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Fresh face in Bell is a break from the past

Council candidate Mario Rivas, the recycling coordinator in Huntington Park, is a former Marine who drives a Prius and a Segway and has solar panels on his home.

January 26, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • City Council candidate Mario Rivas, an environmentalist and former Marine who now works as recycling coordinator in Huntington Park, maneuvers his Segway outside Bell City Hall.
City Council candidate Mario Rivas, an environmentalist and former Marine… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

OK, kids. Time for a quiz.

Mario Rivas, who drives a Prius and a Segway, has the roof of his house covered in solar panels, visits schools to extol the virtues and benefits of recycling, and attributes his environmental passion to things he learned as a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq and elsewhere, is running for City Council in which of the following cities:

Santa Monica

Malibu

Laguna Beach

Bell

If you guessed A, B or C, sorry.

"Why should we live like we're in a box?" Rivas asked me as he demonstrated his command of the Segway on Monday night in his backyard.

What he meant was that he wants to live beyond stereotypes and expectations, and show the residents of Bell that it's time for a new way of thinking about the environment, civic engagement and political leadership. Besides, using the Segway to pass out campaign literature isn't a bad way to get noticed.

"I like him," said longtime resident Carmen Bella , who earlier Monday night attended a rally and campaign strategy session for Rivas and two other City Council candidates running as the Justice for Bell faction.

Bella said she had bumped into Rivas at City Hall a few years ago when both of them, after years of frustration over municipal services, were trying to find out why there was such a culture of secrecy among city officials.

And now we know the answer.

A long-running Times investigation last year exposed a hoary scandal and led to the arrest of several city officials on charges involving the alleged looting of several million dollars.

Now a grand total of 17 residents are running for two council seats (three if a recall is successful) in the deficit-ridden city, and things could get nasty between now and the March 8 election. The powerful police union is expected to spend heavily on a stable of candidates that doesn't include Rivas or his mates, Nestor Valencia and Miguel Sanchez.

Javier Gonzalez, a political consultant and community organizer, said he was asked three weeks ago by friends to take a look at the trio and assess their chances. He liked Valencia, 45, a healthcare administrator and longtime City Hall critic, and Sanchez, 34, an education aide who worked for the city of Bell before losing his job to cutbacks.

But Gonzalez couldn't get a reading on Rivas, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2009 (drawing fewer than 500 votes). He seemed a bit too shy for the snake pit of Bell politics. So Gonzalez went to Rivas' house, where the candidate's girlfriend served up some chicken soup.

"She kept pushing Mario, saying he was too bashful and didn't say enough about himself. Then she showed me this wall of awards he has for environmental stuff and for the military," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said Rivas told him he got interested in the environment while stationed in Barstow, where he was assigned to a base recycling project. While figuring out how to safely dispose of toxic waste and other hazardous rubbish, he became concerned about the health of the tortoise population in the fragile desert environment.

"He said he started thinking about the footprint of a military base, and he caught me off guard," said Gonzalez. "I'm involved with the L.A. League of Conservation Voters, so I quickly told everybody in the know, 'Hey, there's this guy in Bell, Mario, who might just be the real thing. He's got a Segway, solar panels on his house, and he's" organizing a group of "veterans against oil dependency."

All true?

All true, Rivas said, but he wasn't exactly tooting his horn. That might not be a case of bashfulness, though. I think it's simple humility.

"I don't think I've done anything great," he told me.

Like a lot of vets, Rivas — who is divorced and lives with a girlfriend — said he came home from his second tour of the Middle East with "some issues" and felt he needed to pour his angst and frustration into a cause. Conservation was a natural for him, and he now holds the job of recycling coordinator for the city of Huntington Park.

Rivas said that although his environmental passion preceded his interest in politics, he thinks there's a natural link. A mess is a mess, and City Hall needs a good scrubbing.

He grew to admire Valencia's gadfly role in Bell, he said, and felt that city officials ignored resident concerns about high taxes, onerous parking regulations and a lack of transparency. Rivas is still not comfortable in a necktie, he said, after removing one, but he'll get used to it if being a politician demands it.

We were passing his alma mater, Bell High, when Rivas said he became a Marine to defend American freedoms. But he now drives a Prius, he said, to make a statement about U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"We're putting soldiers in harm's way to defend a lifestyle we've got to change."

I don't know if Rivas, Valencia and Sanchez will win, and I can't even say for sure that they're stronger than the army of candidates I haven't yet met. Even if they do win, lingering political divisions, machine-style power brokers working behind the scenes, the lousy economy and the damage wreaked by ousted scoundrels, will make the job a beast.

Still, it's nice to see a fresh breeze blowing through Bell, which has waited far too long.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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