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South Gate Has Had Enough

January 27, 2003

Folks in South Gate say this week's recall election is about Albert Robles, their city's controversial treasurer, and his far-fetched ambition to someday be California's governor. But we'd like to think the recall is about the more modest aspirations of South Gate residents like Jesus and Sonia Miranda.

Jesus immigrated to Southern California 30 years ago from Mexico. He met his future wife in Inglewood, where they set up a taco stand near Los Angeles International Airport. Soon they opened a second taco stand and purchased a home in South Gate, a working-class city undergoing a big demographic shift as older white homeowners moved out and young Latino families moved in.

"That was 24 years ago," Jesus recalls proudly, "and we're still in the same home." Then he quickly adds, "Y no tengo planes de moverme." (And I have no plans to move.)

The remark is revealing and sadly reflective of the passions generated in South Gate by the recall campaign against Robles and three of his political allies on the five-person City Council. The vote is Tuesday, and the Mirandas are fervent recall supporters. Their transformation from small-business owner and homemaker into angry political activists says a lot about why The Times supports the effort to dump Robles and the allies he helped push onto the City Council.

Nasty politics is not unique to South Gate. But the recall could set the tone for an important political shift taking place in many small cities in southeast Los Angeles County. The tumult in South Gate began 12 years ago, when Robles moved into the city intent on shaking it up. Noting how the city's Latino population had grown from just 4% in 1960 to more than 80% by 1990, he was astute enough to anticipate the political change that would follow and ambitious enough to try to use it as his power base.

He attributes the recall to a long-running feud he's had with South Gate's police union. But voters have ample reason to be outraged. The city has gained national notoriety, plunging toward bankruptcy as Robles and his council allies allocated more than $10 million for legal fees to fight Los Angeles County grand jury investigations and to defend Robles against criminal charges that he had threatened other officials. (A judge dismissed the charges this month after a jury deadlocked.)

Even then, the council was making such fiscally and legally dubious moves as approving the sale of city-owned property to a former business partner of Robles, despite the fact that the bid that cinched the deal was far lower than other offers. When South Gate residents screamed foul, the council majority voted to help Robles' pal increase his bid by giving him an urban development grant and a city loan.

The bill of particulars goes on and on, leaving people like the Mirandas to assume the worst about Robles. Jesus recalls how political bosses in Mexico, known as caciques, abuse government treasuries to build personal fiefdoms. Sonia Miranda says Robles, although born in the U.S., fancies himself South Gate's cacique, and she cites a recent city-run lottery in which an immigrant family renting in South Gate won a house, to be built on city-owned land. "That's what they do in Mexico," she said. "Give people baskets of food so they'll vote for you."

The Mirandas thought they had left such patronage politics in Mexico and are saddened to see it in South Gate. "They were some of the first Latinos on the City Council," Sonia Miranda says of Robles and company. "We tolerated them longer than we should have. Que verguenza." (What a shame.)

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