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Council Recall Is Seen as Start of Political Era for Latinos : Politics: Observers believe that Latinos will soon gain majorities on city councils, although not in such a dramatic fashion.

December 29, 1991|GERALD FARIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recent recall of four white City Council members in overwhelmingly Latino Bell Gardens was hailed by some as the dawn of a new political decade in Southeast cities, where as many as nine out of 10 residents are Latino.

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said people "cleaned out the city," and Latino leaders countywide announced that massive voter registration drives would be held next year to give the long-silent Latino community a political voice.

But though the 1990s may well be the decade that puts Latinos on city councils, the change will be less a revolution than an evolution, local incumbent council members predict.

As riveting as the Dec. 10 Bell Gardens recall was, council members from nearby Bell, Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate--where most of the residents are Latino and most of their leaders white--regard it as a political anomaly unlikely to be repeated in their cities.

Several area council members predict that before the end of the century, Latinos will indeed hold majorities on city councils--not through stunning recall drives, but through the sheer force of numbers.

"It's inevitable that the more of any group of people you have in a community, ultimately you will have many of that group on the City Council. It will happen in South Gate," first-term Councilman Robert A. Philipp said.

Incumbent council members believe that the Bell Gardens recall was born of Latino frustration with an Anglo council that lost touch with its community. The flash point was a zoning plan to reduce densities, which low-income Latinos in the city labeled racist and a threat to their homes.

"I had the feeling that they (Bell Gardens council members) weren't really reading the public sentiment well in terms of involving the Hispanic community in the decision-making process," Bell Councilman Ray Johnson said. "It was sort of an us-versus-them attitude, rather than working together."

The kind of resentment that spawned the Bell Gardens recall simply does not exist in other area cities, despite similar demographics, several council members said.

They pointed to significant numbers of Spanish-speaking Latinos on their city staffs, including department heads. Translators are available at council meetings. City newsletters are published in English and Spanish. Latinos are listened to at council meetings and their problems are addressed, they contend, citing the example of the South Gate council which earlier this month backed away from a proposed overnight parking ban after angry Latinos charged that it discriminated against large families.

"Latinos have no feeling of being left out," said Alex Rodriguez, Cudahy's lone Latino councilman. "All are treated equally. . . . I don't hear any resentment at all. We get praised for the job we're doing."

Said Maywood Councilman Thomas Engle: "I don't feel we are out of touch. Anyone who comes forward at our council meetings to complain about something for us to handle, we take care of it."

Councilman John Robertson, the self-proclaimed maverick on the Cudahy council, took a less sanguine view of Latino sentiment, contending that his city has the makings of a Bell Gardens explosion.

"Latinos feel angry at city government, shut out of city government," the 16-year council veteran said, adding that Latinos resent the way they are treated. "Anglos don't recognize that they are passing, (that) their day is over."

But Robertson's view was clearly the minority, with other leaders pointing to a political evolution they say has already begun.

In Huntington Park, the first two Latino council members in city history were voted into office in 1990. A third was appointed to a vacant seat this year, giving Latinos a first-ever political majority.

Councils in Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate presently have one Latino member each. In Bell, there are none. But in the upcoming April election, Latino candidates are expected to be on the ballot in all four cities.

An even greater Latino surge is expected in 1994 when the terms of some Anglo incumbents will expire, and many have already said they will not run again.

Meanwhile, more Latinos are being groomed for higher office by taking part in city affairs and winning appointments to committees and commissions. "As time moves on, they move up in the order," South Gate Mayor Gregory Slaughter said.

At the same time, older Anglo residents--who remained a majority at the polls even as the Latino population mushroomed in the 1980s--are moving away, or, as Maywood Mayor William Hamilton put it, "going out to Rose Hills or Forest Lawn."

Although Southeast council members acknowledge that Latino voters will begin electing Latino candidates, some are concerned that an emphasis on ethnicity may not result in the best political leadership.

"My issue with all of this is that we need leadership in this community, people who are there to represent the community, not to serve themselves," Bell Councilman George Cole said. "Those folks come in all kinds of colors."

Said South Gate Councilman Larry Leonard: "What I see happening in Bell Gardens is that there is a push out there to get the Hispanic to vote and vote for a Hispanic surname. I find that very unfortunate, people voting based on ethnic background or the color of skin.

"They ought to vote on who's the most qualified," he said.

But others say it is misleading to assume that Latinos will vote as a bloc without looking beyond a candidate's surname.

In Huntington Park, Councilman Raul Perez--who ran four times before he was finally elected in 1990--said he believes it takes more than ethnicity to win a council seat.

"The majority of the voters look at the qualified candidate, rather than just a Latino," he said.

"It's up to how they perceive the candidate."

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