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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Coming Home : Don't let that baby face fool you--Mayor Fidel Vargas, 26, has a grand vision for Baldwin Park. But some worry that he is changing the city for the worse.

August 28, 1994|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | Los Angeles Times

The kid knows how to pack a room.

For two hours now, one of the youngest mayors in the country has been hearing from his constituents, many of them old enough to be his parents.

First up is Teresa Filner, mother of two boys. Her hair is pulled under her uniform cap, her right hand raised to take an oath, as she stands in front of 26-year-old Fidel A. Vargas. The mayor, in corporate wear and refreshed from a workout in the police gym, leans his boyish face into a microphone to welcome Baldwin Park's newest cop.

Next is Kenneth Moore. Nervously, he admits that this is his first time to address His Honor. Then he unabashedly lays into the city council, griping about the deafening music blared weekend after weekend by the kids on his block. The police, he says, have done nothing. Vargas glances toward Police Chief Carmine Lanza, sitting three down on the tiered dais. Later, the chief is at Moore's side, on bended knee, jotting down details.

Vivian Ross takes her turn. Softly, respectfully, she tells the mayor of being caught in a nightmare as one of the trailer park residents who must buy a new mobile home and move because the Vargas Administration is apparently the first to enforce a 15-year-old zoning ordinance. The law is the law, Vargas says. And then, with reciprocated respect, he tells her not to worry, that the city will help her. "We should work with the folks down there," he instructs his staff.

One by one, others approach the lectern.

A 33-cent-per-month sanitation rate increase is debated. Brighter lights along Ramona Boulevard are suggested. A town hall meeting to discuss street repairs is scheduled. And Bette Lowes, defeated in her 1992 mayoral reelection bid by Vargas, suggests to her successor that something ought to be done about the beer guzzlers who gather after work at an entrance to the city.

The mayor orders it stopped. The police chief makes a note of it.

That persistent monster Vargas calls "perception" is again challenging the "reality" of Baldwin Park, a city of 72,000 in the center of the San Gabriel Valley. Truth be told, it is not a town full of drunks, or a place on the down and out, or one without vision, he says. But many outsiders see it that way, which is why Vargas brought his Harvard social studies degree and youthful vigor to City Hall three years ago.

He was drawn to the mayor's race while driving to work in the fall of '91. A graffiti-covered wall stopped him cold that day--and later fired his campaign.

"I had seen that wall before," he says, "but for some reason the graffiti really aggravated me. I said, 'Why aren't we doing something about this? Why are we accepting this?' " The vandalism, he says, sent a dangerous message, not only to kids but also to the community, "that we don't really care enough" to give people a decent and dignified environment.

Since taking office--a part-time job that pays $3,000 annually--Vargas has fulfilled his promise of a strong anti-gang stance, a graffiti-removal program and hot line, and a Morgan Park Community Center expansion. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who would later tap Vargas for his Social Security advisory council, made a campaign stop there on Mexican Independence Day.

Graffiti is indeed scarce now, and the crime rate has steadily dropped with the introduction of police bike patrols. Weekend helicopter flybys have been started to further curb gang activity.

"Fidel has raised the city's self-esteem," says Robert Ochoa-Schutz, a city planning commissioner.

The mayor is also credited with maintaining a balanced budget, pushing for a city-assisted first-time home buyer program and for looking ahead with Baldwin Park 2000, a long-range plan being developed by business and community leaders and residents.

But his earliest and perhaps most noteworthy changes involved replacing several commissioners, committee and board members to create a city work force that better reflects the local demographics: 70% Latino, 12% Asian American, 12% Anglo, 5% African American and 1% other.

Not everyone is thrilled with those changes. Vargas knows that many residents are averse to diversity. He has been criticized to his face for paying too much attention to all-things Latino. Some longtime residents also accuse him of using Baldwin Park as a steppingstone to a higher public office and would be happy to see him move on. And Vargas knows that many equate his youthfulness with inexperience.

But the mayor, who gets a periodic postcard from a local addressed to "The Boy-Mayor of the Wetback Capital of the World," presses on.

Up by 5 a.m. on weekdays, he reads the newspapers over a bowl of bran flakes--unless he's taking a 7 a.m. meeting over hot cakes at a local cafe or at the Pantry in Los Angeles--then reports to his full-time job. As a senior policy analyst for another mayor, Richard Riordan, Vargas monitors public safety initiatives such as community-based policing.

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