POMONA — As an idealistic college student in the 1970s, Tomas Ursua joined political clubs and campaigned with the nuclear freeze movement.
But he found college life too constricting, so he quit school and went hitch-hiking. His right thumb took him across the United States and to South America.
"When you're hitch-hiking, you only associate with the most humble people," Ursua recalled recently. "It's really a stark reality."
Eventually, he returned to get his degree from UC Riverside and decided to go back to the south Pomona neighborhood where he grew up.
"I started seeing that what I was really doing was preparing myself, intellectually and politically, to go back home," he said. "I saw that the people who were living in my neighborhood were not controlling their own destiny. They had no political power at all. You get an insight into what you could do if you had a little political influence. You could build houses, create jobs."
Five years after returning to Pomona, Ursua, 33, has gained the political clout to put his ideas into action. His election to the City Council in March has marked a pivotal change in city politics, one that has engendered opposition from many segments of the community.
Ursua has joined Council members C. L. (Clay) Bryant and Nell Soto to create what they call a people-oriented coalition to make sweeping changes in the city of 120,000.
Ursua's supporters say his swing vote has changed the council's priorities away from wooing business through redevelopment toward issues such as crime, affordable housing and job training.
But his critics contend that he has become the lackey of Bryant, a stridently dissident council member who critics say wants to wield absolute control over City Hall. They say the new majority Ursua has created will damage Pomona's business environment for years.
Ursua has had his sights on a City Council seat since he returned to town in 1984 to go into business as a residential builder. He noticed that Pomona--whose population was more than half minority--had an all-white City Council. He ran for the council in 1985, finishing second behind Donna Smith, who was later elected mayor.
Ursua, who is a Latino, later joined two other minority candidates as plaintiffs in a suit filed by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, alleging that Pomona's at-large elections were discriminatory. A federal court judge ruled for the city in 1986, but the San Antonio-based civil rights group has appealed.
Four years later, Ursua said, the city's black and Latino communities had been organized to turn out for a minority candidate. Ursua defeated E. J. (Jay) Gaulding, a longtime incumbent well-liked by the city's business community, by more than 1,200 votes.
Ursua's supporters said his election was an important symbol to Pomona's minority community, particularly its young people.
"I just talked to some students the other day and they see him as a role model," said Willie White, outreach director for the Pomona Valley YMCA. "They really look up to him."
Ursua said he hopes his election heralds the emergence of minorities as a political force in Pomona. But others say voters simply felt that Gaulding, 68, was past his prime and were impressed with Ursua personally.
'A Nice Addition'
"I think people honestly thought that he's young and energetic and intelligent and that he would make a nice addition to the council," said Smith, who has often opposed the new majority. "He professed to be an independent thinker. Some people have stated that they wish they knew what his plans were before the election."
Once on the council, Ursua wasted no time establishing his presence. In his first regular business meeting, Ursua joined Bryant and Soto in firing City Administrator A. J. Wilson. The three said the city needed a new executive officer to match its new philosophy.
"There's been an old-boy network running this city for 100 years," Ursua said at the time. "I guess when you replace a 100-year-old junta, the best thing to do is show a little bit of decisiveness."
In the weeks since then, the new majority--dubbed the "Gang of Three" by opponents--has called for a restructuring of Wilson's budget, which is about to begin its second year. They say the city's priority must be public safety, and they want an additional $2.8 million for police and fire protection.
To find that money, the council has eliminated three top administrative posts and cut city funding to the Pomona Economic Development Corp. The mayor and Councilman Mark Nymeyer have called these steps shortsighted.
Even more controversial than the actions taken by the three council members has been the manner in which they've acted. Critics contend that the new majority rams its policies through, with little opportunity for council debate or public comment.
"They decide and it's cut and dried, period," Smith said.