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Lynwood politics a stage for region's racial power shift

As African Americans lose numbers and influence to Latinos, the friction can be felt at City Hall and beyond.

June 05, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

For years, the battle for control of the city of Lynwood has been shrouded in accusations of political corruption and cronyism.

A former mayor is serving a 16-year sentence in federal prison for embezzlement. Five current and former City Council members have been charged with padding their salaries with public funds. And an effort is underway to recall four of the five current City Council members.

But beyond the allegations of graft and corruption, a different war -- rife with racial and ethnic stereotyping -- is being waged in the working-class city south of Los Angeles.

Latinos, who make up more than 80% of the city's 72,000 residents, are vying for power with African Americans, who, despite smaller numbers, maintain considerable influence by virtue of superior voter strength in a city where 40% of the residents are foreign-born.

A decade ago, when blacks controlled the city's political landscape, Latinos complained that they were being denied city jobs and lucrative municipal contracts. Now Latinos dominate and African Americans complain of being frozen out.

The problem is emblematic of emerging tensions throughout Los Angeles County, where the Latino population has surged as African American numbers have dwindled.

The tensions are playing out in cities such as Carson, Compton and Inglewood, where traditional black political muscle -- concentrated largely among older working- and middle-class homeowners -- is showing signs of weakening as a generation of Latinos reaches voting age. Tensions are also playing out in the race to succeed Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, where the competition between two well-positioned African American candidates may result in their canceling each other out, paving the way for a Latina to capture a seat blacks have held for decades.

The black-Latino friction in a city such as Lynwood is exacerbated by a lack of resources and decent jobs and by poverty -- all problems common to both groups, said Harry Pachon, a USC professor and head of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which released a report in April titled "Beyond the Racial Divide: Perceptions of Minority Residents on Coalition Building in South Los Angeles."

One conclusion, he said, was telling.

"Each group is buying off on the negative stereotypes held by the majority [white culture], rather than questioning them," Pachon said. "Blacks say that Latinos don't take care of their housing, and Latinos felt that blacks don't value families as much."

In Lynwood, some of the strongest evidence of stereotyping can be found on Lynwood Watch (lynwoodwatch.blogspot.com), a website created by an anonymous blogger to keep watch on city officials. The blog encourages readers to voice their opinions, and they do. But many of the comments are laced with calls for Latino unity that include racist rants -- in English and Spanish -- directed at African Americans.

City Hall is eye of storm

In Lynwood, a center of political and racial strife is City Hall, where council meetings are often stormy. Political opposition has mobilized to challenge the council -- on proposed development projects, utility and water tax increases, and criminal charges -- and members of the city staff bicker over promotions and salaries. Disputes often break along racial lines.

"It's all about race," said City Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez, who says she has been denounced by fellow Latinos for joining ranks on some issues with two African Americans on the council, Louis Byrd and the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson.

"We don't have to retaliate against each other," said Vasquez, 34, who is a senior field deputy for Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a Democrat who represents nearby Compton. "We can work together on issues that cross racial lines."

Lynwood elected its first black to the City Council in 1983, nearly a decade after African Americans began arriving in the bedroom community once known as "Lily White Lynwood." Blacks soon dominated City Hall, but the Latino population was starting its rise; and six years later, the city elected its first Latino council member.

By 1997, a newly elected three-member Latino majority sat on the council and moved quickly to wipe away one symbol of African American success: The name of Mervyn M. Dymally Congressional Park, named in 1990 for the former congressman and the state's first black lieutenant governor, was changed to Lynwood Park.

The new majority -- consisting of the city's first elected Latino councilman, Armando Rea, and two businessmen, Ricardo Sanchez and Arturo Reyes -- embarked on a campaign to clean up the "unethical practices" of the previous council majority. Black employees were let go. City contracts with independent African American businesses, approved by a lame duck council against the advice of city staff, were canceled.

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