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The Savage Politics of South Gate

This city in Southeast Los Angeles County is Home to Hard-Working Latino Immigrants, and the Foulest Political Climate in the State. Candidates Are Accused of Being Pedophiles, Drunks, Child Killers and Assassins. None of it is True.

July 08, 2001|SAM QUINONES | Sam Quinones is author of "True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx" (University of New Mexico Press). He last wrote for the magazine about one man's failed dream to create an authentic Koreatown

South Gate voters can be forgiven if they choose not to participate in democracy. Why bother if your choices at the ballot box are boozers, psychopaths, child molesters, deadbeat dads and child killers?

Take Joseph Ruiz, for instance. Ruiz is a plumber and youth football coach who, by all accounts, is an honorable man and dedicated father. But when Ruiz ran for South Gate city treasurer last March, an anonymous flier sent to voters said of him: "Can you trust a man who has been accused of child molestation, even though this has been found not to be true?" The phrasing would seem nonsensical, unless you knew that two years earlier, when Ruiz ran for a City Council seat, he was accused in a similar mailer of being charged with molesting boys during a swimming party at his house. Aghast, Ruiz, who doesn't have a swimming pool, had demanded an investigation by South Gate police--and was cleared. So in the latest campaign, his enemies, no doubt in the spirit of fair play, added that phrase "even though this has been found not to be true."

Carmen Avalos, a candidate for city clerk last March, found herself accused of drunk driving in a mailer headlined: "Carmen 'The Drunk' Avalos." The mailer included an official looking but utterly fabricated DUI citation. "We just can't trust nor vote for the boozer Carmen Avalos," said the hit piece, which, like all the others, was produced anonymously. Avalos, a high school biology teacher and mother of two, was reduced to tears on election night--even though she won.

The price that South Gate Councilman Hector De La Torre paid for running for reelection in March was being accused in an anonymous mailer of having a love child named Irma with a "Mexican teenage girl named Guadalupe, whom Hector later left for a Norwegian bombshell named Tina." It wasn't true. Nor was the smear against Bill De Witt, who was accused in his City Council reelection race of not supporting a child living in Nevada. That mailer went on to call him "Bill De Wittless" and to say he was "so stingy" that it was "rumored" that he cut his own hair. "When you see him examine his bad, self-inflicted hair style."

In most communities, attacks like these almost certainly would fail. Voters familiar with American politics would be suspicious of outrageous charges, and the local media would report the fabrications. Not so in South Gate. This city of 96,000 people in southeast Los Angeles County has no local media. Many of its citizens are newly naturalized and unfamiliar with American democracy, making them vulnerable to political manipulation in a way that new immigrants from other countries have been throughout American history. In the void, the scurrilous attacks and other underhanded political tactics in South Gate are flourishing--and succeeding. This city once known mainly for its Firestone Boulevard car lots is infamous today as the home of the Southland's most savage politics.

More disturbing to Latino leaders around the state is the possibility that the cancer will spread. As South Gate's politics turned rank, other majority Latino cities in southeast Los Angeles County have seen the tenor of campaigns degenerate even as Latinos are gaining political strength statewide.

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SOUTH GATE HAS EXISTED SINCE 1923, AND FOR ITS FIRST 60 years was a white, working-class suburb. Families worked at the General Motors and Firestone factories that were its economic heart. The town added the institutions of white suburbia: Rotary Clubs, Protestant churches, a Chamber of Commerce, an annual Christmas parade. It also was home to race discrimination; Latinos couldn't buy homes in the better areas of the city.

South Gate voters elected their first Latino councilman, Henry C. Gonzalez, in 1982, about the time that GM, Firestone and other factories closed and the city lost more than 10,000 jobs. Departing white families were suddenly happy to sell to Latinos. So South Gate and its neighbors--Paramount, Downey, Bell Gardens, Lynwood and others--morphed into a beltway of Latino suburbia. In the 1980s, South Gate went from 80% white to 80% Latino. In 1997, the city, by then more than 90% Latino, elected its first majority-Latino City Council.

Opinions differ about when South Gate politics entered the cesspool, but it was definitely there by the 1999 election. Some say it happened April 13 of that year, the day Gonzalez, who had just been chosen by the council to serve another term as mayor, was shot in the head. He escaped with a superficial wound. His attacker has never been found. Others say the 1999 child-molestation mailer against Ruiz signaled the start of the nastiness.

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