Albert [Robles] had arrived in 1991 as a young Latino eager to get involved, someone people wanted to help. But by 2000, folks active in city politics saw him as a Latino Joe McCarthy, a bully unacquainted with scruples….
Albert showed himself willing to fully use the perks of elected office. As treasurer, he hired a staff of four for what had always been a one-person job. He ran for the water-district job promising to abolish the district that “sucked money out of the pockets of people.” Yet as board member, he charged the district more than sixteen thousand dollars for classes in acting, finance, flight simulation, and seminars by inspirational speaker Tony Robbins. Robbins held particular fascination for Albert, and he often attended the speaker’s seminars, rising to hold a platinum membership in Robbins’s business.
People routinely began to describe Albert as “evil,” with no hyperbole intended. Later, Mexican immigrants would call him the cucuy—the boogeyman. People watched him with the same awe and horror as they might a passing hurricane. They spent hours thinking about him, analyzing his tactics and motives, sputtering at his audacity.
“He’s the best villain ever,” said Frank Rivera, a leader in South Gate‘s police union. “He’s a short, fat little guy who gets all the money, all the women, all the cars, and he doesn’t go away until the end of the movie. And even at the end of the movie there’s still a chance for him to come back and grab you. That’s Albert Robles. He is the cucuy. You can’t even mention his name without fearing that he might have somebody listening. If he were a pinata, I could honestly get people to line up for some stick time on him.”
Albert’s life attracted bizarre rumors. It was hard to know what was true. Still I took the rumors as at least a sign of how people thought of him and, after a while, of what they were willing to believe. He was said to be a great follower of Sen. Huey Long, the populist from Louisiana. He was said to have photos of John F. Kennedy and Adolf Hider on his wall. He was obsessed with guns and owned many. People said he ate bread and sweets to excess and that this was one reason his moods swung so wildly and why he never quite won the battle with his paunch. His mother was supposed to have cared for comedian Richard Pryor after Pryor lighted himself on fire smoking cocaine. Robles’s father was supposed to have once been a Roman Catholic priest, leaving the priesthood to marry Robles’s mother. His father had an affinity for great philosophers. Robles’s brother was an ex-convict named Mahatma Gandhi Robles.
What was undeniable was that by 2000, Albert had assembled an impressive array of enemies: city unions and business owners, white seniors, and a good many Latino politicians; and soon, the editorial board of every newspaper in the area. Pastors at South Gate churches usually avoided politics. But Fr. John Provenza, the local Roman Catholic priest, eventually blessed a campaign kickoff of a Robles opponent. He noted in a bulletin to his congregation that three Robles opponents regularly attended mass. Provenza and Lutheran minister Chuck Brady spoke at a rally of Robles’s opponents.
“We pray for Albert,” said Brady. Robles, in turn, called himself David confronting the establishment’s Goliath. He was a friend of the little guy whom the political elite had ignored. “Competition in these small cities was nonexistent. Now there’s competition,” he told me. “That’s why you see people trying to knock down the Albert Robleses of the world. Albert came to fill a need for leadership within the Latino community.”
As I spent time in South Gate, it seemed to me that Albert was an essay in the contravention of small-town political customs. In most small towns, councilmen have lives and full-time jobs outside city hall. In California, they receive only $600 a month in salary to ensure that politics remain community service. Indeed, everyone in South Gate politics had outside jobs and families. Only Albert did not. He lived from income derived from his jobs as city treasurer ($75,000 a year, until a referendum reduced it to $600 a month) and water-district board member ($40,000 a year). Later, when he was running the entire city government, his council created the job of deputy city manager, at $111,000 a year, and hired Albert. Thus he had the time, desire, and eventually the money to devote to politics.