South Gate quakes with political upheaval, public meetings degenerate into ugly shouting matches and investigators have raided City Hall searching for illegal weapons. But even as the chaos boils around her, Maria Benavides stays silent.
The councilwoman has rarely addressed her public. When casting controversial votes, she offers no explanation. When mocked by residents with meowing sounds--a caustic reference to her soft, cat-like voice, she stares blankly.
If residents press her to answer questions, the mayor and city attorney cut them off in mid-sentence. Maria, they say, doesn't have to answer.
But Benavides may soon have some explaining to do.
Last week, investigators in the district attorney's office launched a political corruption inquiry, suspecting her of lying about her home address to run for office.
Benavides has not been charged. But the investigation deepens the intrigue surrounding the improbable political career of the woman some residents have dubbed the "meow lady."
Benavides, a 29-year-old beautician, breaks with the popular image of long-winded, small-city politicians who live for access to microphones and captive audiences.
Her silence mystifies and troubles people for different reasons in the working-class city of 96,000. Is she a puppet, disturbingly indifferent to civic life? Or a well-intentioned politician gagged by intimidation?
To her many critics, she is the carefully scripted creation of a corrupt political machine that shields her from the media and residents.
"Nobody gets to talk to her. We've all asked. You're not allowed," said 82-year-old Mildred Ward.
But supporters call her a caring, misunderstood mother of two. Vice Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Benavides' cousin, said hostile crowds at council meetings have soured Benavides' experience in public life.
"She's a politician, but she doesn't like politics," Ruvalcaba said.
Benavides was elected in November 2000. Her campaign portrayed her as a victim of pollution at a time when most voters vehemently opposed the construction of a power plant in the city.
Her father, according to one mailer, died from a chemical fire. And when she was 8, her mother died of cancer, possibly because of pollutants, the mailer said. Her opponents say the campaign was based on a deceptive ploy to gain voters' sympathy. They agree that Benavides was orphaned, but they say her father died in a house fire, her mother of natural causes.
Benavides' campaign relied heavily on mailers, and her opponents say she did not attend candidate forums or public events. Even so, she won in a landslide, with 51% of the votes, 3,000 more than the nearest of her three competitors.
Her election dramatically changed the course of the city. She became the swing vote on the five-person council, and the majority embarked on a series of moves that infuriated many residents.
They ousted several city officials, tripled their own salaries and approved a massage parlor despite heavy opposition from church groups. They also started exploring whether to dissolve the Police Department and contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
Council meetings--attended by many off-duty officers--have turned into rowdy shouting matches as people have protested, jeered and heaped insults on the majority and city officials.
Amid the chaos, Benavides' expression reveals nothing. A short, brown-haired woman usually cloaked in a black leather jacket, she leaves her thick agenda binder open, but rarely turns the pages.
And while her allies--Ruvalcaba and Mayor Raul Moriel--sometimes comment before voting, Benavides rarely talks except to say four words: "yes," "no," "present" and "second [the vote]."
After the mayor asked police to warn residents not to mock her by meowing, critics brought signs reading "meow" and waved them at her. Some still meow anyway.
Getting Benavides to say anything has become almost an obsession with some residents. City officials say they don't have her telephone number, nor does the Police Department, which has responsibility for notifying city officials of emergencies.
Readers of the city directory are told to contact Ruvalcaba if they want to reach Benavides. Frustrated by it all, some residents have tried to challenge Benavides at council meetings.
"I would like to ask a question of Mrs. Benavides, but you cannot get hold of her any time during the daytime unless you go through Ms. Ruvalcaba," said 70-year-old Shirley Bobrick, standing at the lectern during a dispute with the mayor last week.
"You can leave a message," Moriel suggested.
"I don't want to leave a message. Then it goes to Ms. Ruvalcaba, and Mrs. Benavides does not answer," Bobrick replied.
Watching from the dais, inches from her microphone, Benavides said nothing.
"Are you afraid to let Mrs. Benavides talk?" Bobrick asked.
Moriel did not respond, and threatened to have Bobrick removed from the chamber. Then Bobrick told the mayor to "go to hell," and stomped back to her seat to the cheers of residents.