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Vote Seen as Litmus Test for Latinos


On a brilliant winter morning, underneath a silk American flag held by two Latinas, a small group of people gathered to tout their slate of candidates.

Two years ago, few would have paid attention to this gathering in front of Bell Gardens' squat, white-brick City Hall. But this was the Latino-led group that stunned the political Establishment last December by dumping four Anglo council members from office. And now everybody is watching.

On March 10, Bell Gardens voters will replace the four recalled council members in a special election that political leaders and activists see as a litmus test of emerging Latino political power in a pocket of the county long controlled by Anglos.

Some Latino political activists, such as state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Julian Nava, have heralded the recall as a sign that Latinos in southeast Los Angeles County are finally wresting control of their destinies from the hands of aging Anglo leaders. "What will be significant is who gets elected," said Rita Moreno, an official with the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. "If they are able to elect good people--people who represent the community--then who financed it (the recall) and who did the work really doesn't matter."

In the last two months, 10 candidates have begun campaigning for four seats on the council. Seven candidates are Latino--an un precedented number for Bell Gardens, which until last year had never had a Latino on the council. Some candidates supported the recall. Others did not. All are calling for a more open city government.

"The (recall committee) is alive and well now, have no doubt about it," said Rodolfo Garcia, a City Council candidate who runs the Bell office of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We are in high gear now." The recall committee has endorsed four candidates, one of whom is an Anglo.

The ousted City Council members, however, are not giving up. Though they are prohibited from running in the March 10 special election to replace them, three of the four have announced that they will try to recapture three council seats that will be on the ballot again in the regular April 14 municipal election. The fourth, former mayor Robert Cunningham, has decided not to run again.

Former council members Allen Shelby, Letha Viles and Douglas O'Leary said that there was no good reason to recall them. The three argue that they were removed because a handful of wealthy but disgruntled landlords managed to stir up residents with threats and lies--a charge the recall committee vehemently denies.

In fact, what led to the success of the recall is being debated now in many circles. Critics and supporters of the ouster, including its leaders, say it is narrow-minded to view the removal of the four Anglo council members as some sort of Latino coup d'etat.

Even the recall leaders, who not long ago campaigned on a theme that city leaders were trying to drive Mexicans from the city, have done an about-face and say racial inequity was a minor cause behind the recall. They say the prime reason for the campaign was the council's arrogant attitude toward all Bell Gardens residents.

"The reason it happened is because the council didn't listen to the people and finally the people decided to make some changes, and it just happened that the majority was Hispanic," said Marie Chacon, a recall committee leader.

Ramiro Morales, a member of the recall committee, moved to Bell Gardens 18 years ago when the city was on the verge of a transformation. In the mid-1970s, the city was a poor, white, rough-and-tumble place where the only minorities were American Indians.

"There were no meat markets, no one had tortillas, no Mexican delicacies," the 43-year-old handyman said.

Morales was among the first of many Mexicans who immigrated to Bell Gardens, drawn, in part, by its cheap housing. Today, 88% of the people who live in the city are Latino, and Morales has no problem finding a carniceria or panaderia. "I feel like I'm at home in Mexico," he said.

It seemed that only one place remained immune to the whirlwind changes that swept the community: City Hall. Until April, 1990, every person elected to the council was Anglo, and a majority of residents participating in city elections were Anglo senior citizens. For all of their numbers, Latinos in Bell Gardens were politically invisible. Many were not citizens, and of those who were, few registered to vote.

City officials operated in a vacuum, critics said, making little or no attempt to reach out to the community, a majority of whom did not speak English. Instead, the officials worked hard to transform Bell Gardens into a nice suburb with plenty of business, industry, sturdy homes and traffic islands. With that vision firmly in mind, city officials leveled neighborhoods to bring in business, and cracked down on property owners who failed to keep their homes and apartments safe and clean.

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