Perez acknowledges he's viewed by some as a political boss. But he maintains that he has done a good job managing the city's finances and opening up City Hall jobs and services to Latinos.
The city, which has a $7.9-million annual budget, boasts a $3.8-million reserve, the largest in its history, Perez said. People are happy with their city government, he said, adding that town hall meetings regularly draw crowds of 200.
"We are extremely hands-on, dealing with every single issue that comes across [the City Council's] desk," he said. "There is nothing that gets past us."
Maria Espinoza, a Cudahy day-care operator, said she considers the city manager her friend. "Any problem I have," she said, "I call him and he takes care of it."
Gurule, who is running for reelection, said council elections have not been contested in the past because "we are doing a fairly good job.... Most of the people seem to be happy."
Others say the town hall meetings are examples of a machine culture that is meant to keep the same people in power.
After each meeting, the five City Council members together raffle off numerous toys and household items. Cudahy also holds monthly food giveaways.
People "are attracted to the gifts," Cota said.
The challengers said they want to provide more openness at City Hall and to keep people better informed. They point out that a city newsletter rarely circulates. And the city's website -- www.cudahy.ca.us-- hasn't been updated since 1999. It still lists the city's area code as 213 instead of 323.
"That's just a reflection of where we are right now," Cota said. "They want to keep the doors shut."
If elected, Cota and Garcia said, they want to improve educational opportunities, combat gangs and lure more businesses to town.
But they know they face an uphill battle.
A friend of the candidates, Tony Mendoza, had also planned to run for a council seat in the March 6 election. But Mendoza received threatening messages on his answering machine, telling him to leave Cudahy, Cota and Garcia said.
Mendoza didn't file his candidacy papers in time to meet the Dec. 1 deadline. He could not be reached for comment.
Recently, Garcia said, his Dodge Ram pickup truck was spray-painted with graffiti. Neither Garcia nor Cota is sure that the incidents are tied to their plan to run for council, which has been well known in Cudahy for weeks.
"That's for the police to find out," Garcia said. But "it's funny how this graffiti and these threats came in at the same time we were due to file for council."
As the campaign gets underway, Cota said, he and his allies know they will battle political apathy and resignation that many immigrants bring with them.
But Cota said he is undeterred.
"Once they see a few individuals out there trying to make a change, they wake up," Cota said. "They need that energy, that drive, that little push."
Meanwhile, Perez said, his supporters are happy about the challenge.
"We are not going to allow people who have worked with the city and are upset to come in and tear things apart."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Registered voters: 4,771
Housing units: 5,800
Median household income**: $29,040
*2006 estimate **As of 2000 in 1999 dollars
Note: Percentages do not add up to 100% because of rounding.Sources:
California Department of Finance, 2000 census, city of Cudahy Graphics
reporting by Sam Quinones