HUNTINGTON PARK — They met in a small room above a local Mexican restaurant, plotting political changes for a city that never has had a Latino councilman even though its population is more than 90% Latino.
Several of the 20 Latino businessmen, community leaders and residents who gathered recently said Latino candidates have their best chance ever to win seats on the City Council come election day, April 10. The city is facing financial problems that demand new leadership, they said. And Latino voter registration has grown significantly in recent years.
For years, voting rights advocates and Latino political activists have pointed to Huntington Park as a glaring example of political under-representation. It is a community where an ethnic minority has become a vast majority without being able to cross the political threshold into City Hall.
"Hey, the Hispanic population is over 90% and there's a big problem there," said Rudy Griego, former Chamber of Commerce president who this year plans to run for council himself or, for the first time, to support Latino challengers. "It's quite important because the situation has become that we're being taxed without representation."
Griego and two other Latino leaders, who have declared their candidacies, complain that none of the city's nine top administrators are Latino and that just two of Huntington Park's 18 appointed commissioners are Latino.
But such criticisms and talk of political change do not set well with the city's veteran councilmen. Three of the five council seats will be up for election. Councilmen William P. Cunningham and Jim Roberts say they will fight to keep their seats. Councilman Herbert A. Hennes Jr. said he has not decided whether to seek reelection.
The incumbents said they have been reelected over the years because they have served the community well. There have been few Latino administrators, commissioners and developers in Huntington Park because few have applied, they said.
And the calls for Latino representation on the council smack of reverse racism, the incumbents said.
"It's not my fault I'm not Latino," Cunningham said. "When I represent people, I represent them all no matter what color they are. I always have."
Latino candidates have run--and been defeated--in every Huntington Park City Council election since 1970. But the outcome this year could be different for several reasons, political observers said.
The city's recent financial problems may have weakened the political strength of the incumbents. Recent money problems forced city officials to lay off 25 employees last October and to cut services.
In addition, Latinos appear to be getting more involved in local politics and are expected to make up a larger majority of the voters registered for the April election. Latinos accounted for 53.3% of the city's registered voters in 1988, according to a survey. A Latino had the strongest showing ever that year, falling 21 votes shy of being elected to the City Council. Community groups plan registration drives in the months before this year's election.
Griego's break with the council also is viewed as a significant development. Griego, 50, supported Councilmen Jack W. Parks and Thomas E. Jackson in their successful reelection bids in 1988.
Two Latino candidates have said they will run in the April election. They are Raul Perez, who lost the 1988 election by 21 votes, and Luis Hernandez, the founder of a new citizens group of about 200 people called Huntington Park Citizens for Responsible Government.
It will be the sixth time Perez has run for the council. Over the years, the 47-year-old loan officer and longtime resident has developed a following that figures to be enhanced by Griego's support. Perez has been a member of numerous civic organizations and religiously attends council meetings.
Hernandez, a 29-year-old financial analyst, grew up in and around Huntington Park. He went to work in New York after graduating from college, but returned about seven months ago. Hernandez led the campaign against a proposed 7% city utility tax, which was overwhelmingly rejected by voters last year. He has been castigating council members on a variety of issues at their twice-monthly meetings.
If Griego decides to enter the race, he could be the strongest Latino candidate ever to run, local political observers said.
But Griego has a liability. A former Huntington Park resident, Griego now lives in Granada Hills and would have to move back into the city by the end of the month to be eligible to run for City Council. He almost certainly would be criticized as a carpetbagger.
Griego can point to his involvement in various Huntington Park business and civic organizations, however. He also has had an immigration business in the city since 1970. Griego's Americo International provides assistance to immigrants seeking to become citizens, among other services.
Margin Has Slipped