One Gigante Mess

How a multibillion-dollar corporation played the victim and got its liquor license

Photo by Gustavo ArellanoThere was a time when Amin David fancied himself the Carrie Nation of Anaheim. Take, for instance, the night of April 10, 2001, when the prominent Latino activist confronted his city's elementary school board over the issue of liquor licenses in the city.

"How dare you cast aside the well-being of our community and of our children," he thundered. "You have no shame!"

The shameless board had refused to join David in crusading against an Ultramar gas station's alcohol permit. According to David and his civic group Los Amigos, crime around Ultramar was 148 percent above the city average and too close to the vulnerable children of Benjamin Franklin Elementary.

Flash forward to Aug. 20, when David had become José Cuervo. That night, he urged the City Council to approve a liquor license for Gigante, the Mexican supermarket behemoth. Weeks before, the city planning commission approved Gigante's plan to open a massive store but killed the company's all-important liquor license application. Gigante seized on the denial as evidence of racism, and David—a powerful figure in the Latino community—agreed. Never mind that approving the permit would allow Gigante to sell hooch in an area with a crime rate 184 percent above the city average. Or that Gigante will be closer to two schools than Ultramar was to Franklin. Or that the area already carries more liquor licenses than state law allows. No, David asserted, denying the Guadalajara-based conglomerate a liquor license was clearly racist.

Besides David, Gigante's race war was also waged by an army of men and women with the motive to deliberately misconstrue the conflict:

•Curt Pringle. The former Republican speaker of the state Assembly now aspires to the Anaheim mayor's office. His biggest obstacle: in his 1988 Assembly campaign, Pringle hired private guards to scare Latinos from the polls. Pringle denied that he intended to intimidate voters but subsequently paid $400,000 to settle a resulting federal lawsuit. Siding with Gigante allows Pringle to cast himself as a champion of Latinos in a city with a Latino majority.

•Dick Ackerman. The 33rd District state senator wants to be your next Attorney General. But like Pringle, Ackerman is haunted by his autobiography. He's a staunch conservative, one of the few politicians to openly support the failed anti-immigrant "Son of 187" initiative in 2000. This won't play well to Latinos, who, statewide, could possibly hold the swing vote in a close election. So Ackerman co-authored with fellow state Senator Joe Dunn an Aug. 19 Orange County Register editorial stating that denying Gigante its liquor license constituted "a thinly veiled attempt to erase diversity from neighborhoods that are clearly multicultural."

•Rick Eiden. The director of organizing for United Food and Commercial Workers No. 324 argued passionately on Gigante's behalf. Eiden's case was economic: Gigante needed a liquor license to create new jobs in an impoverished community. UFCW is Gigante's union of choice.

•Nativo Lopez. The Hermandad Mexicana Nacional president faces a recall effort as a member of Santa Ana's board of education. In an already hyperbolic PR campaign, Lopez went nuclear to distinguish himself, calling Anaheim's liquor license rejection "market ethnic cleansing." His reward: his mug printed on newspapers.

•Leo Chavez. The UC Irvine anthropology professor told the Register on Aug. 21, "If you don't let [Latinos] have their own stores and own food, it's a symbolic closing of the door. There's more to [the Gigante case] than whether they let them have a liquor license or not." Um, no, there isn't.

•Gordon Dillow. The hee-haw Registercolumnist surprised many by charging Anaheim with racism—but surprised no one when he went on to describe Gigante's Covina store. "I didn't really feel like I was in my own country," he wrote. "I think we all have a personal, subjective vision of what we want this country to be. And for me, the Gigante concept isn't part of it."

•The mainstream media. From the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times, from Mexico's La Reforma to NPR's All Things Considered, reporters hyped Gigante's inflammatory claims. A commentator on www.hispanicvista.com summed it up best, declaring that city officials rejected Gigante's liquor license because Anaheim's non-Latinos "feel overpowered by so many brown faces, their language, music and cultural differences—in their eyes, keeping Gigante out keeps Orange County American."

Other people running for public office in the fall also played the role of valiant civil rights activists: Zeke Hernandez and Mike Garcia (Santa Ana City Council), John Palacios (Santa Ana Unified School District), Richard Chavez (Anaheim City Council), and even David (Anaheim Union High School District).

So it was left to private citizen Cynthia Ward to navigate the rhetoric. Ward stood at the podium and pleaded with the City Council to keep a lid on liquor licenses in her neighborhood, starting with Gigante. But the numbers were against her—a housewife facing down a multibillion-dollar multinational company supported by civic leaders eager to certify their diversity credentials. When her few minutes ended, she shuffled off.

It's impossible to read body language with certainty, but Ward looked defeated. Ultimately, she was. The council caved, overruling its own planning commission on a 3-1 vote.

 
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