Ramon Gomez isn't used to being on the defensive.
Gomez, Chandler's most strident Latino activist and the self-appointed president of an organization called the National Civil Rights Movement, has spent the last four years in a perpetual pit-bull snarl. Along the way, he's annoyed and embarrassed local officials with a series of outlandish accusations and hysterical threats.
A few of the highlights: He's filed 11 recall applications against Chandler council members, including three separate efforts against Mayor Jay Tibshraeny. He's publicly referred to Tibshraeny as "Hitler," and boasts of calling Chandler Councilman Phill Westbrooks -- who is half African American and half Hispanic -- "Kunta Kinte" to his face. He's insisted that both the Chandler and Mesa police departments are plotting to kill him, and compared high-profile Chandler police officers to members of the Ku Klux Klan. And he's accused Senator Jon Kyl and former congressman Matt Salmon of secretly engineering the 1997 Chandler police roundup of suspected illegal immigrants.
He's also adept at unleashing some mammoth personal boasts. Gomez brags that he's met with the Phoenix Mountains Preserve arsonists, adding that they sought him out because of his civil rights credentials. He says that during last year's presidential campaign, Al Gore begged him for his endorsement. And he says that Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to have a one-on-one meeting with him in the nation's capitol. (Representatives for Gore and Ashcroft did not respond to New Times' requests for confirmation.)
Short and stocky, with thinning, sandy-brown hair, a carefully manicured goatee and penetrating green eyes, Gomez makes for a commanding figure when the TV cameras are on. Unfailingly stylish in his designer suits, he comes on with all the practiced haughtiness of a soap-opera lawyer, even though he isn't a lawyer at all. He impressively rattles off Abraham Lincoln quotes, constitutional references and legal precedents faster than anyone can check their accuracy.
As a result, simply by playing his part with brio, Gomez has become the Hispanic sound-bite machine of choice for the local media, a self-proclaimed advocate for the downtrodden, and even a valued ally of the Glendale and Scottsdale police departments.
But if Gomez is Chandler's most notorious attack dog, these days he's learning what it's like to have the high-decibel barking directed at him. Ed Magidson, his former comrade in the National Civil Rights Movement, is accusing Gomez of routinely taking money from low-income Hispanics for legal services that he's never delivered. Magidson also says that Gomez's boasts of having 42 state chapters and 40,000 active members in the National Civil Rights Movement are ludicrous, and that the organization is a complete sham.
The simmering war between Gomez and Magidson exploded on May 10, when Gomez went to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and accused Magidson of threatening his life, an accusation Magidson vehemently denies. In response, Magidson co-authored a fax sent to local law enforcement officials, accusing Gomez of being a civil rights fraud. On May 11, when Magidson indicated that he planned to picket the following morning outside a "Diversity Recruitment Conference" jointly organized by Gomez and the Glendale Police Department, Gomez abruptly canceled the event.
Reeling from Magidson's verbal grenades, a tearful Gomez sounds nothing like the pugnacious hell-raiser who periodically turns up at Chandler City Hall. His tone is closer to that of a misunderstood martyr, a freedom fighter underappreciated in his own lifetime.
"I'm so tired of everything, and I'm hurt," Gomez says. "What am I supposed to do? I know I'm not a bandido."
Gomez insists he's done much work for free, and never knowingly cheated anyone. But he grudgingly concedes that he's been disastrously inept at handling his organization's business affairs. He acknowledges that he's never filed a tax return for the National Civil Rights Movement, that the organization is not incorporated in Arizona, and that he's failed to maintain a proper accounting of his transactions.
"I've done some work on the side for people, and maybe I haven't always finished it," he says. "If I've ever done something wrong or not finished a job for someone, I want to know about it, so I can make amends."
Gomez has also drawn fire for his most recent recall effort, against Chandler Councilman Dean Anderson. Even Anderson's critics worry that Gomez has simply cried wolf too many times, and that a recall campaign launched by him will be tainted by his reputation.
For many local Latinos, even more than his media-hungry penchant for hyperbole, it is Gomez's inability to follow through with his intentions that remains his most damning flaw. They view him as a big talker who makes lavish promises, but long ago squandered credibility by failing to deliver.
Among his blown opportunities: He's abandoned all his recall efforts in Chandler before even attempting to obtain petition signatures; he came up empty when he split with the Chandler Coalition for Civil and Human Rights -- a group that sued the city over the police roundup -- and filed his own separate lawsuit; he publicly suggested that he would challenge Tibshraeny for mayor, then unceremoniously dropped the idea; and he's promised, and subsequently failed, to provide funding for a variety of local causes and events.
"I find him so wacky," says M.R. Diaz, a Chandler artist and president of the Coalition for Civil and Human Rights. "We like him, but when he pops up, we don't know what to believe.
"I remember once when Ramon requested all these city documents about the roundup, and it was maybe about $1,000 worth of paperwork. And then he never even went to pick it up."
Less than two months ago, Gomez promised that his organization would help sponsor Diaz's Cinco de Mayo celebration in Chandler, guaranteeing to provide $3,500 for the event. To no one's surprise, the money never arrived. Gomez explains this no-show by saying he didn't want to taint the event by attaching himself to it, at a time when he's facing damaging allegations.
"We didn't want to give them a black eye," Gomez says. "They deserve better."
Longtime Gomez observers, however, suggest a deeper reason for such unfulfilled promises: His ego tends to write checks that his wallet can't cash.
"He likes to say that money is no object, but we just never saw it," says Rosalia Garcia, a coalition member and co-owner of South Chandler Video. "He is a forceful speaker, and when you first meet him, that kind of grabs your attention. He seems to be trying to make himself much more important than he is. I think he does that because he wants to make an impression.
"He would say he was going to speak to President Clinton, or say that he was going to get in touch with these important people that he knew personally. And I would think, 'You don't need to say that to us, because it doesn't make any difference.'"
Despite the criticisms from both liberal and conservative insiders, Gomez does wield a strange influence, simply because he's so confrontational, and so adept at sounding authoritative.
Tibshraeny's city council members have worked to mold Chandler into a kind of New Scottsdale, a slick, upscale tourist magnet. Along the way, they've alienated Hispanics with plans to turn downtown Chandler into a Frank Lloyd Wright-themed entertainment district, complete with a statue of Wright in A.J. Chandler Park.
This plan depends on creating the appearance of ethnic harmony in a city with a history of discord between Anglos and Hispanics. But Gomez, with his shotgun blasts at every perceived inequity in the city, makes council members nervous, because they never know when he might hit a nerve.
When Tibshraeny hoped to quiet local complaints about the police roundup by creating a Human Relations Commission, Gomez was at the first meeting, voicing the feeling of many Hispanics, that the commission was nothing but a public relations Band-Aid.
"I was there, but I was too nervous to speak," Diaz recalls. "But Ramon got up, and he started wailing on them like you wouldn't believe. And those people looked like they were ready to be hit by a semi. Their eyes were huge, and they didn't know what to do."
When the Wright statue was proposed, Gomez cornered art-commission members and told them it was absurd to have a statue of Wright -- a man never associated with Chandler -- instead of a minority with real roots in the city.
Ultimately, feelings about Gomez in Chandler are as complex as Gomez's own bewildering shifts from race-baiting demagoguery (as when he publicly supported convicted child molester Ronald Ruelas on the grounds that Ruelas was a victim of discrimination) to why-can't-we-all-get-along idealism (as when he lauds the "good heart" and civil rights sensitivity of Sheriff Joe Arpaio).
As off-putting as Gomez's loose-cannon theatrics can be, some Hispanics get a cathartic rush from seeing Chandler council members wince and squirm in their seats whenever Gomez begins one of his barrages.
"He seems to turn up whenever the city's karma gets bad," Diaz says with a laugh. "He has a fear factor, which I think is good. If you're that paranoid about Ramon, you must be doing something wrong."
Ask any of the key players in Chandler politics when they first became aware of Gomez, and they'll all say July 1997, immediately after the police roundup.
Up until that point, his calendar was dominated more by personal traumas than by political conscience. In 1993, he filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, arguing that he had been sexually abused as an adolescent by three priests in East Valley churches. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Gomez doesn't hesitate to go into graphic detail about his experiences with the priests, which he blames for what he calls his period of "sexual confusion" as a young adult.
During this period, Gomez became a familiar -- if not tiresome -- figure to Chandler police officers. Chandler police files contain dozens of offense reports prompted by calls from Gomez between 1992 and 1996. They include repeated accusations by Gomez that a man he described as an ex-lover was threatening to kill him. The case was closed when Gomez decided not to press charges.
According to Chandler police reports, his parade of complaints eventually came to include his brother, Steven -- who has since passed away -- whom he accused of stealing his federal disability checks from the mail (police found the accusation unfounded), and a Mesa woman who was a friend of his brother Jesus.
Gomez told officers that the woman was continually calling and hanging up on him. He relentlessly chastised officers for not acting forcefully enough, engaging them in debates about the law, and threatening to sue them. In September 1993, after the woman filed a restraining order against Gomez, he accused her of violating an order of protection by entering the Gomez family home. It was an early hint of the legal tactics Gomez would employ against those, like Magidson, who crossed him.
In December 1993, he even called police to say that he believed he was being stalked by a representative of the Catholic church because of his lawsuit against the diocese. Police dismissed the accusation.
Gomez's most intense battle, however, was with a former business partner. In the mid-'90s, Gomez was part-owner of a Chandler hair salon called Salon de Peña. When the business collapsed in 1995, war broke out between the two parties. At one point, Gomez accused his ex-partner of kidnapping him, on the grounds that the man's truck was parked in such a way as to restrict Gomez's movement out of the salon. Chandler police suspended the case, but Gomez went on to file petitions for injunction against harassment against both his ex-partner and the man's ex-wife.
In the midst of such melodrama, Gomez didn't have much time to establish a positive direction for himself. When the Chandler police roundup of 432 Hispanics occurred in 1997, Gomez -- who was then approaching his 32nd birthday -- had little to show for his résumé but a failed hair salon and some experience helping out at his family's tire company.
But when a group of prominent Chandler Hispanics gathered at the Church of the Nazarene two days after the roundup to discuss a protest strategy, a confident Gomez attacked the city with a ferocity that jolted everyone in attendance. Calling for a housecleaning of the Chandler City Council and police department, he shouted, "If they want a sweep, let's give them a sweep."
"He just went completely bonkers," Diaz recalls. "He was saying, 'How dare you do this to the community,' and everything. That's where you could kind of tell who the media hounds were. After that, it sort of became another protest every other week."
Gomez insists he was drawn to the cause for the noblest possible reasons. "It [the roundup] was not a Hispanic issue, it was a civil rights issue," he says. "Some people didn't see that. Some people wanted the media attention. I wasn't interested in that."
Gomez attributes his concerns for the disenfranchised not only to his painful experiences with Catholic priests, but to an early childhood spent picking fruit in the hot sun.
The sixth of nine children born to longtime Mesa residents Steve and Catalina Gomez, he recalls that money was tight for many years, with both of his parents working two jobs to keep the kids fed.
"I remember getting up at 3 in the morning to get to the fields by 4," he says. "It was hard work. I'll never pick another watermelon again. I hated it."
For all of Gomez's vaunted empathy, he quickly demonstrated some unnerving tyrannical impulses to the other members of the Chandler Coalition. His high-strung, table-banging histrionics quickly grew tiresome to the more moderate members.
"He gets really worked up and very loud," Garcia says. "And it's almost the more he speaks, the louder he gets. That's really not our style, and we were just not fast enough for him, not aggressive enough.
By the time Phoenix attorney Steve Montoya took over the coalition's lawsuit against the City of Chandler, coalition members were openly complaining that they couldn't work with Gomez.
But Gomez's split with the coalition wasn't assured until August 29, 1997, when he made the rash move of filing recall applications against six council members, including Tibshraeny and Vice Mayor Judy Harris. Inexplicably, one of his targets was councilman Martin Sepulveda, a strong critic of the roundup and a subsequent recipient of an award from Gomez's National Civil Rights Movement.
"I can't explain my anger at the time, knowing that my people were in jeopardy," Gomez says. "I was wrong about Martin, but I've apologized. I didn't believe him at the time."
Coalition members wouldn't have minded if Gomez had launched the recall effort on his own, but they were incensed that he attached the coalition's name to the applications without consulting any other members. In response, they kicked him out of the group.
But adversity has a way of making Gomez more combative, and he responded to this rejection by creating an organization of his own. He called it the National Civil Rights Movement and declared himself president. He also filed his own lawsuit against Chandler, seeking $8.9 million in damages.
During negotiations, Gomez's inability to muzzle himself once again bit him in the backside. In September 1999, he announced to the Arizona Republic that the suit was on the verge of being settled, and attorneys for the city responded by abruptly calling off all settlement talks. Five months later, Gomez dropped the suit.
By this point, Gomez was directing most of his energy to his civil rights organization. But from the beginning, the National Civil Rights Movement was an oddly unfocused concept. Gomez -- who has criticized Cesar Chávez for limiting his focus to the plight of farm workers -- wanted to take on the cause of all victims of injustice, regardless of their race or ethnic group, regardless of whether they were from Nogales or Norway, regardless of whether the injustice was legal, social or economic.
Unfortunately, he had neither the organizational experience nor the manpower to make the ambitious plan semi-feasible. Despite his boasts of having 40,000 members, he's been unable to provide evidence that the organization includes anyone beyond his assistant, Rose Becker, and a few personal friends, such as Tempe civil rights attorney Keith Knowlton. Knowlton did not respond to calls from New Times, but Becker supports Gomez's estimates of the group's size and dismisses Magidson's accusations as pathetic lies.
Carroll Clark, a Mesa civil rights attorney who has handled several public-records requests for Gomez and shared an office building with the National Civil Rights Movement for eight months, says he's seen no indication that Gomez's organization is anything more than a small group of friends.
"I know of four or five people here, another four or five in Page, one guy in Nebraska, and that's it," Clark says.
Though Gomez often prefaces big decisions by saying, "I'll have to meet with my board," Magidson says he never witnessed a single board meeting in his time with the group, from 1999 until last month. When pressed on the issue, Gomez sheepishly concedes that he's never held a board meeting, but defends himself on the grounds that even if he's distorted the size and operations of his group, it's not important anyway.
"So what if I'm a bad person? So what if I make mistakes? I claim we have chapters in 42 states," he says. "I can claim whatever the hell I want to claim. If they're not incorporated, so what? Anybody can get a group together and call themselves something. And what crime have they committed?"
Financial problems have also hindered Gomez's attempts to make the National Civil Rights Movement a viable organization. A year ago, the organization was forced to vacate its Mesa office on East Broadway because Gomez could not pay the rent. More recently, he lost his Saturday morning Spanish-language talk show on Radio Unica after six months on the air, because he could not meet his monthly payments of $2,500 for the time slot.
But if Gomez's organizational skills are suspect, he's proven himself a master at getting his name in print and his face on the tube. When off-duty Scottsdale police officers were accused of mistreating minority patrons at Club Tribeca, Gomez turned up in the Arizona Republic, supporting the police department and threatening to file a lawsuit against the club.
When the state Legislature considered a bill requiring police officers to be trained on how to work with immigration officials, Gomez blasted the idea in the Republic, saying that such a law would not change police discrimination against Hispanics.
When opponents of former Immaculate Heart pastor the Reverend Saúl Madrid mounted a demonstration outside the Catholic diocese office last year, Gomez -- who is not an Immaculate Heart parishioner -- positioned himself in front of the phalanx of news cameras and announced that the National Civil Rights Movement would file a lawsuit against the Catholic diocese (an idea he later dropped) unless Bishop Thomas O'Brien stepped down.
But Gomez's biggest media impact revolved around his controversial support for Ronald Ruelas, a Longview Elementary counselor who was charged in 1999 with molesting six boys. Gomez became the public voice for the Ruelas family, speaking for them at press conferences, organizing a pro-Ruelas procession, and taking credit for posting Ruelas' bail.
Last June, when Ruelas was convicted on 18 counts of child molestation, sexual abuse, indecent exposure and providing harmful material to minors, Gomez called the trial "racially motivated" and announced that the National Civil Rights Movement would raise $3 million to mount an appeal.
Gomez's willingness to throw himself into the middle of such heated issues made him a lightning rod for criticism, but it also made his name familiar to locals in need of civil rights advice -- familiar enough to receive, according to his own count, 465 calls a week on his cell phone.
Gomez had now called himself a civil rights advocate so often, and so forcefully, he started to be treated like one.
M.R. Diaz recalls getting a firsthand glimpse of the shoestring nature of the National Civil Rights Movement during a visit to Gomez's home last year.
"He was on the phone, and he started calling the attorney general of the state, and the secretary put him on hold, so he got mad. Then he called the civil rights division and said he wanted to file a complaint against the secretary.
"Then a call came, and he asked, 'Are you looking for Ramon Gomez, the president? One moment please.' And he turned the phone over to the other side and spoke in a different tone. So he was his own secretary. I thought it was really weird."
Magidson, a 47-year-old Long Island native who runs the maverick consumer-protection Web site badbusinessbureau.com, met Gomez in 1999 after Gomez saw an advisory flier that Magidson had circulated in an effort to protect the rights of Chandler day laborers. Gomez was attracted to Magidson's relentless commitment to consumer rights, and Magidson was impressed by Gomez's oratory skills and his apparent command of the law.
Gomez quickly appointed Magidson president of the Arizona chapter of the National Civil Rights Movement. But Magidson says he gradually determined that there was no actual organization, and that Gomez used media attention to lure, and exploit, poor Hispanics in need of immigration services.
"People are constantly giving him money, but they give him money for work that he never gets done," Magidson says. "What pushed me over the edge is that I recently found that there are a bunch of people in the last few weeks that Ramon took his $600 from for immigration work, and he never got the work done."
Magidson argues that such victims haven't fought back because they're new to the country, generally don't speak English, and are nervous about their own legal status.
One of Gomez's more dubious practices involved taking money directly from clients in need of legal help, then passing the money to lawyers. He acknowledges that it was a bad idea, because it created the appearance that he was pocketing some of the money for himself.
"From now on, the lawyers should be dealing directly with the client," he says. "If they give us the check, and we pass the money on to the lawyers, if people end up unhappy, they'll say they gave us money and the lawyers didn't do any work for them."
While handling the media campaign for Ruelas, Gomez revealed to Magidson (in recorded phone conversations heard by New Times) that he had paid the wrong law firm $5,000 "by mistake" and now needed to find $5,000 to pay Ruelas' attorney, Barbara Spencer, or Ruelas' mother would be breathing down his neck.
Magidson says he helped Gomez out of this jam by lending him $2,500, a contention supported by a promissory note dated November 14, 1999, and signed by Gomez. For his part, Gomez says he never trusted Magidson, so he purposely misled him about his financial affairs.
Beyond the financial questions, Gomez's involvement in the Ruelas case raised eyebrows in the Hispanic community because many Hispanics believed Ruelas was guilty, and they didn't consider his cause a good expenditure of political capital. Montoya, however, credits Gomez with courage in supporting the vilified school counselor.
"It's one thing to be compassionate to the rich and popular, or those that are not rich and popular, but who are not despised," Montoya says. "And I think Ramon is compassionate to the despised, as well. And that's a very noble quality.
"When he came to the defense of Mr. Ruelas, that was clearly a despised person. Even though I think it was ill-advised, because I think Mr. Ruelas was guilty, it was compassionate for him to do that."
Ruelas' mother, Luisa, lauds Gomez as a tireless advocate for her son's cause. "We consider him our guardian angel," she says. "He's like a member of the family."
Gomez's willingness to go to bat for society's rejects can be impressive. James Simon, a convicted sex offender from Mesa, credits Gomez with straightening out problems he was having with his probation officer over an alleged probation violation. He says Gomez saved him from a return trip to jail and refused to take any money for his effort.
"The abused, the poorest of the poor, I take them all in," Gomez says.
But even Gomez's potential allies, most of whom agree that his heart is in the right place, are often confused by his confrontational techniques. They wince at his suggestion, in the wake of the roundup, that Hispanics march through Chandler brandishing pistols. They scratch their heads over the memory of Gomez haranguing the Chandler City Council about how police department saunas were going to lead to orgies within the department.
Diaz says, on one occasion, Gomez's verbal overkill even managed to infuriate the normally sympathetic former councilman Martin Sepulveda. Diaz says a group of Chandler residents had gathered to discuss a possible mayoral run by councilman Matt Orlando. He says Gomez swiftly kicked into a tirade, telling Orlando that if he wanted to run for mayor, he had to remove the chief of police, the city attorney and the city manager. Orlando diplomatically said he'd look into it. That didn't satisfy Gomez, who went on an endless rampage against the city's leaders. Diaz says Sepulveda, in complete exasperation, finally barked, "Listen, you little Mexican Jesse Jackson. Shut up and sit down." It's the only time anyone remembers seeing Gomez willingly surrender the floor.
Sepulveda did not respond to New Times' requests for an interview.
Gomez's ongoing battle with Westbrooks has been particularly nasty. He views Westbrooks as a disingenuous politician who courted the Hispanic community to get into office and abandoned it when Hispanics needed support after the roundup. Because he describes Westbrooks as a slave to Tibshraeny's whims, he publicly calls Westbrooks "Kunta Kinte" at every opportunity. In an interview with New Times, Westbrooks leaves little doubt that the antipathy is mutual.
"He gives the human rights movement a bad name," Westbrooks says. "He just makes a lot of noise, but he never accomplishes anything. He's turned out to be a joke."
"I question his truthfulness sometimes," says Chandler Police Chief Bobby Joe Harris, another of Gomez's chief targets. Harris says Gomez has a lingering vendetta against the Chandler Police Department because it did not meet his demands to arrest his personal enemies during his spate of complaints from 1992-96.
"He'll tell one organization that they're the only one not coming to a meeting, then he turns around and tells someone else that they're the only ones not coming. I don't think he has any credibility in the city of Chandler."
Few took Gomez seriously last month when he told friends that the National Civil Rights Movement is negotiating with an unnamed Hollywood studio to make a feature film about the Chandler roundup.
Similarly, his plan to turn Salvadoran singer Elmer Cortez's song "Hermanos Latinos" into a Latino "We Are the World" by enlisting such artists as Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Juan Gabriel to join together to record the song has been met with some skepticism in Chandler.
Gomez can't resist such utopian dreams, but on some level he seems to recognize the need to tone down his act. He insists that his recall effort against Anderson is serious and well-considered, not at all similar to his impulsive campaigns against other council members.
The recall move came in response to a near-physical confrontation in the council chambers last month between Anderson and Sepulveda, after Sepulveda told Anderson that he'd been disrespectful to council member Donna Wallace during a debate concerning a full-diamond interchange at the corner of Santan and Dobson.
Wallace praises Gomez "as someone who is very passionate, and who tries to put together solutions to problems," an assessment echoed by Glendale Police Chief David Dobrotka. Dobrotka, who has worked with Gomez over the last two years on the issue of bringing more minorities into law enforcement, credits Gomez with keeping the peace in Glendale after a controversial police roundup of suspected Hispanic gang members in that city in December.
"He could have created controversy, but he sat and listened to our side, and was reasonable," Dobrotka says. "It's always refreshing to me to find someone who's trying to represent the community, but does it in such a way, not to create dissension, but to find a resolution."
Gomez, who for so long has taken on the traits of a Latino Al Sharpton, now seems to prefer the idea of playing Martin Luther King. Briefly setting down his overactive cell phone, he lights up one of his beloved More filter cigarettes and ponders his fractured reputation.
"I don't want to be the scandal-crazed, psychopath Hispanic boy," he says, with characteristic urgency. "I don't want to be seen like that anymore. I've made mistakes, I'm not perfect. But I've never made mistakes out of malice."
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