What makes a community activist decide to run for office?

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What turned Laurie Guillen and Jose De Leon from environmental activists into political candidates in their South Los Angeles city of Paramount?

For Guillen, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, it was another woman's frustrating experience with the city council. For De Leon, it was primarily concern about the health of Paramount's children. For both, the underlying cause was hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic pollutant also known as chromium 6.

Last fall, Guillen and De Leon started attending meetings of community activists who were angry that metal processing plants in Paramount were suspected of emitting dangerously high levels of chromium 6.

Today they're first-time candidates for Paramount's city council, challenging two incumbents in Tuesday's at-large election.

On a recent wet Sunday afternoon, Guillen and De Leon continued the time-honored tradition of knocking on doors to introduce themselves to voters in this working-class industrial town of about 55,000.

"One of the reasons why I'm running is because of the air quality in our community," Guillen told one man. "And I'm concerned because I grew up right here in the barrio of Paramount."

She blames "complacency" for Paramount's "air crisis," adding, "No one looked to see what was the potential of the outcome of letting all this metal industry into such a small area. No one had the foresight to say, 'hey, could this potentially cause a problem?'"

Guillen clearly remembers the "defining moment" that changed her from activist to politician.

"I had one community member whose mother had passed away from lung cancer," she says.  The woman's mother, who didn't smoke, lived a block away from one of the plants accused of releasing high levels of chromium 6. (Some activists have suggested that the metal plants might be linked to cases of cancer in Paramount; to date there is no research proving a connection.)

Guillen says the woman told her that when she tried to address the city council, members said they couldn’t understand her because of her accent.

"When she told me, 'Laurie, 'I need your help,'" recalls Guillen, "at that moment, I said, 'I will represent my community because this is outrageous and I'm insulted to the core for this woman.'"

Paramount is about 80 percent Latino, but four of its five council members are white.

During his recent campaign swing, De Leon talks with a family about smells. 

"I live, for example, near [Abraham] Lincoln [Elementary] School, and in this area for a long time we've smelled metal," he says. "In December we smelled burnt plastic, and we don't know where it came from."

This city of less than five square miles is home to 85 metal processors.

De Leon, the owner of an auto repair shop, says in an interview that he decided to seek office in part because of his desire to protect the health of Paramount's children, including his 10-year-old daughter.

"I’m so concerned about her," he says. "Last year I asked my wife to either send her to Guatemala or Washington because I was so concerned about the air."

De Leon and Guillen both say one of their priorities would be to push for stricter regulation of the metal processors.

Both of the incumbents in the race have been on the council for 20 years. One of them, Gene Daniels, says he's also worried about the high chromium 6 levels.

"I live here, too! My family lives here, my friends' families, they all live here," he says. "I think anybody would be concerned over that."

But Daniels says the council has little control over the metal processors. That's the job of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, he says.

"Long as [the metal plants] meet the zoning requirements and the land use requirements and anything else required for a business license, you can't keep them out," says Daniels. "And then we rely on the AQMD to issue permits for air quality."

The other incumbent, Peggy Lemons, is taking a critical stance towards the AQMD.

"They failed us, they really failed us," she says. "You trusted that process of permitting and evaluating and inspecting, and this is a different ball game now."

Moving forward, the Paramount council needs to take a more active role in trying to combat pollution, says Lemons.

Guillen questions Lemons' commitment to that fight. She points out that the councilwoman's daughter works for one of the metal processors, and that Lemons runs the Paramount Chamber of Commerce.

Lemons says none of that matters. She says her ties to local businesses help the community.

Guillen's family has deep ties to Paramount politics; two of her uncles served on the city council for many years. She has raised the most money of any of the four candidates. As of Feb. 18, Guillen had raised close to $17,000, including $5,000 from the League of Conservation Voters, according to her campaign finance report.

Lemons had raised about $5,000 and Daniels a little more than 4,000, the records show.

De Leon did not file a report; candidates who raise less than $2,000 are not required to do so. He says for him, this election is less about winning and more about finding a solution to Paramount’s air pollution problem.

"Even if I don't win I'm going to stay fighting," he says, "because we've got to think about our future generations."

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