In a recall election with echoes of Third World-style campaigns, South Gate residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to oust from office the city's treasurer, Albert Robles, and his three City Council allies.
The recall victory signaled a resounding rejection of the leaders' turbulent two-year tenure, during which they reeled under corruption probes and, to many in the predominantly Latino city, became an embarrassment to the community. Recall proponents gathered outside their headquarters erupted in wild cheers as results from all 15 precincts came in showing that residents had voted by 8-1 ratios to oust Robles, Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Councilwoman Maria Benavides.
Voters were asked to decide the fate of each official individually. Those voted out will be replaced by the recall proponents' slate of candidates: Greg Martinez, Steven Gutierrez and Maria Davila for the council, and Rudy Navarro for treasurer. They defeated by wide margins nine other candidates.
"It's good to win, but always better to win by a lot," said Navarro, as hundreds gathered at an American Legion Hall to celebrate the victory. "This is great revenge for what they've done to the community. I'm going to Disneyland tomorrow."
Robles, reached by telephone, took his defeat in stride, saying he is not ruling out another run for office, if not in South Gate, perhaps in Mexico
"My horizons are wide open. I'm limited only by those who would seek to make me the focus of negative attention," said Robles.
But Robles' opponents said he is done as a politician, at least in South Gate. Though three council seats are up for grabs for a regularly scheduled general election in March, and Robles has submitted candidacy papers, residents said neither Robles nor his allies stand a chance.
At recall headquarters, residents stuck an image of Robles on a pinata and planned to break it open during the victory celebration.
"Albert Robles' pinata has been busted open," said Frank "Pico" Rivera, a police officer who worked on the recall effort. "It's a definite message that the voters won't take any more of this nonsense."
Conny McCormack, the county registrar-recorder, said she expects to certify the election by Tuesday. The new officials can be sworn in only after the City Council certifies the results, and some already expect the city to challenge the election.
Recall proponents accused the city's leaders of driving South Gate to the brink of financial ruin by awarding contracts to people under investigation and paying the criminal defense costs for numerous allies.
In recent weeks, the leaders started a series of city-funded giveaways, including free trash service and a free house for one resident. The home raffle winner, a single mother, appeared on campaign mailers with Moriel and Ruvalcaba saying, "God and Vice Mayor Raul Moriel changed my life."
But the freebies' strategy, which reminded many residents of old-style politics once routine in Mexico, appeared to backfire. Recall backers mocked the giveaways with their own raffle of a Snickers bar during a spontaneous "Saturday Night Live"-style skit at Monday night's raucous City Council meeting.
Alice Lane, 52, said she was unsure how to vote until she learned about the dream home raffle. "I said, you've got to be kidding. That shows guilt right there. How are you going to give away a house?" said Lane, after casting her pro-recall vote.
At a hair salon on the city's west side that was used as a polling place, several people interviewed said they voted to oust the leaders because they believed they were corrupt.
"In every city there are corrupt politicians," said Enrique Borbolla, a 30-year resident. "But here it's worse. We have to kick them all out. We want a big change."
The recall targets had portrayed themselves as modernizers of the city's aging infrastructure whose reforms met with fierce resistance from the city's old guard. They called Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's corruption probes "witch hunts" and said they were justified in spending millions of taxpayer dollars for criminal defense lawyers.
Tuesday's voting was closely monitored by state election officials, who feared intimidation and coercion might mar voting at the 15 polling stations scattered across the seven-square-mile city, which stretches from the Long Beach Freeway west to Watts.
Although there were a few complaints of city employees waving anti-recall signs near polling stations, state officials said the election apparently went off without any serious violations.
The recall effort took a long and twisted path from the moment residents tried to give their notice of recall to the city clerk at a council meeting in October 2001. City Atty. Salvador Alva, a Robles ally, took the petitions and, without explanation, left City Hall.