Cause Celeb

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia