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Cover Story : Feuds, accusations. Just another political campaign in Hawaiian Gardens. You can bet this race for 2 council seats will be . . . : A Fight to the Finish

March 02, 1995|DUKE HELFAND | STEVE EAMESSPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Placido Alvarez says two men recently showed up at the traffic school where he works and threatened his life if he didn't drop out of the City Council race in Hawaiian Gardens.

During a heated council meeting last month, an ally of Mayor Kathleen M. Navejas threatened to clobber candidate Alan Calcote after he complained that the city's newsletter is just a campaign organ for the mayor.

And Navejas, who is seeking reelection, has accused her political enemies of selling drugs to her son and trying to discredit her by planting drugs in a car driven by City Administrator Nelson Oliva, who was arrested last month on charges of drunk driving and cocaine possession while on his way to Nevada. Navejas has not offered evidence to support either allegation.

It's election time in this tiny blue-collar city of about 14,000, and personal attacks again are dominating the council campaigns.

"Hawaiian Gardens is a tough place to be involved in elections," said Navejas, who is seeking her third term on the council in Tuesday's election. "If you can do this, you can do anything."

Navejas is running on a slate with Planning Commissioner Rene Flores. Councilman Domenic Ruggeri, a Navejas foe, is also seeking reelection and has teamed up with real estate agent Alvarez. Calcote, a junior high school English and history teacher, is the fifth candidate. The two top vote-getters will win election to the City Council.

Navejas' and Ruggeri's four-year terms originally were set to expire in April, 1994, but the City Council decided to extend the terms to March, 1995, so that subsequent elections will fall on odd-numbered years and avoid a conflict with the California presidential primary. The primary, traditionally held in June of even-numbered years, is next set for late March of 1996, and Hawaiian Gardens officials were concerned that its proximity would reduce turnout in the city's local elections.

Whoever wins next week's election will help govern a city plagued by a budget deficit, chronic poverty, high unemployment and rampant crime. Residential streets in this square-mile suburb are filled with dilapidated homes with bars across their windows. The recession still lingers along the main business thoroughfare, Carson Street, which features many vacant storefronts and empty, weed-strewn lots.

But the city's problems have often taken a back seat to personal feuding during council campaigns.

Rivals have accused one another of defamation, harassment, vandalizing campaign signs and leaving threatening messages on answering machines.

Navejas said she has been a target of several election-related attacks.

During a failed recall effort four years ago, someone allegedly broke into her house and her office and stole her mail in what she believes was an effort to dig up information that might discredit or embarrass her. At one point in the recall effort, she also found two dead rabbits, their necks broken, on her lawn.

During her reelection bid in 1990, Navejas found a container of drugs on the ground under her car, according to a police report. She also said her car battery was stolen on Election Day. No one was arrested in the incidents.

One of Navejas' opponents sent out a racy mailer just before Election Day in 1990 that superimposed the faces of Navejas and her daughter on the bodies of scantily clad women. The mailer accused Navejas of promoting sex in Hawaiian Gardens because she supported a plan for a motel. Opponents of the project said it would attract prostitution.

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Unsuccessful candidate Richard Vineyard was fined $8,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to identify himself as the author of the mailer and the person who paid for the piece, among other violations. Vineyard and his wife, Maggie, were also sued by Navejas, who ultimately accepted an $8,000 out-of-court settlement.

"It's been like this for as long as I can remember, and it's getting worse," current candidate Alvarez said of the city's rancorous elections. Alvarez said he takes the recent threat against him seriously. He reported the Jan. 26 incident to authorities, who have not arrested anyone.

While others have played parts in the turmoil, it is Navejas who has managed to capture center stage during most of her tenure on the council.

Opponents and supporters agree that she has become the dominant figure in the city's clannish political world since she was first elected to the City Council in 1986.

Supporters call Navejas a tireless champion of such social causes as affordable housing for low-income families. They point out, for example, that she was instrumental 2 1/2 years ago in launching the Hawaiian Gardens Coalition for Youth Development, a nonprofit agency that enables dropouts to finish school, get counseling and learn job skills.

"She's done wonders for the city," said Helen Rosas, a longtime friend and former co-worker at a Head Start preschool program in the city. "Since she came into the political arena, the city has improved tremendously."

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