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At the polls in Bell, voters are still smarting

Voters lined up this morning outside a polling place at the Iglesia de Dios church in Bell, Calif.
Voters lined up this morning outside a polling place at the Iglesia de Dios church in Bell, Calif.
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Is the political corruption that scandalized Bell a few months ago helping drive voter turnout there today?

Poll workers at one of two polling places set up at the Iglesia de Dios church in eastern Bell, a city that is more than 90 percent Latino, said this morning that it was too early to tell if voter turnout was any bigger than in previous election years, but noted that some voters had asked if they could vote for city officials in this general election.

They can't - a recall election for the mayor, vice mayor and one city council member is scheduled for March - but some voters outside the polling places in Bell today were smarting nonetheless. Voters said they were angry over the fiscal mismanagement and inordinately high salaries that landed eight city officials in jail earlier this fall, as well as the city's jacked-up property taxes, the second-highest rate in the county.

"What bothers me is that I lost my home because the property taxes were too high," said Efrain Torres, 38, a school bus driver and still a Bell resident, now a renter after foreclosing on his home last year. "It bothers me that they were taking this money while people were losing their properties."

Bell’s mayor, its former city manager, three council members and three other former city officials were arrested on corruption charges in September. A state audit has revealed just how much financial mismanagement took place, with six-figure salaries for city officials and more than $50 million in bond money subjected to misuse.

The southeast Los Angeles County city is also facing a federal investigation into whether it violated the civil rights of Latino residents by deliberately targeting their cars for towing as a revenue-generating scheme.

Torres, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, said he would have voted anyway, "but this year matters more, because of what happened."

Porfirio Quijada, 53, said after voting with his son that the scandal has affected voter attitudes both ways.

"Many people are disillusioned with what happened here," said Quijada, a longtime Bell resident and unemployed metal worker who arrived from El Salvador in 1980. "We voted for them (city officials), and here they were doing illegal things. I've had people say, 'Why vote?' "

He said he was voting today still because "it is my obligation."

Quijada's 22-year-old son Irving, an animation major at East Los Angeles College, saw it differently: "I think it's helped, at least in the city of Bell, for people to pay more attention ot the city council, so that a situation like this doesn't happen again."

A few voters talked about receiving calls urging them not to vote. Irving Quijada, who lives with his father, said they found an anonymous voicemail with that message around two weeks ago, and that several of their neighbors had received similar calls.

Torres said he had heard media coverage of last month's "don't vote" ads, unaired television spots aimed at Latinos.

However, it was unclear to him who the ads were coming from: The spots were produced by a GOP-affiliated group called Latinos for Reform, but after hearing the news reports, Torres mistakenly thought the message had instead come from a Los Angeles-area immigrant advocacy group, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, which confused him because of that organization's voter outreach efforts.

Either way, Torres said, he didn't buy into the "don't vote" message.

"Not voting is to make yourself invisible," he said.