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Political Brawl, Take 2 : Raucous Council Race Focuses on Rent Control


BELL GARDENS — It used to be that in this town in a good year, it took 400 votes to win a seat on the City Council.

Never mind that 43,000 people called Bell Gardens home, and 5,000 of them were registered voters--city officials considered themselves lucky if 750 people turned out.

But in the past year, voter registration has swollen 10%, and not a day goes by when someone doesn't walk into the office of beleaguered City Clerk Leanna Keltner and dump an armful of absentee ballots on her desk.

Last December, nearly 2,000 voters--many of them Latinos voting for the first time--recalled four Anglo City Council members from office after a fervid campaign bursting with racial rhetoric and demands for more sensitive local representation.

On Tuesday, three months after the recall, voters will once again go to the polls--this time to replace the four ousted council members.

If anything, this campaign has been more raucous than the last. Tempers have worn thin, campaign mailers scream accusations, anger compels the 10 candidates and their supporters who walk the neighborhoods trying to convince bewildered residents that they know what is best for Bell Gardens.

"In some ways the recall was good, because it woke the city up," candidate Richard Webb said. "When you have a town of 40,000 people and less than a thousand vote, there is something wrong."

In the past few weeks, 1,700 people have requested applications for absentee ballots, and as of Thursday, more than 900 of them had already voted. During the Dec. 10 recall election, an unprecedented 787 people voted by absentee ballot, and most of them voted to throw out four of the five council members.

Gone, however, is the Latino-versus-Anglo vitriol that sharply divided the community and captured nationwide attention. All 10 candidates vying for the four seats stress the need for a City Council that is responsive both to the Latino community, which makes up 88% of the population, and the much smaller Anglo and Asian populations.

"Mind you, the council wasn't recalled because they were white," said candidate Rodolfo (Rudy) Garcia, who once accused the council of trying to drive "Mexicans" from the city. "They were recalled because they lost touch with the community, which happens to be (about) 90% Hispanic."

Latino leaders don't doubt, however, that whatever the reasons behind the recall, it has come to be seen as a big victory for their community. Latinos in surrounding areas are closely watching this election to see whether the recall leaders can sustain their momentum, and several prominent Latino leaders and organizations have contributed money to the campaign.

As Garcia said: "This movement is big, big, big for Hispanics."

Garcia is one of four candidates backed by the No-Rezoning Committee, which led the recall in protest of a proposed zoning change. Like Garcia, candidates Josefina (Josie) Macias, Frank B. Duran and George T. Deitch are championing a platform that they say will make Bell Gardens a better place to live and which their critics say will transform the city into a slum.

At the top of the foursome's list is rent control.

Their critics and community observers predicted that rent control would never become a plank in the No-Rezoners' platform, because the committee has received much of its funding from landlords.

But in a community where 78% of the residents are tenants, sidestepping the rent control issue could have cost votes. Rent control is mentioned in nearly every campaign paper issued by the No-Rezoning Committee.

Garcia, Macias, Duran and Deitch are not the only candidates on the rent-control crusade. Candidates Jesus (Jess) Zuniga, Webb, Yolanda Quintana and Danny Rico have been endorsed by Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez and her newly formed Citizens for Rent Control. Candidate Juan (John) Sanchez also has come out in support of rent control. Although it seems that all sides agree on this issue, it has not prevented rent control from becoming one of the hottest debates in the campaign.

"They are lying when they say they support rent control," said Hernandez, the only council member not targeted by the recall.

"Rent control is a smoke screen," candidate Garcia said. "That lady (Hernandez) is a liar, and she cannot be trusted."

Hernandez's Citizens for Rent Control has sent out mailers charging, among other things, that the No-Rezoning candidates plan to raise all rents, throw tenants out in the street if they want repairs and send "thugs" to "see them" if tenants complain.

But No-Rezoning candidate Deitch, who owns about a dozen rental properties in Bell Gardens, says he supports rent control "across the board" and would put the issue to the vote of the people.

But he said that "rent control will guarantee raises each year, so renters who think that rent control will solve all their problems are wrong."

Under many forms of rent control, landlords are allowed to raise rent at the beginning of each year to reflect cost-of-living increases, generally 3% to 5%.

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