Inside the mind of Downey’s most notorious Gadfly
DOWNEY - I’m still not entirely sure what possessed me to ask.
“Excuse me Mr. Herman, would you be willing to have a conversation with me about why you do things the way you do them?”
Even more shocking was his answer.
It had already been a long evening at city hall, so I took down his information before we parted ways. I entered my car and sat for a few moments, reflecting on what had just occurred.
“Great. What did I just get myself into?”
To the untrained eye, Armando Herman could just as easily pass as just a normal joe; maybe a little rough around the edges with a few minor awkward subtleties, but passable none-the-less.
But when he enters his chosen arena, the villain comes out. Herman becomes the Joker to the City Council’s Batman. If Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound, Herman can single-handedly extend a public hearing by an hour or more without so much as batting an eye.
Call him what you want – be it a nuisance, gadfly, or something more obscene – Herman is probably one of the most recognizable faces at a city council meeting, second only to the mayor and council members themselves. If nothing else, he’s likely one of the most notorious men currently in the city of Downey.
For those who haven’t seen him in action, Herman is known for utilizing every second of every opportunity to address the city council, and it’s never done nicely.
Expletives fly. Names are called. As one former mayor put it, “Democracy is mocked.”
It’s taxing to sit through, to say the least.
I suppose I owe him some manner of gratitude; he is in part responsible for my recent 3rd place achievement at the Los Angeles Press Club. But other than that, I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Herman myself. If anything, if I’m not annoyed with him for drawing out a council meeting assignment I’m covering, I feel embarrassed for the others in attendance who may not be as prepared for his onslaught.
It took me nearly a year to punch Herman’s contact information into my phone, for fear of what might happen next.
For starters, I didn’t want to get sucked into a political rant or tirade; that would be a waste of both of our times (not to mention I get enough of that at every meeting I attend).
Secondly, I don’t wish to glorify, champion, or enable him; let me make it abundantly clear that I do not condone or approve of his methods.
When the meeting finally came, I was almost bewildered at how calm, cool and collected he seemed. We took seats opposite one another, and as I explained why I called for the meeting, he leaned over to his service dog and offered her some water out of a plastic water bottle. Maybe it’s just because I’m naturally a dog person, but I was touched at the gentleness and affection shared between the two; it took me a few brief moments to snap back to reality and remember who exactly I had across the table from me.
Herman didn’t want to disclose his age, to which I wasn’t surprised at all. I wasn’t after the general journalism pleasantries anyways.
Downey’s “resident gadfly” says that he has been attending various public hearings consistently for the last six to 10 years, although regulars at Downey meetings might say that he’s become a consistent face locally over the last two to three.
He is also a regular in Cerritos, Pasadena, Norwalk, and Bellflower, just to name a few.
“Pretty much wherever there’s an agenda meeting,” said Herman. “It’s just based on my energy level, my frame or state of mind, and my condition of health, because getting around from maybe five meetings in a day, maybe three high-profile meetings, it’s a lot of work.”
When he approaches Downey’s podium every other Tuesday, you can expect what I’ve described before as a “fireball;” language and rhetoric that would make even the saltiest of sailor’s blush.
“I say what we’re trying to do – it’s not just me – it’s individuals have realized that local government has become, within itself a gang of political power,” said Herman. “They use that power to suppress people, because…they do not understand the First Amendment, let alone understand city ordinances let alone learn about them.”
“Their approach is passive aggressive; they come in, they make their statement, they get pulled to the side, their told what’s going to happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t work at all.”
In some strange, convoluted way, I will concede that Herman has a point about one thing: there is a lack of community involvement in city politics.
It’s not just Downey’s problem; it’s everywhere, in every type of public hearing setting. It is not uncommon for a full council chamber to empty out after presentations and awards are distributed. Very rarely does a crowd actually maintain itself through the actual “meat and potatoes” of a meeting; if they do, it’s usually for a single high-profile, extremely controversial item.
But this still didn’t answer the question of why each and every one of Herman’s allotted five minutes needed to be so venom-laced and vulgar.
“I try to stir people up,” said Herman. “If you don’t stir things up, then you become a very small, minute, faint voice. Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I learned a different strategy: very controversial, very direct, and yes, I use a lot of intensifiers to color my point across to get a reaction.”
“I’m trying to get people to understand that sometimes you’re holding back from what your real feelings are, or your emotions…”
Herman seems to draw the strongest reaction when there are children – sometimes as young as toddlers – in the audience.
Herman, obviously, is unphased by their presence.
“It’s a public meeting, and in a public meeting the forum is a business,” said Herman. “It has nothing to do with children, it has nothing to do with anyone in particular. It has to do with a person’s opinion and thought, and sometimes children will be exposed to that, the same way at home their exposed to what daddy and mommy say, who think little Johnny or little Jill aren’t listening.”
“As responsible, professional parents that we want to be or claim that we are, we have to start sometimes explaining more to our children why people say things.”
If a parent doesn’t wish for their child to hear these things, Herman says they should be proactive and take them out of the council chambers and reenter when a speaker has finished.
I asked Herman if he thought his methods might be counter-productive to his cause. His response didn’t exactly answer my question. Instead, Herman basically shared that he believes his actions will one day lead him to being “in a ditch…face down somewhere.”
“I’ve been threatened, I’ve been intimidated,” said Herman. “I am a very not violent person unless I have to protect myself.”
His answer also included claims that bodily harm had been threatened against him by government officials via proxy, although I took these claims with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I did my due diligence and reached out to these entities, and found no reason to pursue the issue any further.
Herman has been accused – in most recent personal memory, by Downey’s City Attorney Yvette M Abich Garcia – of trying to bait the city council into actions that would provoke Herman to file a lawsuit against the city; the result being a payday for Herman at the taxpayers’ expense.
If this is in fact true, and the “public hearing vigilante” gimmick is merely to mask a greedier cash-grab, then Herman did so successfully back in July of 2017, when he was tossed out by then Mayor Fernando Vasquez – who has since termed out of his council seat – after repeated warnings to tone down his expletive language.
Herman did end up taking the city to court, to which they settled out. While it is seemingly impossible to get someone to go on record about how much it cost the city, a reputable source says that the sum was somewhere in the territory of $5,000. In theory, that’s only a drop in the bucket as far as overall city spending goes, but it’s taxpayer dollars nonetheless.
Still, Herman says that “nobody wants to take that step.”
“It’s very emotional; that’s your last step,” said Herman. “I always try to refer to mediation, or at least a process of effective communication so that it doesn’t become a liability on any party…you have to push and show them that you’re not afraid of the steps you have to go through to present the allegation or the formalities of what the liability is about.
“In my mind, I’m not winning it just for me; I’m winning it for the general public…the accusation that [the city attorney and mayor] that they brought up that I’m trying to bait them so I can sue them, no, that is not my intention; it’s never been that. If that was my intent, I had Mr. Vasquez in a very tight place between a hard rock. I would have won that if I had taken it to the Ninth Circuit Courts under the First Amendment.”
Ironically, Herman is likely one of a few individuals who was the catalyst to a controversial change in procedure at Los Angeles City Council meetings that was unanimously passed late last year, which can ban individuals who are disruptive during meetings for up to six business days. The change became effective in January.
Downey also made changes to their public comment protocol within the last few weeks, which could severely limit Herman’s usual tirades from an aggregate of an hour or more to just a few minutes.
Herman isn’t exactly worried about these or similar circumstances. In fact, he feels he may have “opened up the ears of the higher court...to protect the right of free speech.”
“To no surprise, it actually has gotten a better response from other members of the public, because they’re finding out how offensive it is because they’re denied the same public time that they should be granted,” said Herman. “The council members are now interrupting their public time by butting into their one minute of comment, or multiple item comments.”
“When an elected official bumps into your time, they’re not going to give you time back, so you lose time…. this doesn’t look good from a council’s perspective.”
In a way, Downey should be considered lucky; Herman’s antics are significantly dialed down in Downey. In other meetings, such as in LA and Pasadena, Herman has dressed up in everything from Batman to Swastikas.
“It’s part of your free speech,” says Herman. “Some characters represent evil characters, sometimes they represent good characters…What does Batman represent? What does the Dark Knight represent? Evil? Or does he represent justice for all, and to find the core source of corruption of evil in the city?”
Thankfully, Downey hasn’t warranted a visit from any member of Herman’s Justice League, yet.
“The City of Downey hasn’t done anything offensive or really bad towards me,” said Herman. “Just like the people say, or the councilmen will say, or the mayor will say, ‘we’re like family.’ Sure, we are. Families have their little quarrels…then we come back together to an understanding.”
“I don’t have to put on a costume or dress a particular way to make a point to [Downey Council]. I do respect my elected officials…Downey is still a good city, but if it would be more proactive to meet all our needs as residents, I think it would have a better relationship with the community.”
The bi-weekly Tuesday crusades that Downey has come to expect from Herman are - at the bare minimum – uncomfortable, and the man himself is an anomaly in every sense of the word. It’s not easy to understand the antics of Armando Herman, and even more difficult is it to understand – or worse, sympathize with - his process.
But such is life for Downey’s most infamous gadfly.