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Leaders Deny Racism Is Part of Newport Life

Councilman Nichols, not the city, is out of touch, officials and longtime residents say.

June 23, 2003|Mike Anton and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

Newport Beach is overwhelmingly rich, white and exclusive. That's not in dispute. Now civic leaders fear the remarks of one city councilman threaten to add an adjective the town doesn't deserve: racist.

When Councilman Richard Nichols said last week that he didn't want to add more grassy areas at the beach because doing so would attract Mexicans, Mayor Steve Bromberg was incensed.

Bromberg is a plaintiff's attorney in job-discrimination complaints. He is also Newport Beach's first Jewish mayor.

"People here know who and what I am, and they voted for me," Bromberg said. "I'm afraid people from the outside will look at us and conclude that we're something that we are not.

"People in this city are just not like this. I'm a poster boy for that."

Bromberg and three other council members have called on Nichols to resign, and Latino activists are expected to confront him when the council meets Tuesday.

Nichols' words, which he said were taken out of context, have stirred strong feelings and questions about where class differences end and bigotry begins.

"There's always a tension in beach communities -- a tension between those who come into the beach areas to enjoy it and those who live there," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission. "It ties back to issues about the lack of low-cost housing throughout Orange County."

Newport Beach has had racially charged incidents in recent years.

In 1990, the city agreed to pay $1.5 million to a Liberian immigrant who was wounded by a police officer who mistook his portable radio for a sawed-off shotgun. In 2000, the city paid $10,000 to a Latino Orange County deputy prosecutor who alleged his ethnicity led police to pepper-spray him during an arrest for public drunkenness, a charge that was later dropped.

But those incidents are unusual, Kennedy said. The commission mediated about 2,000 racial and ethnic disputes countywide last year; only 34 involved a party who lived in Newport Beach.

Newport Beach doesn't have a reputation for racist incidents, he said. "Yes, it's an affluent community, a predominately white community.... It's easy to paint a whole community with one brush stroke, but that doesn't mean you're painting an accurate picture."

Maria Elena Avila, whose family owns a local chain of Mexican restaurants, has lived in Newport Beach for 25 years. Avila said that she was "upset and offended" by Nichols' comments but that they don't represent the city as a whole.

"We are so welcomed in this community," she said. "We live in this area, my nieces and nephews go to school in this area and we don't feel any racism at all.... When I go to walk on the beach, I see the diversity down there -- the Middle Eastern people, the Latino people. It's everybody's beach. I think it's wonderful."

Bob Caustin, a longtime city resident and executive director of the Defend the Bay environmental group, said he worries that Nichols' comments will lead to "guilt by association" for residents of Newport Beach.

"What he said is unacceptable and reprehensible," Caustin said. "I have no idea how that could be something that anyone would promote in our community.... We are not that. The city of Newport Beach is not that."

Caustin is among the slow-growth advocates who supported Nichols in his run for office. "He was a candidate that we had a lot of hope for," he said. "He had some growth positions that I supported and thought were good. I never had an inkling that he would have this kind of unveiling of attitude."

But maintaining a certain quality of life by limiting growth is not the same as excluding people because of the color of their skin, he said.

"Anyone who's got the money can plunk it down and live here," Bromberg said.

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