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Cristina Garcia goes from Bell activist to Assembly post

Cristina Garcia became known to voters through her work with a group that pushed for reforms in Bell and championed the City Council recall election.

November 11, 2012|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • “People told me that what mattered most was the successes we had in Bell, and that went across party lines,” Cristina Garcia, center, said of her election to the California Assembly.
“People told me that what mattered most was the successes we had in… (Christina House, For The…)

Cristina Garcia can thank Robert Rizzo and the seven other Bell officials charged with corruption for her job in Sacramento.

Garcia was elected to the state Assembly based largely on her footwork in Bell with an activist group that pushed for reforms in the working-poor city and championed a recall election that upended the City Council.

Although the 58th Assembly District doesn't include Bell, it borders the city and is part of the same southeast Los Angeles County corridor where cities have been plagued by corruption. Garcia, a Democrat, said potential voters gave her a 90% approval rating after her work in Bell was described.

"People told me that what mattered most was the successes we had in Bell, and that went across party lines," she said.

It wasn't just her efforts in Bell that propelled Garcia to victory but also the volunteers from the city who worked on her campaign.

Bell Mayor Ali Saleh and Vice Mayor Violeta Alvarez were among the few elected officials who endorsed Garcia in the June primary, knocking on doors and working the phones for her. They were not alone. During the 10 days before the primary, Garcia said, at least 50 volunteers helped out each day, nearly all from Bell.

When she ran out of money at the end of the primary campaign, her Bell friends hand-delivered 70,000 mailers to registered voters in the middle of the night.

"We've been through so much in BASTA," she said of the Bell activist group. "We've seen so much together. They've adopted me like a family member."

Garcia, who lives in neighboring Bell Gardens, is the first Bell activist to run for higher office and probably not the last. Saleh explored running for Assembly this year, and Councilman Nestor Valencia says a run for higher office is not out of the question. Others say Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana, a lawyer with degrees from Yale and Columbia, is a natural candidate.

"What came out of the scandal was a lot of name recognition and you can put the label reformer by your name," Valencia said.

During much of Rizzo's 17-year run as Bell's chief administrative officer, many of the usual paths to building a political resume were blocked. There were allegations of election fraud; council members would resign, with their spots filled through appointment; and incumbents never lost.

Newcomers couldn't even sit on city commissions — typically a political farm club in small cities — because in Bell, council members filled those spots. Six former council members have been charged with being paid for commissions that seldom, if ever, met.

In a way, this is Bell's Arab spring.

"They're basically rebuilding from scratch what could be a normal political system," said Raphael Sonenshein, who heads the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Garcia, 35, teaches college math and statistics, most recently at Los Angeles City College. She lost a run for the Bell Gardens City Council several years ago.

Her support in Bell has not been universal. Some activists, including Valencia, remain wary because of the alliance between BASTA and the Bell Police Officers Assn., which donated $3,900 to her campaign.

The fissures opened again during the campaign when it was learned that Garcia didn't have the USC doctorate she claimed, still needing to defend her dissertation. About 20 Bell residents used the revelation as an opportunity to demonstrate in front of Garcia's Downey campaign headquarters. But it made little difference in the race's outcome.

In Garcia's race, winning the primary was the key. She came in as an underdog to former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, who had garnered most of the endorsements, and she was outspent 7 to 1, Garcia said, when independent expenditure committees were included.

Calderon came in third, blaming his poor showing on The Times' coverage of his role as a consultant for the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

Garcia finished first, pitting her against Republican Patricia Kotze-Ramos in Tuesday's race. In a district that is 53% Democratic and 22% Republican, Garcia's victory was a given. She finished with 71.5% of the vote.

"I think it sends a message that people, especially in southeast L.A. County, really clamor around agents of change and folks who really work toward cleaning up our community," said Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who represents much of the district that will now be Garcia's.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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