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Latino Anger Led to Recall of Council : Vote: Observers say Latinos' worries about losing their homes combined with longstanding ethnic resentments to fuel the election, which ousted all four Anglos on the City Council.

December 12, 1991|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The polls had been closed for two hours, the votes were being counted and spirits were high. If anyone in this half-empty warehouse with a makeshift bar and a table loaded with casseroles thought the unprecedented recall against four of five City Council members was going to succeed, no one was saying so.

But before the night was over, some supporters of the council were in tears, others were enraged and the city's once-quiet Latino community had made history by booting four white City Council members out of their posts.

"I can't believe it," a dumbfounded council supporter muttered. "I just can't believe it."

How did it happen?

Ask Mayor Robert Cunningham, or council members Letha Viles, Allen Shelby and Douglas O'Leary, and they'll tell you they were defeated by a campaign of lies led by the town's absentee landlords.

Ask supporters of the recall, and they'll tell you it was years of pent-up anger and frustration with a city government that failed to reach out to its people--88% of whom are Latino.

Ask Latinos who led the recall and they'll tell you that they could no longer sit back when the council approved a rezoning map they say was racist.

"We had to do something about it, and we did," said a triumphant Gloria Guerra, one of the leaders who helped organize a historic Latino political power drive that some say could sweep the county.

Recall leaders say the zoning dispute galvanized Latinos in Bell Gardens for two reasons: It created fears that they would lose their homes, and it gave some residents their first glimpse of the City Council in action. The voter turnout was 30%, one of the highest in the city's history.

The zoning plan called for strict limitations on the number of homes that could be built in the city. It required some property owners to tear down units 20 years from now if too many were on a lot, and other owners to relocate homes out of commercial and industrial neighborhoods.

City leaders said the plan was necessary to keep Bell Gardens from becoming overpopulated and sliding into slum conditions; the city is already one of the most densely crowded in the county.

But critics of the plan charged that the City Council was going to tear down thousands of homes and drive the poor from the city--a claim that the council unsuccessfully tried to disprove as hogwash from greedy slumlords.

Fear that the city would force owners to give up their homes spread through the working-class community, and Latinos began appearing by the dozens at council meetings.

"Zoning hit Latinos where it hurt," said James Acevedo, a political consultant who helped organize the recall drive. "The people here are poor, they are worried about feeding their children, finding work, keeping a roof over their heads. Zoning and the fear that they might lose their homes gave people a reason to get involved in the political process."

They did not like what they saw, Acevedo and other recall members said. When the council approved the map more than a year ago, hundreds of residents packed the city auditorium to denounce it as racist and unnecessary. After about four hours of testimony, the council passed it unanimously and with no comment.

"We have begged and pleaded with them, and they never listened to us," recall supporter Josefina Macias said. "They ignored us too long and we couldn't take it any longer."

A dispute that council members had confidently predicted would fizzle suddenly exploded. Latino recall leaders launched a massive voter registration drive early in the year, signing up slightly more than 1,000 people in the last eight months. About 30 Latino residents became citizens so they could vote. The recall committee launched a door-to-door campaign, handing out absentee ballot applications. It was that aggressive absentee campaign that ultimately ensured the recall group's victory, officials say.

On Tuesday night, when the absentee ballots were finally counted and City Manager Claude Booker scrawled the results on the warehouse chalkboard, a stunned silence fell over the crowd gathered to rally behind the council.

"Cunningham--Yes (on recall): 506. No: 152," Booker wrote. "O'Leary--Yes: 505. No: 154."

Although the recall grew out of Latino anger, it was clear Tuesday night that dissatisfaction with the council was not limited to that community.

The incumbents battled for every vote they received, even in precincts considered sure bets. White residents who voted for the recall bitterly criticized council members they said were so busy beautifying the town, they forgot about its people. Some voters said they were still upset that the city leveled several neighborhoods to build a card casino, a parking lot and a giant commercial plaza.

But council members and their supporters said they are not giving up.

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