By Ruth Broyde Sharone
L.A. Latinos Elect Muslim Mayor
About 91 percent of the 37,000 residents of the city of Bell in California are Latino, primarily Catholic. Ali Saleh, of Lebanese ancestry, was elected as Bell’s mayor last year, and he is Muslim.
What’s right with this picture? Everything.
But how did a Muslim whose parents emigrated from Lebanon get to be the mayor in a city in Los Angeles County that is primarily Latino? Whatever happened to entrenched ethnic and religious loyalties?
Ali Saleh’s answer is simple. “I was born in Bell, grew up here, and attended schools in the neighborhood.” While learning Arabic from his parents and English in school, Ali learned Spanish from his neighbors. He is a native son of the community.
Now married with four kids (ages 6, 8, 9, and 16), Ali makes his living as a businessman in the clothing industry as well as real estate. He also receives $670 a month in salary as Bell’s mayor, which causes people in Bell to smile today, including Ali. In 2009, scandal rocked Bell City Hall when its citizens woke up one morning to discover that their former city manager, Robert Rizzo, had been banking an annual salary of $800,000. After the story broke, capturing national headlines, reporters discovered that in addition to the Rizzo’s exorbitant income, Bell Police Chief Randy Adams made more than $400,000 a year. Bell citizens were furious and shocked at the corruption. “We’re not going to take it anymore!” was their call to arms.
Rizzo and Adams were two of eight city officials found guilty of filching money from the residents of Bell, generating the most outrageous financial scandal in recent California history.
Recovering from Scandal
A number of schemes were exposed. For instance the City of Bell took in $1 million by impounding cars in 2008. Police officers concocted a plan to milk the residents by doling out excessive traffic violations and infractions. They impounded cars and then charged up to $2,000 for drivers to repossess their vehicles, many times more than any other community in L.A. “All of this was just a means to nickel and dime the community to death to get more money out of them,” says community activist Christina Garcia.
Enter Ali Saleh.
In 2009, Ali was urged by members of the city council to run for office. When he did, he suffered an immediate backlash. He realized that some of the council members did not actually expect him to take up the challenge but were paying lip service to “democracy.” He received hate mail, he remembers, and flyers were distributed saying “Vote NO to Muslims for our city council. They’ve never been here for us and now they want to take over.” Ali didn’t win that election, but he didn’t give up.
He and Christina Garcia and others got together and campaigned harder.
In 2011 Ali Saleh again ran for city council. This time he canvassed door to door. Most of the Latino residents knew who he was, and the Muslim connection never came up, he said.
He won and now serves as mayor on the city council, together with four others, the vice-mayor, who is Caucasian, and three council members who are Latino, two of them women.
Ali winces while citing the huge challenges they faced when he took office. Bell City Hall was picked clean. They were left without a staff or business manager, and with a huge debt they are still struggling to pay off. “Since there was no way down, there was only one way for us to go – Up!” Ali remarks with a generous grin. Currently they are exploring a wide range of ideas for city improvement and expansion, but in an economy severely damaged by the scandal, exacerbated by the current economic malaise. “We are eager to bring more business into the community, including Mom and Pop stores, as well as supermarkets chains,” Ali notes.
Ali Saleh is considering running for state office. Friends and local citizens are encouraging him to run because they feel he could win. His achievements, friendly manner, dedication, and clean record make him a favorite. Religion does not seem to be an issue any longer. In fact, Ali is confident that many more Muslims in America will begin to emerge as leading contenders for political office. “It’s just a matter of time,” he predicts.
We may be looking at the new and future face of America, a time when public officials will be chosen by their qualifications and willingness to serve, not because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. Birth certificates will not be scrutinized, but performance and integrity will. People like Ali Saleh are proving its possible.