DOWNEY – When three city council seats are up for grabs in a five-district municipality, you can expect serious change in the making. The question about Downey is whether that change will be for the better, or will it further continue the erosion of identity that’s been nipping closer and closer to its core for the past 15 years or more.
That’s why it’s crucial to try and understand who’s running for those seats in the first, third and fifth districts, and hear their ideas and qualifications, what they’re offering by way of leadership qualities, and how they want to shape the future. All of which made last Friday night’s debate onstage at the Downey Civic Theater critical. Beyond lawn posters and slick mailers, it’s the only chance we’ll have had so far to ask, “Who are these people?” and hope to gain some knowledge of what we may be in for.
The Downey Patriot hosted in the figure of editor/reporter Christian Brown, who kept things moving briskly along as nine candidates made their bid for office. The sheer number, along with appearing in public with their competition for the first time, made for a noticeable caution. Everyone of course was obliged to put his or her best foot forward in search of the least objectionable way to pander. If no one embarrassed himself, no one provided a revealing self-portrait either, beyond the normal solid citizen boilerplate.
The password for the night incidentally, as it’s been in every election cycle in memory, is Police and Fire, as in ‘I pledge greater support for…” That the city’s police and fire departments are exemplary is beyond dispute. But mentioning it never seems to hurt, and mention it they did.
There were revealing moments just the same, some unintentionally comical, as when 28-year-old Art Montoya said, “Downey has made me the man I am,” to a majority of strangers who didn’t know who he was in the first place. Or when Blanca Pacheco expressed her knowledge and approval of the Downey park system because she walks her two little dogs in one of them.
Brown introduced the candidates in order as each strode out onstage and took a high stool beside a small cocktail table:
■Blanca Pacheco, attorney. Past president of Downey Kiwanis and commissioner on Downey Public Works Committee.
■Hector Lujan, assistant principal Paramount Adult School
■Alma Marquez, district director for State Senator Tony Mendoza.
■Rick Rodriguez, owner of a security firm called RMI International. Past president of Downey Chamber of Commerce, Gangs out of Downey, chairman of Downey’s Preparedness Committee. Chaplain with L.A.’s County Sherriff Department.
■Frine Medrano, staff member for State Senator Kevin de Leon.
■Art Montoya, worker safety specialist for Walt Disney Co.
■Louis Morales, economic development consultant, member of Downey planning Commission.
■Alex Saab, attorney. Fifth District councilman since 2012. Past president of Downey Chamber of Commerce, Los Amigos Kiwanis.
■Art Gonzales, realtor, neighborhood watch captain.
You looked at the roster and wondered how, with a couple of exceptions, anyone’s list of virtues and occupations could qualify them for elective office. A safety specialist? A neighborhood watch captain?
But sometimes they surprised you. Gonzalez seemed refreshingly candid and free of dreary political rhetoric, and Rick Rodriguez gave a direct, surprisingly eloquent and even touching response to a question about conflict of interest with his security firm. And when the question of dealing with homelessness came up, he seemed to be (or to say so) the only one who understood it as mainly a mental health issue. There was a time, before the Reagan administration shut down mental clinics in the 1980s, when the sight of someone sleeping on a street was inexplicable and troubling. But if they knew, no one else had anything to say about it.
The terms “transparency,” “accountability” and “integrity” came up a few times, leaving us to wonder what they alluded to. Has the decision-making process of the city been opaque or hidden from us? If so, let’s hear examples. Have there been incidents of ethical misconduct the candidates know about and we don’t? As there was virtually no follow-up questioning, these interesting issues, to say the least, were left unaddressed.
Once everyone in the lineup understood that no one in their midst was going to erupt in a barrage of savage personal attacks, the candidates warily settled in to a round of questions that included positions on the proposed tax increase, crowded parking conditions, veterans affairs, park and public safety, legalization of marijuana dispensaries, and easing of term limits. As everyone seemed to agree most of the time with everyone else, the questions took on the velocity of lightning rounds and the evening sped by to a premature end.
The answers of what each candidate would do for the city were among the most disappointing. It wasn’t enough for Marquez and Medrano to say they’d use their state connections to direct more money toward Downey when they didn’t tell us what they’d do with it. Pacheco’s statement that a prime objective would be to help any kid who came to her wanting to become a lawyer, suggests that she’s out of touch with the priorities of her higher-crime South Downey district. The term “pro-business” came up, when business isn’t exactly what Downey needs right now. What the city needs is a vision of the future, with amenities that invest the whole human being with larger civilized aims than the satisfaction of mere consumer appetite. Culture would be one of those aims. The word was never mentioned.
Saab, with his innately warm personality and the authority and knowledge of an incumbent, appeared to come off best. But many of the others seemed deeply sincere and genuinely likeable. It was mostly a nice bunch of people.
But nice isn’t enough. You came away wishing that at least one of them understood the city as a complex organism with many different components. You wished that someone possessed an understanding of how society works, top to bottom, from banking to the price of cucumbers to the condition of underground gas pipes. On this panel and of the three men still sitting on the council, you wished that there were one intellectual, one historian, one person with a comprehensive experience of the world. Because if architecture expresses a society’s ruling ethos, you’d have to conclude that Downey is in the process of selling out to commercial developers. It’s as if our leadership doesn’t know what else to do.
The rest of us are not off the hook. Approximately 300 people came to the debate. That’s less than three-hundredths of one percent of Downey’s population. If democracy is supposed to be of, for and by the people and the people don’t show up, then the democracy can’t function.
Once the city becomes unrecognizably generic, we can’t come crying.