Lynwood pol­i­tics a stage for re­gion’s racial power shift

As African Amer­i­cans lose num­bers and in­flu­ence to Lati­nos, the fric­tion can be felt at City Hall and be­yond.

Los Angeles Times - - California - By John L. Mitchell

For years, the bat­tle for con­trol of the city of Lynwood has been shrouded in ac­cu­sa­tions of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and crony­ism.

A for­mer mayor is serv­ing a 16-year sen­tence in fed­eral prison for em­bez­zle­ment. Five cur­rent and for­mer City Coun­cil mem­bers have been charged with pad­ding their salaries with pub­lic funds. And an ef­fort is un­der­way to re­call four of the five cur­rent City Coun­cil mem­bers.

But be­yond the al­le­ga­tions of graft and cor­rup­tion, a dif­fer­ent war — rife with racial and eth­nic stereo­typ­ing — is be­ing waged in the work­ing-class city south of Los An­ge­les.

Lati­nos, who make up more than 80% of the city’s 72,000 res­i­dents, are vy­ing for power with African Amer­i­cans, who, de­spite smaller num­bers, main­tain con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence by virtue of su­pe­rior voter strength in a city where 40% of the res­i­dents are for­eign-born.

A decade ago, when blacks con­trolled the city’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape, Lati­nos com­plained that they were be­ing de­nied city jobs and lu­cra­tive mu­nic­i­pal con­tracts. Now Lati­nos dom­i­nate and African Amer­i­cans com­plain of be­ing frozen out.

The prob­lem is em­blem­atic of emerg­ing ten­sions through­out Los An­ge­les County, where the Latino pop­u­la­tion has surged as African Amer­i­can num­bers have dwin­dled.

The ten­sions are play­ing out in cities such as Car­son, Comp­ton and In­gle­wood, where tra­di­tional black po­lit­i­cal mus­cle — con­cen­trated largely among older work­ing- and mid­dle-class home­own­ers — is show­ing signs of weak­en­ing as a gen­er­a­tion of Lati­nos reaches vot­ing age. Ten­sions are also play­ing out in the race to suc­ceed Rep. Juanita Mil­len­der-McDon­ald, where the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween two well­po­si­tioned African Amer­i­can can­di­dates may re­sult in their can­cel­ing each other out, paving the way for a Latina to cap­ture a

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[ seat blacks have held for decades.

The black-Latino fric­tion in a city such as Lynwood is ex­ac­er­bated by a lack of re­sources and de­cent jobs and by poverty — all prob­lems com­mon to both groups, said Harry Pa­chon, a USC pro­fes­sor and head of the To­mas Rivera Pol­icy In­sti­tute, which re­leased a re­port in April ti­tled “Be­yond the Racial Di­vide: Per­cep­tions of Mi­nor­ity Res­i­dents on Coali­tion Build­ing in South Los An­ge­les.”

One con­clu­sion, he said, was telling.

“Each group is buy­ing off on the neg­a­tive stereo­types held by the ma­jor­ity [white cul­ture], rather than ques­tion­ing them,” Pa­chon said. “Blacks say that Lati­nos don’t take care of their hous­ing, and Lati­nos felt that blacks don’t value fam­i­lies as much.”

In Lynwood, some of the strong­est ev­i­dence of stereo­typ­ing can be found on Lynwood Watch ( lyn­wood­watch.blogspot .com), a web­site cre­ated by an anony­mous blog­ger to keep watch on city of­fi­cials. The blog en­cour­ages read­ers to voice their opin­ions, and they do. But many of the com­ments are laced with calls for Latino unity that in­clude racist rants — in English and Span­ish — di­rected at African Amer­i­cans.

City Hall is eye of storm

In Lynwood, a cen­ter of po­lit­i­cal and racial strife is City Hall, where coun­cil meet­ings are of­ten stormy. Po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion has mo­bi­lized to chal­lenge the coun­cil — on pro­posed de­vel­op­ment projects, util­ity and wa­ter tax in­creases, and crim­i­nal charges — and mem­bers of the city staff bicker over pro­mo­tions and salaries. Dis­putes of­ten break along racial lines.

“It’s all about race,” said City Coun­cil­woman Leti­cia Vasquez, who says she has been de­nounced by fel­low Lati­nos for join­ing ranks on some is­sues with two African Amer­i­cans on the coun­cil, Louis Byrd and the Rev. Al­fred­die John­son.

“We don’t have to re­tal­i­ate against each other,” said Vasquez, 34, who is a se­nior field deputy for Assem­bly­man Mervyn Dy­mally, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents nearby Comp­ton. “We can work to­gether on is­sues that cross racial lines.”

Lynwood elected its first black to the City Coun­cil in 1983, nearly a decade af­ter African Amer­i­cans be­gan ar­riv­ing in the bed­room com­mu­nity once known as “Lily White Lynwood.” Blacks soon dom­i­nated City Hall, but the Latino pop­u­la­tion was start­ing its rise; and six years later, the city elected its first Latino coun­cil mem­ber.

By 1997, a newly elected three­mem­ber Latino ma­jor­ity sat on the coun­cil and moved quickly to wipe away one sym­bol of African Amer­i­can suc­cess: The name of Mervyn M. Dy­mally Con­gres­sional Park, named in 1990 for the for­mer con­gress­man and the state’s first black lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, was changed to Lynwood Park.

The new ma­jor­ity — con­sist­ing of the city’s first elected Latino coun­cil­man, Ar­mando Rea, and two busi­ness­men, Ri­cardo Sanchez and Ar­turo Reyes — em­barked on a cam­paign to clean up the “un­eth­i­cal prac­tices” of the pre­vi­ous coun­cil ma­jor­ity. Black em­ploy­ees were let go. City con­tracts with in­de­pen­dent African Amer­i­can busi­nesses, ap­proved by a lame duck coun­cil against the ad­vice of city staff, were can­celed.

In 1998, three black con­trac­tors filed an $800-mil­lion civil rights law­suit against the city and its three Latino coun­cil­men, al­leg­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. The city even­tu­ally set­tled, re­new­ing two of the con­tracts; the third con­trac­tor died.

For­mer City Man­ager Faustin Gon­za­les, who ran the city on and off from 1993 to 2003, doesn’t re­mem­ber any dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suits filed by Latino con­trac­tors.

“They put their hope in their num­bers,” he said.

But not ev­ery­thing was har­mo­nious among the Lati­nos at City Hall. Vasquez, who was elected in 2003, soon ran into trou­ble with three other Latino mem­bers of the coun­cil.

In some of the closed-door meet­ings, the three other Lati­nos would some­times speak only in Span­ish, ig­nor­ing Byrd, by then the lone African Amer­i­can mem­ber. Vasquez re­mem­bers: “I was ap­palled.”

Two years later, she en­cour­aged John­son to make a run for the coun­cil, and when he was elected, she found she was part of a new ma­jor­ity, along with Byrd. But she also lost sup­port among Lati­nos.

“She snubs her nose at the peo­ple in the com­mu­nity,” said Silvia Or­tiz, a com­mu­nity ac­tivist and or­ga­nizer in the re­call against Vasquez and three oth­ers on the coun­cil.

Lynwood Watch emerged in 2004, around the same time the city found it­self in­volved in a se­ries of cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions that in­cluded both Lati­nos and African Amer­i­cans. A Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered more than $600,000 in unau­tho­rized travel credit card ex­penses be­tween 1998 and 2003, in­clud­ing New York mu­si­cals and a samba show in Rio de Janeiro.

The mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment re­mained un­der a mi­cro­scope. By 2005, for­mer long­time Mayor Paul Richards had been con­victed of steer­ing city con­tracts to a front cor­po­ra­tion he se­cretly owned. He col­lected more than $500,000 be­fore au­thor­i­ties put an end to a scheme that could have net­ted mil­lions of dol­lars.

In April, the dis­trict at­tor­ney ac­cused two cur­rent and three for­mer coun­cil mem­bers of pad­ding their of­fi­cial $9,600 salaries to re­ceive as much as $100,000 for part-time ser­vices.

Byrd and Coun­cil­man Fer­nando Pe­droza, a Latino, were charged with us­ing city credit cards and other city funds for per­sonal ex­penses, in­clud­ing trips abroad and air­line tick­ets for spouses, and in Pe­droza’s case, a ses­sion with an ex­otic dancer in Mex­ico. For­mer coun­cil­men Rea, Sanchez and Reyes, all Lati­nos, were also charged.

The ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion have fu­eled a re­call ef­fort that started af­ter the coun­cil launched an ef­fort to lure a Na­tional Foot­ball League team to the city with a pro­posal to build a new sta­dium that called for raz­ing at least 100 homes. The re­call tar­gets Vasquez, Pe­droza, Byrd and John­son, but not Coun­cil­woman Maria Teresa San­til­lan.

It’s not about race, said Ra­mon Ro­driguez, a for­mer city coun­cil­man who sup­ports the re­call: “Greater ac­count­abil­ity is what the com­mu­nity has been ask­ing for.”

Racial en­mity seen

Over the years, more than a dozen African Amer­i­cans have lost civil ser­vice jobs as Lynwood has tight­ened its bud­gets and cut po­si­tions.

For­mer City Man­ager En­rique Martinez, who now man­ages the city of Red­lands, said he was “pushed” both by African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos, who were in the ma­jor­ity when he ar­rived in the city in 2005. But he sin­gles out one ex­am­ple in par­tic­u­lar:

“I was given a list of seven or eight names — all African Amer­i­can — and told to cut their po­si­tions, sup­pos­edly be­cause there was no money in the bud­get,” he said. “Well, there was money in the bud­get, and those seven or eight African Amer­i­cans stayed.”

Mean­while, two African Amer­i­can con­trac­tors re­main wary even though they reached set­tle­ments in law­suits ac­cus­ing the city of dis­crim­i­na­tion and have con­tin­ued do­ing busi­ness with the city.

One of them, Lee Dun­can, who owns Cal­i­for­nia West­ern Ar­borists Inc., wor­ries about the safety of his tree-trim­ming crews af­ter one of his trucks was torched on a city street.

“I’m just guess­ing some­one was up­set we had the con­tract,” he said. But he added, “I don’t have any en­e­mies.”

Many res­i­dents of Lynwood are con­cerned about the racial en­mity they see play­ing out in the city and on Lynwood Watch.

For Phyl­lis Cooper-Lyons, 60, a Re­cre­ation and Parks of­fi­cial, the al­most daily bar­rage of com­ments about her ap­pear­ance and work habits are a form of racial ha­rass­ment.

“It af­fects you even though you know you are big­ger than that,” she said.

“I don’t want to even look at it, but some­thing draws me to it. Like, ‘What can they say about me to­day?’ ”

john.mitchell@la­times.com

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