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Aszkenazy sued. But he didn't allege that he was being retaliated against for his newspaper's exposé. He claimed that he was denied the permit because of anti-Semitic discrimination. Jose Pulido, then-city administrator, testified that Jose Hernandez once remarked to him of Aszkenazy, "He's being greedy. He's Jewish, you know."
Hernandez vehemently denied the accusation, but Aszkenazy prevailed. The City of San Fernando ended up paying the developer $750,000.
The Sun's exposé may have been the end of Aszkenazy's cozy relationship with the sitting council, but the lawsuit also proved the end of Jose Hernandez's political career. Citing the slur and costly settlement as their primary motivation, about a dozen residents gathered the 1,771 signatures necessary to hold a recall election.
The Sun threw its considerable weight behind the recall. (The Jewish Journal reported that Aszkenazy accused the targeted members of having an "anything but Aszkenazy" outlook. "In its articles, as well as its editorials," the Journal reported, "the Sun regularly condemns the three council members who oppose Aszkenazy. A recent issue ran an editorial calling them 'despicable,' 'self-serving' and 'hypocritical.' ")
So in January 2009, Jose Hernandez, a former college professor and member of the council for 15 years, and fellow council member Julie Ruelas (no relation to Tony Ruelas), also a college professor and council veteran, were removed from their City Council seats. Brenda Esqueda, a medical receptionist with no previous political experience, who helped spearhead the recall effort, was swept into office.
The mayorship of San Fernando is not elected but rather rotates among council members. So when Mario Hernandez's rotation finished in March of this year, Esqueda became mayor. ("Unfortunately, only in San Fernando, with such poor qualifications could you still become the mayor," the Sun wrote at the time.)
Esqueda — along with Hernandez and Maribel De La Torre — soon found herself facing a recall of her own. One of the campaign's leaders is Julian Ruelas, nephew of Julie. And once again, the Sun has strongly supported throwing the politicians out.
In an April editorial published in the Sun, the recall committee detailed its grievances: the $14 million aquatic center De La Torre championed, Esqueda's alleged relationship with Alvaro Castellon, the council's handling of Maria Barajas' lawsuit and the final straw: the shame Mario Hernandez brought on the city of San Fernando with his very public announcement.
"Our city had become a laughingstock, a telenovela of international proportions," Linda Campanella Jauron wrote.
After Hernandez resigned from the council, Martha Diaz Aszkenazy wrote an editorial, one that never disclosed her sister's status as the wronged wife. Esqueda and De La Torre "have brought only shame and scandal to our community," she wrote. "They need to go!"
Reflecting on the 2008 recall she helped lead, Brenda Esqueda knits her expertly penciled brow and fixes me with a meaningful look. "I should have asked more questions," she says.
Since then, she adds cryptically, certain information has come to light that she wishes she had known at the time. She stops short of saying she was manipulated. Instead, Esqueda says, "With this recall, I tell the people: Ask questions."
The mayor is sitting in a booth at Mi Abuelo; she arrived at the dimly lit Mexican restaurant with an armful of opposition research — photographs, sworn statements, emails — about cops in the San Fernando Police Department who, she claims, are corrupt.
"A lot of it is retaliation," she says of the current recall.
Like her allies on the City Council, Esqueda has been publicly accused of having an affair — hers allegedly with police sergeant Alvaro Castellon.
Castellon is the officer accused of threatening Maria Barajas, the young cadet sleeping with police lieutenant Tony Ruelas. Esqueda defends both men, maintaining that the lawsuit was retaliation orchestrated by members of the department's "good ol' boys club," who were upset that their choice for chief was passed over in favor of Ruelas.
The Sun consistently refers to Castellon as Esquedas' boyfriend, while officially noting that Esqueda has refused to confirm the rumored affair. For his part, "We have a strong working relationship," Castellon says. "We've been there for each other through hard times."
When I ask her about their relationship, Esqueda pauses before saying thoughtfully, "I'm not going to say it's an affair — I'd say it's an emotional relationship."
That subtlety, however, appears lost on her husband. Roy Esqueda is among those who have accused the mayor of conducting an affair with Castellon. The website BrendaEsqueda.com, which is brimming with negative information about the still-married mayor, is registered in his name. So is VoiceofSanFernando.com, a website supporting the recall.
This spring, Roy Esqueda brought his grievances to the local newspaper. Diana Martinez, editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun, conducted an interview with Esqueda, which the paper ran over two consecutive weeks.