BELLFLOWER — They are still not exactly friends. But after years of political backbiting, former Councilmen James Earle Christo and Ray O'Neal have struck an unlikely truce that has many City Hall observers surprised as well as skeptical.
In 1982, Christo and O'Neal were swept into office, along with Councilman John Ansdell, on an anti-redevelopment slate. The following year, however, the relationship between Christo and O'Neal turned stormy.
O'Neal accused Christo of being a publicity hound, and Christo accused O'Neal of switching sides on the redevelopment issue. O'Neal lead a successful drive to oust Christo from his mayoral post. Then Christo tried unsuccessfully to have O'Neal recalled.
Now the longtime political foes have emerged as allies supporting stabilization of mobile home rents, an emotional issue that could make them leading candidates in next spring's City Council race.
"First the ouster, then the recall, and now this?" said former Councilman George Marsh, who served with Christo and O'Neal from 1982 to 1986. "Yes, I'm surprised to hear it."
Not Running as Slate
Earlier this month, Christo and O'Neal separately announced plans to run for two vacant council seats. They say they do not plan to run again as a slate.
But their alliance has drawn sharp criticism from City Hall.
"We have a couple of individuals using an emotional vehicle to get what they want," said Councilman William Pendleton. "Anytime somebody uses someone else's grief for their own benefit, I don't think it's very nice."
Christo and O'Neal concede that rent stabilization promises to become a campaign issue, like redevelopment did in the 1982 election. Yet both deny jumping on the bandwagon.
"I have no apologies to make for representing (mobile home residents)," Christo said. Since he was elected to the council in 1982, he said, he has been concerned about the problems of people who cannot afford drastic rent increases. "I got involved with mobile home residents years ago, as I've been involved with a lot of issues."
Indeed, Christo, 80, has been active in Bellflower politics since the city incorporated in 1956. He boasts about his efforts in the campaign to pass Proposition 13 and says he is responsible for keeping the city free of property taxes.
"I've always worked with one philosophy in mind," he said. "When you continue to run for office, you get all the publicity for free. I was the best P. R. man Bellflower ever had."
This will be the eighth time Christo has run for the City Council. He won only once, serving a four-year term.
Asked why he has decided to run again, given his losing record, Christo smiled. "I really hadn't intended to run again," he said. "But these (mobile home) people sort of drafted me. I couldn't turn my back on them."
Christo, owner of a tuxedo shop, has been the spokesman for a group of mostly elderly mobile home residents since September. Led by the Bellflower Mobile Home Action Committee, the residents have attended council meetings and carried signs calling for the adoption of an ordinance that would tie rent increases to the Consumer Price Index and establish a rent review board to hear complaints. The council is scheduled to vote on such an ordinance Monday.
The group has protested rent increases and deteriorating conditions at several of the city's 45 mobile home parks.
O'Neal, 50, an industrial engineer, ran for the state Assembly last year while seeking reelection to the council. He says he became interested in the issue last fall when Sen. Cecil Green (D-Norwalk) toured several mobile home parks during his campaign.
"I used to own a trailer in Colorado, and I've seen what park managers can do to mobile home owners," O'Neal said. "If the rents are raised too high, the poor person is stranded. I have always been interested in problems that affect people."
Christo has been a forceful speaker for rent stabilization, but Mayor Pro Tem Ken Cleveland says he doubts both Christo's and O'Neal's sincerity.
"I really don't believe they are too concerned about rent control," Cleveland said. "They are only concerned about their own political aspirations."
While others may question Christo's motives, mobile home residents say they don't believe that they are being used.
"We needed a name, and everybody in Bellflower knows James Earle Christo," said Annabelle Silva, a spokeswoman for the Mobile Home Action Committee. "He can do a lot for us."
Silva said she is grateful for O'Neal's support but is still not sure how committed he is to the cause. "I just don't know what he can do yet in terms of helping us," she said.
In early November, O'Neal began addressing the council, at Christo's suggestion, in support of stabilizing mobile home rents.
"He beat me to it," O'Neal said, referring to Christo's early involvement. "But this is an issue I believe in, and I think we both can help. When you look around, there are two names who come up as far as being the voice of the people, and that's me and Jimmy."