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Anybody who wants to run for office in South Gate would be well advised to visit Henry Gonzalez, who worked for years at the city's General Motors assembly plant, rising in the ranks of the United Auto Workers. In 1982, Gonzalez was the first Latino elected to the South Gate City Council.
In the early 1990s, he discovered a young man named Albert Robles, who had just moved into town and wanted to run for office. Gonzalez introduced him at Rotary meetings, and helped him get elected. As Robles moved to take control of the city, he and Gonzalez had a falling out.
Robles directed city business to favorable contractors, and kept power with the help of anonymous smears. One night, as Gonzalez was coming home from a council meeting, he was ambushed and shot in the back of the head. He survived.
"They say all Mexican-Americans are hardheaded," Gonzalez says.
The businesses of Robles' opponents were firebombed. Robles threatened to take De La Torre's predecessor, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, to Tijuana and have him shot in the head. Firebaugh had to have extra security when he visited the district.
South Gate endured several years of Robles' corrupt and thuggish rule until the citizenry rose up and recalled him in 2003. That moment was like a refounding of the city, as the immigrant community asserted itself for the first time. Robles is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for his deeds.
Gonzalez, who still serves on the council, says that about four years ago, he was paid a visit from another young man interested in running for South Gate City Council: Lara.
At the time, Lara's goal was to establish himself on the local level before running for the Assembly.
"I said you ought to stay in your own district and run there," Gonzalez says. "He's a carpetbagger. Everything that man's doing reminds me of Albert."
Lara decided not to move to the district. But he did know the area, having cut his teeth working for Firebaugh, first as his communications director, then as chief of staff. Lara managed Firebaugh's 2006 campaign for state Senate, which ended when Firebaugh died from complications of a liver ailment.
In Lara's campaign office, on Tweedy Boulevard, a sign reads, "Marco Firebaugh, 50th DIST," and a photo shows Lara outside Firebaugh High School.
At Lara's campaign kickoff, Firebaugh's mother, Carmen Garcia, gives her blessing to Lara's campaign. "Marco is here with us," she says in Spanish. "Ricardo is the only person who can follow Marco."
Eastside L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar is there, too, and he gives a rousing pep talk to the assembled volunteers.
"¿Listos para caminar?" he asks. "¿Listos para llamar? ¿Listos para ganar?"
With bursts of applause, the crowd signaled they were ready to walk, call and win.
Assemblyman de León was there, too. An elder statesman at 43, he narrowly lost the speaker's job to Pérez last year. An old friend of Núñez's and a former California Teachers Association organizer, he is Lara's current boss. He promised that they will be working together in the Legislature, though he said that he would be on "el otro lado de la frontera" — the other side of the border, in the state Senate.
That's because, in the kind of nifty shell game that is a function of term limits and machine control, de León is running for Cedillo's Senate seat and the termed-out Cedillo is running for de León's Assembly seat.
Cedillo has no opponents, thus he has no reason to run a campaign.
If you play the game well enough, you can cut the voters out of the equation entirely.
Lara wasn't as lucky as Cedillo. The young pol has two opponents, both better known in the district than he is: Marquez, a Downey councilman, and South Gate City Clerk Carmen Avalos.
A former teacher, Avalos made her name in city politics by standing up to the nefarious Robles. For this she earned considerable praise and widespread name recognition. But last year, she lost her reelection bid for the Cerritos Community College board, and she has raised little money.
The funding she does have comes mostly from independent expenditures from EdVoice, a deep-pocketed advocacy group that supports charter schools and seeks to counter the influence of teachers' unions. The group has poured $165,000 into Avalos' campaign, in hopes of establishing itself in Sacramento with an upset win.
Marquez works in Sen. Alan Lowenthal's district office as a transportation deputy. He helped on the campaign to recall Robles, and managed De La Torre's Assembly campaign in 2004. He began rounding up endorsements from fellow council members a year ago, not long after winning the Downey council seat, and has put together a credible challenge to Lara's campaign.
While Marquez and Avalos were fighting each other, both agreed that in Lara they face a machine candidate and a carpetbagger.
"I take it as a slap in the face to our communities and our residents," Marquez says. "This guy moved in three months ago, and they think we're not sophisticated enough to notice."
In fact, Lara moved into the 50th District in April 2009, about a week after the L.A. Times reported he was raising money for the campaign while still serving on the L.A. Planning Commission. Since planning commissioners have to live in L.A., and no part of the city overlaps with the 50th, Lara had an obvious problem. He resigned from the commission and relocated to an apartment in Bell Gardens.