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Activist raises profile of Bell's Lebanese community

The enclave in the overwhelmingly Latino city has kept mostly to itself. But Ali Saleh, who ran for council last year, is now a leader in the group demanding reforms after the salary scandal.

September 08, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

As TV trucks repeatedly filled the parking lot and the angry crowds grew at City Hall after the salary scandal exploded in Bell, an unlikely figure stepped forward in the small, working-class city.

A Lebanese man in an overwhelmingly Latino city, Ali Saleh has emerged as a leader of a reform-minded group called the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, or BASTA — "enough" in Spanish.

"BASTA is everybody," he roared to an applauding crowd at one meeting.

The mostly Latino organization wants to clean out City Hall, open up municipal finances and recall all but one council member.

Until recent years, Saleh was just an outsider looking in. He ran for City Council in March 2009 and lost badly, struggling to get votes even from his own neighborhood. By political measurements, his campaign was a failure.

But in other ways, it was remarkable.

Just a few blocks from City Hall, at Otis and Brompton streets in a neighborhood of Spanish-style stucco homes, sits the heart of Saleh's tiny constituency, an enclave of roughly 2,000 Lebanese Shiite Muslims.

In a city where working-class residents scratch out a living, the Lebanese have thrived for the last 40 years by opening up clothing businesses catering to Latinos in nearby cities. But they have mostly kept to themselves, creating an insular community where only people from their native village in southern Lebanon — Yaroun — are welcome, and outside social and civic involvement is mostly shunned.

So when Saleh decided to run for office, the move was met with puzzlement in the third-generation community. It was the first time anyone from the Lebanese enclave had taken an interest in city politics, much less run for elected office.

When Saleh's parents, Husni and Teresa Saleh, came to Bell in 1974, they were among a handful of townsfolk from Yaroun, most of them related. His father, like many of the others, never graduated from high school and began selling men's clothing at local swap meets alongside his wife and relatives.

Eventually they opened their own stores, some of them selling 10-gallon vaquero hats, flashy shirts and belts with ornate buckles. Saleh, like the other men his age, followed his father and uncles into the business.

On the campaign trail last year, Saleh's potential constituency looked at lot like his customers. The city is about 90% Latino, and more than half the residents are foreign-born.

"Buenas tardes," he would say as residents cracked open their doors, handing them a flier. Like his father and others in the Lebanese community, he learned Spanish assisting customers and instructing employees in the clothing stores and warehouses.

Saleh was running on a campaign of public safety, fiscal prudence and quality-of-life issues like clean, safe parks and untangling traffic congestion.

But as he went door to door, the breezy, confident banter he shared with his customers was replaced by the awkwardness of a rookie politician. Saleh didn't always try to engage would-be voters in discussion about city issues or talk about what he planned to do if elected. Usually he just handed them his campaign literature and moved on.

In the aisles of his family's stores he learned how to be a businessman by watching his father and uncles interact with customers. But in trying to be a politician, he had no one's lead to follow.

In the days before the election, an anonymous flier was circulated in town showing pictures of smoke billowing from the twin towers in New York and Saleh's face superimposed over that of a man holding a sign that read: "Islam will dominate the world."

They have done nothing for our city, the campaign brochure warned. These are the same people who cheered on 9/11.

Saleh's friends and neighbors were horrified by the flier, though some quietly conceded that the Lebanese had done little for Bell, avoiding civic engagement.

They "say we keep to ourselves," Saleh said after the election. "So let us get involved."

But when Saleh showed up at the mosque or Famous Hamburger — where patrons can eat burgers that are in accordance with Islamic dietary laws and smoke hookah on the patio outside — or walked the streets of his neighborhood in search of votes, he was greeted with skepticism. Why would someone want to be on the City Council? What was the possible benefit of that, they wondered.

And when he asked for funds to help his campaign, community members resisted. They weren't accustomed to the idea of stockpiling money to run for public office, said his brother, Mohamad Saleh.

The insularity allowed them to preserve their native language and religious practices. Their community remained a place where some girls marry as young as 15, leave school before they graduate and become young mothers. At Bell High School, as girls get married, administrator David Arenas said, some are written off as "moved to Lebanon," even though many never leave the neighborhood

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