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A three-decade mayor, recently ousted, is back in office

Victor Lopez comes across as part public servant, part political godfather. He was voted out as Orange Cove's mayor in 2010. But now he's on the City Council.

January 06, 2013|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • "Everything I do is for the good of mankind," says Victor Lopez, a councilman in the Central Valley town of Orange Cove.
"Everything I do is for the good of mankind," says Victor Lopez,… (Gary Kazanjian, For The…)

ORANGE COVE, Calif. — When Victor Lopez was voted out after three decades as mayor of this small Central Valley town, his political nemeses took little time to dismantle what they considered a self-celebratory fiefdom.

The Victor Lopez Community Center became the Orange Cove Community Center. Ditto the name changes planned for a street, park bandstand and day care center. As surely as the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, Lopez was to be erased from Orange Cove.

"Don't do this," Mayor Gabriel Jimenez, a political neophyte who defeated Lopez in a close 2010 election, recalls warning fellow lawmakers. "Why bother a sleeping, limping old lion? He's going to wake up and tear into you."

Last month, the 69-year-old Lopez was sworn in as a City Council member, along with his hand-picked slate.

It was a noteworthy comeback, said David Schecter, a political science professor at Cal State Fresno.

"He was California's most powerful small-town mayor. He has a demagoguery and showmanship that in some ways makes P.T. Barnum look like an amateur," Schecter said. "This is going to get interesting."

A former farmworker and onetime boxer, Lopez comes off as part public servant, part political godfather.

He's known for giving teary-eyed, rousing speeches about his impoverished community. He can tell a joke.

"I'm just a simple guy," Lopez said while volunteering at the day care center shortly before resuming office. "The only thing I need to make me happy is my sister's hugs."

At the same time, Lopez is rarely seen out and about minus his dress shoes and a few touches of gold bling.

Near his desk at the day care center was a poster of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "That's my lady right there; we're still the best of friends," said Lopez, who was not shy about mentioning the sit-downs he had with President Clinton and both Presidents Bush during his time as mayor.

"Everything I do is for the good of mankind," Lopez said. He often refers to himself as "daddy" — as in, "I'm the daddy who brings home the bacon."

Home is a town of 11,000, accessed by citrus-scented back roads that can confound even the most sophisticated GPS. Orange Cove has one of the highest poverty rates in California, its populace made up mostly of farmworkers who earn less than $10,000 a year.

When the region was hit by a devastating freeze in 2007 that killed three-fourths of California's citrus crop, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state leaders jockeyed to be photographed handing out food and blankets here.

It was a testament to Lopez's political prowess. But that ability to generate attention has not always worked in his favor.

Lopez will be the first to tell you he's been before grand juries 12 times — the subject of county, state and federal corruption investigations — but has never been indicted.

"I have the videotape of one FBI sting. I said no to the money," Lopez said.

In 2006, the Fresno Bee reported that he had claimed $174,000 in travel expenses from 2001 to 2005 without having to provide receipts. His total surpassed the travel expenses for officials from five neighboring farm towns combined.

Still, Lopez won reelection that year. After all, during the same period he had brought in $63 million in state and federal grants for Orange Cove.

The town boasts a new library and high school. Part of the money went to build a high-end BMX park. But the city lost $490,000 in state money earmarked for the project because officials broke accounting, reporting and bidding rules. As a result, some $800,000 from the city treasury was used to finish the park.

Over the years, Lopez had fired a string of city managers who questioned his practices. As the 2010 election approached, he happened to turn his sights on Jimenez.

The former garbage collector, who had risen to the office of public works director, recalled the day he became the subject of one of Lopez's tongue-lashings.

"I had seen him make grown men cry for things they couldn't help," Jimenez said. "I went home and prayed and came to think that maybe it was just time for something new in Orange Cove."

Jimenez decided to run for mayor and won. Two of Lopez's most bitter rivals landed seats on the council and were joined by a sympathetic colleague. (The body is made up of the mayor, a mayor pro tem and three other council members.)

"They wanted revenge. The kicker was when they went after Target Eight," said Jimenez, referring to the board that ran the Julia Lopez Childhood Center — named after the ex-mayor's mother. Victor Lopez was the board's executive director.

The city brought in new management, changed the center's name and fired Lopez's sister and 14 other teachers who worked there.

Dora Loera was among those who lost their jobs.

"I didn't even know any of the politics going on. But in this town, you find out quickly you're either on one side or the other," she said. "Now I'm with Victor, 100%."

Jimenez, who is still the mayor, supported a recall that resulted in the ouster of Lopez's two main opponents. He also backed Lopez's election bid.

"Everybody keeps telling me I'm just one vote and what can I do?" Jimenez said. "But at least I'm one neutral voice that can speak up for them letting go of their hatreds and thinking of the community.

"And, love him or hate him, Victor knows how things work."

At the first meeting of the newly elected council, Lopez was named mayor pro tem. He's planning a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., this month.

"They called Victor Lopez a beggar," said the politician, who often refers to himself in the third person. "Well, Victor Lopez will beg if it means another man eats."

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