was obviously intended to cow the council. "It was intimidating," the mayor said, "but nothing like his recent appearances."
Arcuri said he intended to intimidate the council and that he videotaped the meeting because he didn't trust the officials.
Now, when Arcuri appears before the council, he strides like a champion prizefighter to the podium, turns to his supporters in the audience, and raises his arms above his head. Then, after eliciting a cheer, Arcuri turns to tell the council what's wrong with Monterey Park, reading from a speech he has written for the occasion.
What Americans don't like about Monterey Park, he has often said, is overcrowding, traffic congestion, business signs in Chinese and the transformation of the city into a Chinatown.
The Asian population in Monterey Park has risen from less than 10% in 1970 to 40% today, a growth reflected in the number of stores that post signs in Chinese and in the remodeling of old stores in an Oriental style of architecture.
Within the past few months, Arcuri has been interviewed by most major Los Angeles news media, ABC radio in New York and newspapers in Miami, San Francisco and San Diego. He also has appeared on a radio talk show hosted by Michael Reagan, the President's son.
Most of the media attention has centered on Arcuri's efforts to put a measure on the city election ballot declaring English the city's official language. Although the proposal was rejected for the ballot by the city clerk on the advice of the city attorney, more than 3,300 people signed a petition supporting the plan.
Recently, Arcuri filed legal notices to circulate two more initiative petitions: one to suspend residential and commercial construction for a year while development standards are raised, and another to require store owners to cast their signs almost entirely in English. And he has launched his campaign to unseat one of the three incumbents in the council election April 8.
Manibog said he is glad that Arcuri is running for City Council because the outcome will show whether he has solid support in the community. His own view, Manibog said, is that Arcuri "will self-destruct if he talks long enough."
But Clifford Sharp, a 64-year-old retired utility serviceman who helped circulate the English-language initiative petition, said the City Council may be surprised to find out how much support Arcuri has.
"He speaks for a lot of people," Sharp said, citing especially those longtime residents who feel they are being pushed out by the changes in the city.