Like the PRI in Mexico, Albert and his allies had seemed invincible. But in the end, like the PRI, they folded because there wasn't much left to hold them up. South Gate voted by an eight to one margin to recall Albert Robles and his allies. Some eight thousand voters turned out—small compared to the twenty-six thousand registered voters in town, but four times more than usual. People formed lines twenty deep to vote.
Albert Robles was recalled, along with Moriel, Ruvalcaba and silent Maria Benavides. Elected in their places were Steve Gutierrez, Greg Martinez, and Maria Davila. Rudy Navarro was elected treasurer.
Remarkably, though, the battle still wasn't over. Albert and his allies had succeeded in postponing the recall so that it was held only a few weeks before the regularly scheduled election in March 2003. Six weeks after the January recall, everyone had to run again. It was the fifth South Gate election in five years.
By now, though, Albert Robles's name stained anyone near it. The coffee klatches, Community In Action, the press coverage, and the D.A. investigations combined to arouse the people of South Gate. Neither Albert nor his allies campaigned.
Instead, in their last week in office, Robles and his managers wrote city checks for $2.1 million, mostly to lawyers. South Gate's assistant finance director told the Los Angeles Times that he was forced to take much of the money from the city's rainy-day reserve fund, while Albert, City Manager Jesse Marez, and several attorneys stood over him....
In the weeks that followed the March 2003 election, South Gate showed signs of returning to normalcy. At the first council meeting, Fr. John Provenza declared the first council meeting after the recall to be "a great day for the city of South Gate, a day when we can rejoice in the hope for democracy." Community In Action started up again. The new city council addressed issues like street-sweeping fees and declared one week to be "Always Buckle Children in the Back Seat Week." People who got up to speak at council meetings were not ejected. The council chambers were packed. The high attendance probably wouldn't last long, but I thought it was nice to see nonetheless.
After the election, I dropped by the office of Rudy Navarro, who'd just been elected city treasurer. Rudy was twenty-three. He said he'd just graduated from San Diego State University with degrees in finance and political science. He wanted to go to law school, but for the moment he was the treasurer of a nearly bankrupt city. State auditors were coming to inspect South Gate's books.
"We gave away a house!" he began, still incredulous. "The day after they left office, we stopped a half a million dollars from going out."
The city's payroll had risen from 340 employees to 570 in two years, he said. Contractual landmines were everywhere, and the city would be paying for them for years. The new police uniforms. The attorneys. The police badges. The loans to George Garrido. The $3.2-million Community Services Department that did nothing. South Gate looked like a dictatorship after the dictator had fled.
Still, Navarro had a healthy attitude toward it all. "To me, it's a golden opportunity," he said. "It's tough on six hundred dollars a month, but ... I have this opportunity to do something great, and you can't beat that."
24 November 2007
How Civil Society Returned to South Gate
From Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 107-110: