Cristina Garcia is still saying basta! to graft

Cristina Garcia was on the battlefield as a citizen activist when the first shots were fired in this newfangled Southern California war on municipal corruption.

It’s been a fight against the waste of  money in local government taken on not by middle-class White suburban anti-taxers but by the working-class children of Latino immigrants in Southeastern Los Angeles County.

In cities that for many Angelenos are purely drive-through communities off the 710 Freeway — Maywood, Vernon, Bell Gardens and South Gate — a new class of activists had arisen.

Garcia, who lives in Bell Gardens, was weaponized in the war against graft fully a dozen years ago now when the Los Angeles Times began its Pulitzer-winning reporting on the fiefdom being run by City Manager Robert Rizzo in neighboring Bell, where he cleared on the order of $1.5 million a year while running one of the state’s smallest and poorest cities. He would soon be owed an annual pension of $600,000. He had a horse farm in Washington state, for goodness’ sake.

Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and police Chief Randy Adams also sported spectacular salaries, as did four of the five members of the City Council.

The good news is that Rizzo was arrested and did hard time — sentenced to 12 years in prison — instead of having a cushy retirement. The entire council was recalled by Bell voters through the work of BASTA, which Garcia co-founded. That’s all because locals read the papers and acted on what they found out.

When she was very young, Garcia ran for City Council in her own city — unsuccessfully. Then she began attending council meetings in neighboring Bell after a friend there asked her to help try to figure out why their property taxes were so high in a city with so few amenities for citizens. (Answer: corruptly high salaries, for one.) Rizzo and other city officials were prosecuted and imprisoned.

In 2012 Garcia ran for the California Assembly on the strength of her fight against corruption, defeating in the primary former Assemblyman Tom Calderon of the infamous political family. (In 2014, Calderon and his brother, state Sen. Ron Calderon were indicted for bribery. In 2016, Calderon pleaded guilty to money-laundering.)

She was re-elected in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Two years short of terming out from the Legislature, she took a flier on a congressional race. Didn’t pan out. Not that she’s resting on her laurels, but when I caught up on the phone with Garcia last week at her family home in Bell Gardens, she told me that she’s taking a healthy six months away from … everything.

“Just some time off,” she said.

After that?

“I don’t know. I might go back to teaching.”

Garcia, educated at Pomona College, and with a master’s from Claremont Graduate University, did in fact formerly teach math and statistics at the community college level.

I don’t think she’s going back to that.

I pressed her a tiny bit.

“Look, I did what I wanted to do” in the Legislature. “I grew the Women’s Caucus.”

When first elected to the Assembly in 2014, she also authored a packet of successful bills aimed at dampening down political corruption.

“But if I have to give myself a grade” for her time in Sacramento? “It’s an incomplete,” she said.

“Because only in some years did I move the ball forward in Sacramento,” she added. “It’s a team effort. I will say this: going after local electeds who are corrupt doesn’t make you any friends. If you don’t want to be challenged, it’s a choice. And most people don’t want to line up with me. They didn’t want that fight.”

In other words, our kind of electoral politics — while better than, say, military dictatorship — simply breeds corruption. It comes with the territory.

As she has some time to reflect on what has changed after a dozen years in the game, Garcia mostly has to sigh. “I see a lot of the same players” who benefit from corruption, or at least politics as usual, “who have just moved from one place to another.”

In her next breath, she muses: “For a strong democracy, the work never ends. For many communities in the southeast, it’s a struggle just to survive, and it’s hard to get out to council meetings, for instance. It takes time, it takes generations, it takes education.”

Are there signs of hope, of real progress against corruption? “Well, the Pat Brown Institute is doing work in that region, and it’s slowly paying off,  but it will take a long time, this struggle.”

Of the citizen activists who have followed her, she says: “They don’t have the resources, and then they get attacked for being crazy. … We have a public records act, but there are so many reasons (local governments) can say ‘We can’t give you those records,’ and then you have to have an attorney, and many can’t afford that.”

What are some of the areas of worry she has about restoring transparent government?

“Legalized cannabis,” Garcia says. “Look, I was one of the legislators for Prop. 64. But we run the same risk with cannabis that we have in other aspects of government regarding corruption: it’s the continuation of the status quo. Breaking the cycle of (marijuana) arrests was important — but we have to be intentional, having a government that seems to be transparent at least.”

Other worries? “Look at the Central Basin Water District!” The already mismanaged bureaucracy hired Alejandro Rojas to rehabilitate it, and he now faces charges of money laundering, soliciting a bribe and grand theft embezzlement from his time as superintendent of La Puente’s Bassett Unified School District.

“Things have gotten better,” Garcia allows, “but I still think there are a lot of the factions that make it a corridor of corruption. In retrospect, the recall we led with BASTA was the easy part.” Then she begins to muse again: “I have to start going back to council meetings. I think a lot of them have used the pandemic shutdowns, the virtual meetings, to their benefit, and don’t want to open back up to the in-person public.”

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board.