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The legacy of Mr. Santa Maria
Former Mayor George Hobbs remains a controversial figure past his death
BY KIRSTEN FLAGG

Date: 10/12/2006

They put an era to bed when they buried former mayor George Hobbs on Oct. 6.


Local leader:
A younger George Hobbs practices his role as city official at a ribbon cutting in the 1970s.
PHOTO COURTESY PAUL HOBBS
Few played a bigger role in shaping the future of Santa Maria in recent history. During his 34 years on the Santa Maria City Council, he set the tenor of local politics, guided the hungry hand of development, and made fast friends or enemies with nearly everyone in the valley.

Tom Urbanske spent 12 years on the council with Hobbs. A lifelong Democrat, Urbanske often disagreed with the populist Hobbs, who was forever switching party loyalties. Nonetheless, they grew to become good friends, in and out of City Hall.

Urbanske said he can't remember the first time he met Hobbs. It might have been in a park sometime in the early 1960s on an afternoon walk with his wife. He said he hadn't realized he was talking to the mayor at the time. It was just one average Joe exchanging pleasantries with another Urbanske is a retired math teacher Hobbs was a postal worker.

 

Or,wholesale phone cases he said, it may have been the first City Council meeting Urbanske ever attended soon after he moved to the town. He went to defend an African-American neighbor whom others were trying to drive off their block. He found himself on the same side as then-newly appointed Mayor Hobbs, who hurled his usual ruthless criticisms at those he saw as the real neighborhood trouble-makers the white neighbors.

This was in the early 1960s, when some realtors still sold houses by assuring buyers that no black people lived in the area, Urbanske said.

Whichever actually occurred first, both of Urbanske's memories paint a picture of Hobbs as the common man's politician, just as unafraid to meet people on the street as an average citizen as he was to voice an unpopular opinion in the name of fairness, common sense, and his own morality.

Though his roots in Santa Maria ran generations deep, Hobbs felt it was his role to challenge the city's established elite, Urbanske said.

"George had a pretty strong code of what was right and wrong. ... George wasn't an empire builder," he said. "To me, George's No. 1 goal was to see that the community was run right and that the people would abide by this code."

If you ask the many local politicians who knew Hobbs during his 34 years in City Hall, they'll all tell you nearly the same thing Hobbs was a true Santa Marian.

"I just think that his legacy was that here was an average person, a postman, that could be the mayor of our city," said Harrell Fletcher, a former Santa Barbara County supervisor. "And I think that probably you had to be well liked or you couldn't have served for 30 years as an elected official."

But many will always remember him as the man who said Santa Maria has a "Mexican problem," a remark especially remembered by those in the Latino community who still feel the scars of the comment that would become national news.


In touch:
Even during his 22 years as mayor, George Hobbs seen here on a stroll with the family dog in the mid-1990s was known to stop and greet people on the streets, one common man to another.
PHOTO COURTESY PAUL HOBBS
"It's easy for them to say today that he was a great man and he was Mr. Santa Maria," said Joe Talaugon, a long-time civil rights activist who sued the city along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). "You can say all those good things, but nonetheless all of the turmoil and hurtfulness that he created is still there. ... I don't want to create hostility or bring up old wounds, but you know I don't think it ever went away."

As a popular leader and a "man of the people," Hobbs held a lot of sway over public opinion, especially when it came to defining who was a real Santa Marian and who would forever be an outsider. Maybe that's why his speech to the Santa Maria Valley Economic Development Association on July 16, 1990, sent such shock waves throughout the Central Coast and continues to illicit strong emotions from those who remember it.

Santa Maria Lawyers

It didn't matter that these comments were buried five pages deep in the Santa Maria Times: "At this time in Santa Maria, we have a Mexican problem. We have a difficulty with scads of illegal aliens that have come across the border, and they've made our neighborhoods look not like Santa Maria."

 

The mayor went on to distinguish "Santa Maria Mexicans" from newer immigrants who had no intention of "becoming American," who gathered in the streets to drink and smoke cigarettes. Hobbs then called on the U.S. government to build colonies south of the border to stop the influx of immigrants, as reported at the time.

The mayor was responding to a real phenomenon the Latino community was growing on the Central Coast at that time. In California, the Hispanic population had more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, from 12 percent to 26 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census. In 1990, Latinos made up 33 percent of the population of Santa Maria.

"It really wasn't designed to be against Mexicans. If he had been in Santa Barbara, he might have said, 'We have an overcrowding situation,' but we don't talk that way here," Urbanske said. "Santa Maria is kind of a strange place we're so multicultural, but we're not very politically correct."

But according to Latinos who were active in organizing to remove Hobbs from office, it wasn't the initial comment that caused the majority of the damage, but rather the reaction on the part of city leaders and the wider community.

The entire City Council at the time, including Urbanske, defended Hobbs, as did county supervisors. Willie Galvan, a third generation Mexican-American, was one of the few city officials to speak out against Hobbs. Eventually, he resigned from his post on the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Commission in protest.

"I was very personally hurt because I have quite a few friends from Mexico very good people, outstanding citizens," Galvan said. "I think George did intensely hurt and disregard the feelings of a lot of Santa Maria people. He not only hurt people's feelings, but gave the city a very bad image."

During his final two years in office, Hobbs defended his statement in public and to both local and national press, becoming more inflammatory as the months progressed, at one point adding gays to his list of condemned groups.

When the Latino community organized to demand an apology and, eventually, his resignation, he accused them of being a "militant" group and part of a larger Mexican controversy to take over California by immigrating here and having too many children, according to news articles of the time.

In the midst of all this, he won his final run for mayor, MALDEF filed suit (which it lost in 1998) against the city asking for redistricting so Latinos stood a chance to run for office, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigated the mayor, and racial tension in the city rose to a boiling point.

In language typical of letters to the editor at the time, Norma Scholar of Santa Maria wrote to the Santa Maria Times in 1990: "Our mayor is also right when he says we have a Mexican problem. ... We are being invaded! Too many illegal Mexicans are adversely impacting on our hospitals, crime, drugs, water, welfare, housing environment, highways, jobs, and schools."

Margie Talaugon, along with her husband, organized for the mayor's recall and said she remembers being called "un-American, subversive, and a communist" by Hobbs at public meetings.

Ironically, many of the overcrowding and housing issues to which Hobbs referred persist today, but a mistrust in the community make them hard to confront, Joe Talaugon said.

"There's still a lot of leftover bad feelings, but I don't know where the answer lies," he said. "There is a division, and there are problems. There are issues regarding immigrants and over-crowdedness, but to deal with it on a racist level or discriminatory level is not going to solve the problem."

In the end, Urbanske thinks what may have sunk former mayor Hobbs were actually his strengths his forthrightness, his adherence to his moral code, even his lack of bigotry. After all, he always said it was a Mexican-American woman who called his attention to "the problem," Urbanske said.

But Urbanske acknowledged: "I think he made a mistake. There were a lot of people in Santa Maria who felt hurt by this, and I don't think he understood that."

INFO BOX: A lifetime of public service

George Hobbs served as a Santa Maria City Council member from 1960 to 1966 and 1974 to 1980, and as mayor from 1966 to 1974 and from 1980 to 1994. We can see his influence in the buildings around us.

In 1967, the Central Park Plaza opened where the longtime seedy hang-out of Whiskey Row once stood.

In an effort to save the city's commercial core in the 1970s, the Town Center mall and other developments replaced much of historic downtown.

In 1984, the city honored another former mayor with the Elwin Mussell Senior Center.

News Editor Kirsten Flagg can be contacted at kflagg@santamariasun.com.


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