Molotov cocktails were thrown early Monday at the business of a South Gate political activist involved in a fiercely contested voter recall effort.
The fire destroyed one van and damaged another at the plumbing business owned by Joseph Ruiz. A second firebomb failed to ignite after being thrown at the front door of the building.
"It's definitely arson," South Gate police Lt. Vincent Avila said. City police are investigating with assistance from the Los Angeles County Fire Department's arson squad. The building was empty when the bombs were thrown about 3 a.m.
If the fire is deemed to be politically motivated, it would mark a dramatic escalation in the vicious struggle for power in the working-class city.
Ruiz said he didn't know who was behind the attack, but said his outspoken views had earned him many political foes. "The only people who could want to do this against me are my political enemies," he said.
Ruiz is an opponent of the three-member City Council majority and City Treasurer Albert Robles. At a recent public meeting, he served the council majority with voter recall papers.
Robles and Mayor Raul Moriel were not available for comment.
Monday's arson fire took place as organizers prepare to gather signatures to force a recall election.
Police say two Molotov cocktails were tossed at the business on Otis Street.
Police found two other Molotov cocktails and rubber gloves at a nearby building.
Ruiz, a longtime activist who has run unsuccessfully for public office three times, is no stranger to the city's rough brand of politicking. During recent elections, he has been falsely accused in campaign fliers of being a child molester.
Ruiz wouldn't be the first political figure in South Gate to be the target of violence. In 1999, then-Mayor Henry Gonzalez was shot in the head by an assailant in a crime that has not been solved.
Gonzalez, who suffered only a superficial wound after the bullet grazed his head, is now one of two council members who opposes the three-member majority.
"I just hope it's not tied to the recall campaign," Gonzalez said. "Joe presents the recall papers. All of a sudden--boom, boom, boom."