Carlos Alvarez, right, a spokesman for the anti-racist organization Answer… (Stefano Paltera / For The…)
A Santa Clarita councilman's shout-out at a recent anti-illegal immigration rally that he is a "proud racist" has ignited an angry war of words in a suburban community over whether the longtime civic leader is a hatemonger who should be driven from office or a patriot unafraid to speak out for fellow Americans.
Bob Kellar, a veteran councilman and two-time mayor, said his words have been taken out of context, but he declined to offer an apology at a City Council meeting Tuesday night.
But the remark, which was posted in a video on You Tube and quickly spread across the blogosphere, has set off a firestorm. As protesters carrying signs milled outside the council meeting, dozens of Santa Clarita residents jumped on the issue. Many applauded Kellar when he strode into the meeting.
"They are invading us, and colonizing us . . . and we taxpayers are footing the bill for them," lifelong Santa Clarita resident and Minutemen member Robert Crooks, 59, said of undocumented workers. For the last five years, Crooks said, he has volunteered as a sentry on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tecate, keeping watch for border-hoppers.
Bruce McFarland, a political organizer and 32-year resident of the Santa Clarita Valley, called Kellar "an embarrassment" and urged the council to censure him, which elicited boos and expletives from the audience.
The controversy stems from a Jan. 16 anti-immigration rally in Santa Clarita; Kellar spoke and referred to a statement by former President Theodore Roosevelt that the United States has a place for only one flag and one language.
Kellar said those remarks caused some people to accuse him of being racist, to which he replied: If believing in America causes people to think he's a racist, "then I'm a proud racist."
Roger Gitlin, founder of the Santa Clarita Valley Independent Minutemen, who helped organize the anti-immigration rally, defended Kellar's remarks as "rhetorical hyperbole."
"He got a little ahead of himself in words," Gitlin said. "But in no shape or form is Bob Kellar a racist. . . . He is tired of political correctness. Nobody hates anybody. We just want the rule of law."
At least two supporters were overcome with tears as they stood at the podium and praised the councilman. One speaker called him a "caring and compassionate leader"; others extolled him as "a patriot" and a "great American."
The support for Kellar, a U.S. Army veteran who served 25 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, focused attention on the simmering tensions over the effect of illegal immigration in this predominantly white and largely conservative northern Los Angeles County city.
Population statistics published by the city for 2008 show that close to 70% of Santa Clarita's population of 177,045 is white. But a large influx of immigrants from a variety of countries in recent years is making the city more multiethnic. More than a quarter, or 27%, of Santa Clarita's population is Latino, according to city officials.
Friction over undocumented immigrants settling and working in the city is not new. In a written response published Tuesday in a local newspaper, Kellar outlined some of the local complaints he has fielded over the years about "the illegals and the impacts they have on our society."
"Forty people living in one house and destroying our neighborhood and quality of life, emergency rooms with standing room only and no one speaking English, day laborers standing all over our streets taking a toll on our businesses and traffic," Kellar wrote. "That describes some of the issues on a local basis."
In 1997, Santa Clarita adopted an ordinance banning day laborers from soliciting work on the street, but it was suspended after a U.S. District Court ruling in 2000. Four years later, Kellar asked city staff to research the possibility of creating a day laborer work center, but no facility was ever created.
Many residents who defended Kellar's "proud racist" remark said they would crack down harder and wished undocumented immigrants would leave the city and country. Several blamed them for an upswing in crime and for drug- trafficking.
"Illegals are here at the expense of our community," said Santa Clarita Valley businessman Larry Rasmussen. "I agree with Bob. Our nation is a nation of laws."
The few residents who spoke out against Kellar at Tuesday's meeting accused the councilman of spreading hatred. Some called Kellar's remarks "disgraceful" and suggested that the councilman at least apologize. Kellar told reporters he had no regrets over his remarks.