BELL (AP) — Nine months ago, residents of this hardscrabble suburb on the edge of Los Angeles were united with one common battle cry: “Throw the bums out!”
Outraged to learn last June that their city officials were making six- and seven-figure salaries while property taxes in a town where one in six people live in poverty were higher than those in Beverly Hills, residents quickly banded together to recall the City Council.
But now, with 17 people running for five City Council seats in Tuesday’s recall election, that unity has frayed. As the campaign winds down there have been allegations of carpet-bagging, police intimidation, lying about qualifications and even rumors of candidates takings tens of thousands of dollars in Tea Party money or of being bought off by powerful public employee unions.
It has led one candidate, Guillermo “Willie” Aguilar to try to remind others that cooling some of the rhetoric now would likely be in their best interest later.
“If we have that same kind of backbiting and negativity after the election, how are we ever going to change anything?” asked Aguilar, a construction contractor and 18-year Bell resident who is making his first bid for office.
And pretty much everyone in Bell agrees much needs to be changed.
To start with, the city is as much as $4.5 million in debt. Authorities, who have charged eight current and former officials with fraud, say Bell’s money was squandered by a City Council that paid four of its five part-time members $100,000 a year and handed out a total of $6 million in annual salaries and benefits to six favored employees.
As the election campaign has progressed, nearly half the candidates for office have aligned themselves with one of two groups calling themselves United For Bell and Justice For Bell.
Supporters of United For Bell have accused the rival group of taking Tea Party money, while Justice For Bell advocates say the others have been bought off by big labor unions. They note United For Bell’s four candidates have been endorsed by the Bell Police Officers Association and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
“It’s gotten real rough because we can’t compete with that kind of money,” said Mario Rivas, one of three candidates running under the Justice For Bell banner. The Bell Police Officers Association alone has said it plans to contribute $30,000 to $40,000 to the recall campaign.
The union also says Justice For Bell has its own deep-pocketed supporter in retired Internet entrepreneur Gwilym McGrew of Los Angeles, whom police union spokesman Leo Briones denounced as a “crazy tea party guy.”
“He fancies himself a good-government activist but what he is is a super-extreme, right-wing whack,” Briones told The Associated Press.
McGrew, who with his wife has contributed a total of $60,000 to Rivas and two other Justice For Bell candidates, says he has no tea party affiliation and has given to both liberal and conservative causes over the years.
Like people across the country, McGrew said, he and his wife were outraged to learn what had happened in Bell.
“My wife and I decided to try to give financial support to those citizens that we believed were honest,” he said. He added he even offered a contribution to one of the rival camp’s candidates but was turned down. He says he has no financial interest in Bell.
Meanwhile, Rivas and other Justice For Bell candidates have complained to authorities that local police are trying to intimidate their supporters. Bell’s interim city attorney, Jamie Casso, said he’s investigating complaints of campaign flyers showing police officers in uniform, which he said is a violation of city ordinances.
Both police intimidation and Tea Party affiliations are serious allegations in Bell, a city of 40,000 with a large Latino immigrant population where the police department is under investigation for allegations of voter fraud and racial profiling and the Tea Party is not popular.
Meanwhile, Ana Maria Quintana has come under criticism for only moving to Bell a few months ago, although the Yale graduate and lawyer has noted she grew up there and was student body president and homecoming queen at the local high school in 1993.
Residents also say anonymous hit pieces placed on the Internet and in mailboxes have accused other candidates of much worse, including unfounded allegations of child molestation and sexual harassment.
Not that such attacks are unprecedented in Bell. Several candidates in this election have run at least once before and most were targets of vicious attacks. One of them, local businessman Ali Saleh, a lifelong Bell resident, was linked in an anonymous flyer to Islamic terrorists during the 2009 election campaign.
That race is under investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office after several residents complained of voter fraud.
Despite the rough-and-tumble nature of this campaign, residents and candidates alike say they believe that, overall, Bell will emerge a better a city.
Although much has been made of its description as gritty, Bell also has a touch of Mayberry to it as a small town where everybody seems to know everybody else and rumors about people, true or otherwise, spread with lightning speed.
Irene Gonzalez, who grew up here and then stayed to raise her own family, said she recently came across one of the members of the campaign slate she didn’t support.
“I really like him,” said Gonzalez, who has already voted by absentee ballot. “I wished him well but I didn’t tell him I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
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