By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Supporters of former Carson City Clerk Helen Kawagoe plan to hold a rally on Tuesday, Feb. 7, to demand that the City Council Chambers be named after her immediately.
The rally will take place at 5 p.m. on the corner of Avalon and Carson, in front of City Hall. Protesters will then attend a City Council meeting at 6 p.m.
Kawagoe, who was elected to a 10th term in March, suffered a stroke in September and is undergoing therapy. She resigned in December, ending her tenure of more than 37 years.
The issue is not whether to name the chambers after Kawagoe, but when. Following a lengthy and contentious debate at the last meeting on Jan. 17, the council voted 3-2 to do the renaming after Kawagoe’s passing. The majority said the city has a policy of not naming facilities after living persons.
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Ruiz-Raber and Councilmembers Lula Davis-Holmes and Mike Gipson voted down a resolution by Mayor Jim Dear and Councilmember Elito Santarina to rename the chambers while Kawagoe is still alive.
Kawagoe’s supporters became incensed when the council voted for Dear’s motion, then reconsidered and voted against it, with Gipson casting the deciding vote both times.
On a flyer with Kawagoe’s photo and the heading “Why do I have to die?,” rally organizers wrote, “They blatantly ignored almost 2,000 petition signatures from the community, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Congresswoman Janice Hahn. They ignored 80 speakers who spoke in support of Helen’s dream that the Carson Council Chambers be immediately named after her …
“She is known for going above and beyond the call of duty, being committed to her profession and serving the residents with distinction. Helen is held in the highest esteem by civic leaders, elected officials and was honored by the emperor of Japan.
“Her reputation and dignity brought pride and honor to the City of Carson. She is known as the ‘Mother of City Hall.’ Her only wish is that the council chambers where she served for so long bear her name.
“Please join us and support Helen’s dream! Put an end to the rancor, mean-spiritedness and injustice. Honor Helen now!”
Testimonials from Community
The idea of a “naming opportunity” for a park was brought up at the council’s December meeting, but was not discussed in earnest until January. During the public comment period, many Nikkei community members spoke.
Kenneth Inouye, JACL Pacific Southwest District regional director: “I’ve known Helen for over 30 years, and in that time I can tell you there’s not been one bigger ambassador for the City of Carson than Helen. She’s someone I think whose name would grace these halls for all the right reasons … She’s someone that stands for integrity. She’s someone that has the respect of the community.”
Kent Kawai, South Bay JACL president: “I’ve known her for over 15 years, when I started as a district youth/student representative. She was one of but a handful of people who actually supported me in the JACL. It is because of her support that I’m glad to be standing here today to support her.”
Colleen Miyano, Manzanar Committee: “Helen has been a great supporter of our committee’s mission, so I want to recognize her for that. Tonight I’d like to ask that you consider what an important example Helen is to young people for our community and our country. Because of her dedication to the City of Carson for the last 37 years, it is fitting and appropriate that her name be given to these council chambers.”
Ronald Shimokaji: “I know from personal experience her dedication to the Japanese American community, having served three terms as the president of the Gardena Valley Chapter and two terms as national president of the Japanese American Citizens League. She has been in the forefront of civil rights for all Americans, not just Japanese Americans.”
David Kawamoto, National JACL president: “Helen is a past president of our organization, and I can tell you that it’s because of her support and her encouragement that I currently serve in this voluntary capacity. I know Helen has served many other national and international organizations in the same way, and she gives that kind of support, encouragement, hard work, goodwill that she did for your city.”
Kathie Okamoto, Carson resident and business owner: “Helen is no longer able to speak for herself easily … (but) it has been made clear to me that doing this would bring her much pride and gratitude for her extraordinary length of service. Too often we honor those of merit after their demise. It does nothing to bring joy or pride to the deceased … In the big scheme of things, it seems like a small deed that would mean so much to a woman who has been a wondrous treasure to our community.”
Sheryl Miyamoto, Kawagoe’s stepdaughter, referring to the park proposal, said, “At the last council meeting I was quite upset … because this is something that has been discussed with Helen over the years, not something new that came up that was brought to your attention. It’s something she has wanted and asked for, and after the meeting she sat with each of the council members and the mayor and expressed what she wanted. I was with her and she said, ‘Chambers, chambers. No park.’
“And if any of you think that Helen is going to beat around the bush, then you don’t know Helen. She said, ‘I want the chambers’ … Give Helen what she wants while her eyes are open, while she is alive … What you are striving for is such a greater honor that far exceeds what she wants. But that can be done after she dies.”
She added, “There are two other cities that have named their council chambers after the city clerk after they retired. They didn’t die … I think Helen would love to be among those highly regarded city clerks.”
Other Nikkei community representatives included Kanji Sahara, former president of San Gabriel Valley JACL; Raymond Shibata, board member of Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute; and Janet Okubo, Imperial Avalon Mobile Home Estates resident.
Support from Colleagues
A number of Kawagoe’s colleagues offered their support. Planning Commissioner Amador Saenz said, “I remember several times when I had a chance to talk to her … So many times she mentioned it to me.” He said he promised to circulate a petition on her behalf.
Gardena City Councilman Dan Medina told his Carson counterparts, “I would really appreciate it as one elected official to another, please give her that respect by giving this name of this edifice in her name because it’s the right thing to do, and one of the things we were elected to do is to serve.”
Economic Development Commissioner Dobard commented, “I have an office in Las Vegas, one in Denver and one in California. Almost anyplace I go, when I say City of Carson, (people say) ‘Oh! I know the city clerk.’ I have not heard that about my mayor, my City Council … but everybody knows about Helen … She has done more, in my opinion, than any other public official in the City of Carson.”
Former Councilmember Mary Anne O’Neal noted that Kawagoe worked long hours, “from early in the morning often until 2 or 3 o’clock the next morning,” and that “I’ve never heard Helen say anything negative about anyone … She loved doing what she did … I visit her from time to time and I really think you don’t know how hurt she is (by the ongoing debate).”
Richard Vaughn of the Mobile Home Park Rental Review Board called Kawagoe “a civil rights champion … an individual who was put in an internment camp who rose and helped her people receive reparations … a champion that we can all look on. Because the civil rights fight is never over, and it doesn’t just belong to one race. It belongs to us all.”
Dorothy Dominguez of the Senior Citizens Advisory Commission recalled that when she was a poll worker for the city, “Helen … brought us lunch, and I thought that was very good of her. And she worked such long hours at the special election also. This is her home. Everyone here is her family.”
Marvin Clayton of the Public Relations Commission suggested that the rule about only naming facilities after the deceased should be taken “on a case-by-case basis. In this particular case … please do the right thing and come together with this vote.”
Planning Commissioner Harold Williams, a former councilmember who first worked with Kawagoe when he became director of public works, said, “There is not one person that I ran into that had a bad thing to say about Helen … Everyone who came in contact with her was treated with kindness and respect … Although naming the chambers in Helen’s name would be a tribute to her, I believe it would be an honor for the entire City of Carson.”
Public Safety Commissioner Louis Cogut called Kawagoe “a pillar in our community” and said that he sometimes exchanged pleasantries with her in Japanese. When she asked him, “Genki desu ka?” (How are you?) he would respond, “Genki desu. Okage sama de” (I’m well, thanks to you).
Tiny Cook brought 140 signatures “from seniors who would like to see this happen.” She said, “There’s a whole lot more signatures coming up towards you too.”
Raul Murga of the Imperial Carson Mobile Estates Homeowners Association said that over the years, “senators, assemblymembers, mayors and councilmembers alike have come and gone … Helen has sat in this very chair, faithfully serving them all … We have come to this very place to bear witness to this icon of truly unselfish public service.” He helped obtain over 1,400 signatures in support of “Helen’s dream” and noted that “no one refused to sign our petition.”
Jan Schaefer, who was Kawagoe’s neighbor for many years, said, “When I was gathering signatures for the petitions that will be presented to you tonight, I was amazed at how many people know Helen and had a story to tell. I found out that what people think of most when they think of Helen is about her generosity, whether that generosity be in the form of mentoring, a gift, a smile, a helping hand, a kind word, that is what Helen means to them … It’s not often in a lifetime that we get an opportunity to pay back, to do something really good and right for someone who has given so much to all of us.”
Paul Randall of the Harbor Village Homeowners Association said, “We were able to get 167 signatures on this petition in four days. Nobody turned us down.”
Terri Forsythe of Homeowners Against Rent Decontrol brought another stack of petitions, “bringing to total tonight of over 1,800 signatures with more to come tomorrow … We’re only at 1,800 because we just got started. There will be thousands more signatures that we will be presenting to you.”
Tommy Faavae called Kawagoe the “first lady” of Carson and asked her supporters in the audience to stand up.
Tommie Williams pointed out, “When our late Congresswoman Juanita McDonald made her transition, they decided to name something after her after she was gone … Don’t give a person her roses after they’re dead, they cannot smell them. Give it to them while they’re living … Put aside your differences and think with your heart for once.”
Wilma Wilson said that when she saw Kawagoe earlier that day, “She couldn’t say a word but she expressed what she was feeling through her tears … Give Helen the gift that she’s already picked out, the gift that she desires.”
Community activist Ricardo Pulido said he and his wife visited Kawagoe and asked her what she thought of the naming issue. “She was in a wheelchair and she got up. She held my hands and shook her head and shook my hands with a lot of strength … She understood. She knows what’s going on. She’s very coherent. That would make her life, that would complete her dream.”
Pauline Davis, who recently brought Kawagoe to City Hall, said, “She knew exactly where she was at and she wanted to walk in here … She wanted to walk down that aisle. She still knew this was her home.”
Dianne Thomas, who worked on Kawagoe’s campaigns, said, “We need to throw the biggest celebration for her this city can bring. Generally when we retire from a position or office or job, you get a retirement party. I think she should be showered with flowers that she can smell while she’s alive … But we have an ordinance that says if we’re going to consider naming something after someone, that that person is no longer with us when that happens … I think there’s a time and place for everything … I don’t believe in memorializing people before it’s time.”
Davis-Holmes stated, “I also agree with the fact that this council chamber should be named after Helen Kawagoe … (But) we have in place a policy that we do not name public facilities and/or buildings after people that are living. My resolution says that this city council chamber will be named after Helen Kawagoe once she has made her transition and that her family will know that.”
She noted that some of the city’s founding fathers, such as former Mayor Gil Smith, are still living and have not been similarly honored, and that she had opposed Dear’s efforts a few months ago to have a street named after him, which she called a source of “negative publicity” for the city.
“I don’t want to open up the floodgates … I’m a long-term resident too and I’m alive and well, and my imprint is on every park in this city. Every park,” Davis-Holmes said. “I have not asked for anything to be named after me.”
Dear declared, “It’s an insult to the people of Carson to say to someone who’s in a healing process … ‘We want to wait until you’re dead before we recognize the work you did for the people of Carson.’ Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just ashamed.”
He added that many local sites have been named after living public figures, including former Assemblymember George Nakano, former Gardena Mayor Ed Russ and former Gov. George Deukmejian.
“Every member of the City Council has expressed that they call Helen ‘Mom’ … I would say common decency would be to respect her, love her and adore her like you say you do, because I believe God has a special place in hell for those that are hypocrites,” Dear said. “So don’t speak one way and act another way.”
Ruiz-Raber agreed with Davis-Holmes. “Helen will know that this is her chambers. She will know with the celebration that we have for her. She will be able to come here and actually know that this is going to be in her name … (But) we have to honor the ordinances … because if we set a precedent it’s really difficult to say no to other people, and you don’t want to do that.”
Gipson said, “I think that we all want to make sure that Helen’s memory and legacy continues on … This is her house … Helen’s name will be here on this house … Let’s not get sidetracked about when. It will in fact be named after this great leader.”
After the council voted to rename the chambers immediately, there was a recess. When the council reconvened, Gipson called for a vote to reconsider. Many of the speakers returned to the podium to condemn the move, but to no avail.
Inouye urged the council, “Please vote for this resolution as if you were voting for your own mother.”
Forsythe accused Gipson of being influenced by Davis-Holmes and Ruiz-Raber, while Murga said that the council’s inability to unite on this issue after three hours of debate would make Carson “a laughingstock.”
Rosa Banuelos stated, “I’m ashamed to be represented by some councilmembers tonight.”
Miyamoto said that the council was telling Kawagoe, “It doesn’t matter what you want.”
If Kawagoe were her old self, Miyamoto said, “she would give you hell.” But since “she is not in a good state right now … I am her biggest advocate because she deserves it … I am with my family behind me, fighting for her.”
The final resolution was amended to make the renaming immediate upon Kawagoe’s passing instead of 60 days thereafter, as originally proposed.