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New Council Members Vow Change; Critics Predict Doom : Election: Now that recall supporters have been swept into office, it is likely that City Manager Claude Booker, a target of bitter criticism, will be fired.

March 12, 1992|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELL GARDENS — The Bell Gardens victory party started when city staffers began feeding absentee ballots, one after another--1,151 in all--through the gray computer.

"It's over now," joked a campaign worker as he was jostled by two camera crews and several gleeful friends Tuesday night. "I guess they are not going to keep us in suspense."

Pandemonium erupted as the vote count was placed on the overhead projector, giving candidates Josefina Macias, Frank Duran, Rodolfo Garcia and George Deitch an insurmountable lead in the race. Campaign Manager Marie Chacon and Garcia climbed on folding chairs and, flashing victory signs, declared that the people had spoken.

On Tuesday, candidates Garcia, Macias, Duran, and Deitch will become Bell Gardens City Council members, filling the seats of four Anglo council members they helped recall in December.

Their election was hailed by their supporters as a turning point in Bell Gardens history. For the first time, Latinos have been elected to office and for the first time in the city where 88% of the 43,000 residents are Latino, they make up a majority of the City Council.

"This means freedom for Bell Gardens, freedom from oppression and freedom from Gestapo tactics that we have had here for a long time," said Deitch, the only Anglo member of the winning slate. "That's what it means."

The four candidates proclaimed that a new time had come to Bell Gardens--a time of open, sensitive and honest government--as their supporters cheered them on with chants of "The people united will never be divided."

Across town, their critics flatly declared that "disaster has fallen upon Bell Gardens."

"Those people just can't run the city," said defeated candidate Jesus Zuniga as he sat in quiet conversation with fellow losing candidates Yolanda Quintana and Danny Rico at the Eagles' Lodge.

The winners don't have much time to prove themselves. On April 14, the seats held by Duran, Garcia and Deitch will once again be on the ballot--this time for the regular municipal election. Macias' term does not expire until April, 1994.

No one is quite sure what to expect during the month that all four recall leaders will hold office. Realistically, little can be accomplished, but the new council is likely to tackle one of the most controversial campaign issues: What to do with their political enemy, City Manager Claude Booker, whom they vowed to fire if elected.

"He is the first thing on my mind as a city councilman," Deitch said the day after the election. "I want him to go away."

The rancor felt toward Booker was clear Tuesday night when the celebration was in full swing. Several dozen laughing supporters shouted to all within earshot: "Where are you, Claude Booker?"

About a mile away, standing outside the Eagles' Lodge, smoking one cigarette after another, Booker said calmly that he figured he would be fired.

"I don't really care about my job. I'm a survivor," he said. "My concern has always been for the city of Bell Gardens. We've become the victims of our own success. When we were counting pencils here, no one cared, but now that we have $12 million in reserves due to good management, everyone wants to get their hand on it."

Booker predicted that in three to five years "most of the $12 million would be given off to friends, and some city officials would be going to jail."

The day after the election, Duran chuckled at the accusation. "I think we will find some people who already have been stealing at City Hall," he said. "Maybe Mr. Booker will find himself in jail."

Deitch, Garcia, and Duran aren't taking anything for granted. Though they won by nearly 2-to-1 margins, they plan to begin campaigning immediately to keep their seats in April. As has become routine, their goal is to get out the absentee vote.

Mayor Robert Cunningham and council members Letha Viles, Allen Shelby and Douglas O'Leary were booted from office Dec. 10, largely by a huge outpouring of absentee ballots.

For weeks before Tuesday's election, candidates Macias, Duran, Garcia and their supporters distributed stamped absentee ballot applications throughout the city. They made daily appearances at City Hall demanding lists of voters who had requested absentee ballots and, working from the lists, tirelessly stumped door-to-door.

They routinely checked on voters to make sure they received their ballots, and they complained loudly to the city when there was a delay.

"This was a real grass-roots movement," said Diane Gonzalez, an aide to Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) who has been an outspoken supporter of the recall leaders. "We made every effort to get the vote out."

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