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Campaigning in Bell and Cudahy gets ugly

March 05, 2009|Hector Becerra
  • Bell City Council candidate Ali Saleh was targeted over his Muslim faith in recent contentious elections. Hussein Chahine, also a candidate, is below.
Bell City Council candidate Ali Saleh was targeted over his Muslim faith… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Southeast Los Angeles County, which has struggled for years with public corruption investigations and bruising politics, is emerging from Tuesday's municipal elections with a pair of black eyes.

In the mostly Latino cities of Bell and Cudahy, candidates have been smeared as terrorists, had their cars vandalized and had bricks thrown through windows, and a former mayor was accused of raping a young girl in Tijuana.

"Southeast turned hit pieces into an art form," said David Demerjian, head prosecutor of the district attorney office's public integrity division, which has 103 open investigations into alleged municipal crime. "It's nasty stuff."

Over the weekend, Bell City Council candidate Ali Saleh was alerted about fliers someone found at a local grocery store. Someone superimposed Saleh's face on a picture of a man holding a sign that read, "Islam will dominate the world." The flier also showed pictures of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr, the burning towers of the World Trade Center and terrorists wearing black hoods and standing over a kneeling hostage, presumably about to be executed. At the bottom of the flier was a message to voters:

"Vote NO Muslims for the City Bell Council 2009."

The 33-year-old Saleh, who grew up in Bell, said he never expected his candidacy to lead to an attack on the city's Lebanese American and Muslim community, which numbers about 2,000. Saleh was one of two Lebanese Americans running for council, along with Hussein Chahine. They lost.

"Politics can get dirty. But usually they just say something about you," Saleh said. "But when you come and tell people not to vote for any Muslims, you're talking about an entire group. I was born in this country. I want to be part of this American democratic system. This is very upsetting."

Saleh suspected the culprit was Councilman Luis Artiga, who was running for reelection. Artiga, who won, strongly denied the charge.

George Cole, an influential former mayor of Bell, was still angry about a flier attacking him in November.

Apparently circulated at Maywood City Hall, where Cole, 59, was set to be honored after retiring, the flier falsely said he had been arrested in Tijuana for "raping a young girl," but that police there and in Bell "covered up" the incident.

"They wanted to damage me so my ability to support someone would have no impact," said Cole, who retired last year from the City Council after 24 years.

Cole said he was sure the culprit was City Councilman Nestor Valencia, but Valencia, who lost the election, denied any involvement. "I told George that I had nothing to do with that," Valencia said.

He added that he had been attacked himself by several fliers. One had his picture and big red letters that read: "Stop a corrupt politician."

The ad accused Valencia of failing to file campaign reports and to disclose campaign contributions, and used a picture of a bulldozer claiming Valencia was "supported by big money developers who want to take away our homes."

Cole said he paid for that ad, adding, "I have nothing to hide. I'm proud of it." Valencia denied the allegations made in the ads.

For Southeast L.A. County, the attack ads had a "Groundhog Day," quality. In the late 1990s and early part of the decade, campaign fliers in South Gate took to new lows. When former City Treasurer Albert Robles ran South Gate, political candidates were falsely accused of being child molesters, drunk drivers, deadbeat dads and child killers. Robles and his political allies were eventually recalled, and Robles was convicted of fraud and sent to federal prison.

The region's small cities have repeatedly been the focus of political corruption prosecutions. Before being cleaned up in the early 2000s, South Gate was perhaps the most notorious, but politicians have been convicted of misdeeds in Huntington Park, Lynwood and Bell Gardens. Vernon officials await public corruption trials.

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) said he was surprised by the level of vitriol seen in Bell. The town of about 40,000 has been cited by politicians in neighboring cities for being a politically and fiscally stable city and where council chamber screaming matches and overt invectives are relatively unusual. He said he was disturbed by the anti-Muslim ad.

"It's ironic in this case that Latinos are doing it to somebody else because we have had it done to ourselves so often," said De La Torre, who as a South Gate councilman was falsely accused in an ad of leaving a Mexican teenage girl named Guadalupe for a Norwegian bombshell named Tina.

Maywood Police Sgt. Sean Richardson said detectives, including county fire arson investigators, continue to probe a number of attacks in Cudahy against a city councilwoman and two would-be council members, Luis Garcia and Daniel Cota. In July, Garcia's truck was damaged by a Molotov cocktail, Richardson said. In October, a brick was thrown by a hooded assailant through the front window of his home. A car belonging to Garcia's running mate, Cota, was vandalized with red paint, Richardson said. Earlier this month, Cudahy Councilwoman Rosa Diaz had a window of her home shot with a pellet gun. Richardson said there are no suspects.

Garcia's and Cota's second bid for council failed.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this report.

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