A Bell police officer looks in on a recent City Council meeting at the city's… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
A few years ago, campaigning in Cudahy and Bell was an ugly affair. Fliers smeared rival candidates as "terrorists," allegations of voter fraud ran rampant and, in some cases, death threats were made against political contenders.
But high-profile corruption scandals in each city over the last two years have led to what residents hope is an unprecedented change: cleaner campaigns.
"There's no intimidation factor," said Denise Rodarte, a member of the grass-roots group Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse. "People are just running a campaign; you see the lawn signs, you see Basic Campaigning 101."
Bell resident Alfred Areyan, 56, said the community is "hoping these elections are mellow."
"It would be the first time," he said.
In nearby Cudahy, where lawn signs once were routinely vandalized, most political placards have remained undisturbed in yards for weeks.
Even the quality of the candidates — six in Bell, nine in Cudahy — appears to have improved in these blue-collar cities. They include business owners and lawyers as well as incumbents; most are college and university graduates.
And unlike in previous years, the cities have contracted with the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder to oversee their elections in hopes of improving voter confidence.
"I feel hopeful because the whole city is under a microscope," said Cudahy resident Blanca Amuezca, 37.
Not every resident is convinced. Some point to dirty fliers attacking two Bell candidates: Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana and Nora Saenz. In Cudahy, during a public forum, Councilman Josue Barrios said 100 of his signs had been stolen.
Residents say the dirty campaign tactics remind them of the past.
In 2007, three would-be council members — Luis Garcia, Tony Mendoza and Daniel Cota — were victims of several attacks.
Vandals spray-painted Garcia's truck at least four different times. Cota's vehicle also was vandalized with paint. Mendoza dropped out of the race when he received death threats on his answering machine. Cota and Garcia lost their bids for office.
In 2009, the pair were targeted again when they ran for council. A brick was thrown through a window at Garcia's home. Someone also threw a Molotov cocktail at his home, damaging his wife's truck. Cota said that supporters of rival candidates tried to intimidate him.
"I basically ran an underground campaign and spoke to people directly," Garcia said. "I didn't engage them by asking to put a sign on their lawn."
Garcia and Cota lost that election as well.
From Vernon to South Gate and Huntington Park to Bell Gardens, politics in southeast Los Angeles County has for years been mired in political scandals. Voter turnout in the region is often less than 10%.
But once corruption is exposed, some experts say, the tide can sometimes turn for the better.
"For change to happen, you have to heighten the level of awareness and civic engagement and it has to lead to a systematic change to have long-term impact," said Rick Cole, former city manager of Ventura and a longtime writer about Southern California cities. "The bottom line is, what is put in place during the period of awakening that will go beyond the inevitable time when people are inclined to go to sleep."
In the summer of 2010, the tide appeared to have turned in Bell when several former officials were arrested on corruption charges. The scandal drove thousands to participate in a recall effort the next year. Thirty-three percent of the 10,485 registered voters showed up at the polls, the city's highest turnout.
The new leaders redirected the city toward more transparency. Three new administrators were hired to help run the town.
Last year, former Cudahy Mayor David Silva, ex-Councilman Osvaldo Conde and Angel Perales, the city's former head of code enforcement, were charged in a bribery and extortion case. All three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to state prison or probation.
Federal documents in the case revealed that absentee ballots in the last two elections had been tampered with or thrown out. Federal authorities say the investigation is ongoing.
After Conde's sentencing last week, Cudahy City Manager Hector Rodriguez tweeted: "The city has now closed its chapter on a dark period. The city is anew with hope and looks forward to a bright future."
Naomi Preciado, a longtime Cudahy resident, is cautiously optimistic. "This is a page in the city's history that we are going to write, but we need a lot of pens," she said. "Unfortunately, we're not there yet."