Do The Right Thing: A lesson from Radio Raheem’s boom box
The way I see it, there are typically two types of people that run for elected office – humanitarians and megalomaniacs.
As campaigning requires sleepless nights and caffeine-coma, 18-hour workdays, I imagine those willing to undertake the relentless exercise are either hoping to change the world or looking to rule it.
Many among our readership are elected officials. And to those of you for whom the shoe fits, I ask a simple question – are you in it for the people or for the power?
In this issue, you’ll read a bit about mayors who are making a positive difference. Among the pack, Nestor Enrique Valencia, now mayor of Bell, Calif.
As you likely know, Bell made national news when city leadership were found guilty of corruption, having bilked the city and its residents out of $ millions, enjoying excessive salaries and perks while they bled Bell to the point of bankruptcy. What you likely didn’t hear about, however, was the culture of intimidation the leadership held over its citizens, manipulating elections and inflicting public humiliation on residents who dared to speak out at meetings.
For his part, Valencia is no stranger to challenge. Born in Cihuatian Jalisco, Mexico, Valencia and his family illegally immigrated to the US in 1969 and settled in the city of Compton, where Valencia’s father worked in a factory to support the family’s five children. Eventually, the family became legal citizens and settled in Bell.
Valencia’s foray into the public fray began simply enough. When his father noticed unaccounted for rises in taxes for garbage services, he and Valencia went to the government offices to inquire. They were met by a code enforcer, who not only refused to answer questions but also, according to Valencia, said that “everyone pays taxes and therefore my dad should stop complaining and pay taxes just like everyone else. He also made a reference to us being ‘new to the country’ and used profanity.”
Incensed, Valencia began to question more of the government’s policies – liquor stores across from elementary schools, exorbitant taxes, changing election dates or having no election dates at all (“[Then City Manager Robert] Rizzo once told me that there were no elections because there was simply no leadership in Bell,” Valencia recalls). With his questions came a barrage of government-incited harassment.
When running for office in 2007, Valencia says “hit pieces” were issued by corrupt officials looking to “assassinate” his character. Goons in the government’s pocket told Valencia’s wife that he was cheating on her (he wasn’t) and even harassed his daughter at her elementary school. When Valencia brought the problem to the school principal, he was told, “Perhaps [you] should just move.”
But this is not a story where the bad guys win. The nation knows how this movie ends: Valencia stands his ground, residents rally to “Do The Right Thing,” and the megalomaniacs that bully Bell are ousted.
Today, Bell operates with a government that promotes the power of the people rather than seeking the power to rule over them. The city’s finances are improving, the government promotes a high level of transparency (Bell now boasts an A- rating from the Sunshine Review), and the culprits – criminals! – of the story are languishing behind bars. Bell is even leading a national (and controversial) charge, positioning itself as a potential interim place for displaced Central American refugee children.
Valencia told The Washington Times that such initiatives are exemplary of the people of his community – and of its new leadership. “We’re not a rich community, but we are wealthy in compassion, and humanitarian.”
“Fight The Power” indeed!