By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
CARSON — Thunderous applause filled the Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald Community Center on March 27 as the Carson City Council voted unanimously to name the Council Chambers after former City Clerk Helen Kawagoe.
The voice vote, which took place after a swearing-in ceremony for the mayor and two councilmembers, put an end to more than a year of sometimes bitter debate over the issue.
Kawagoe, in a wheelchair and unable to talk, raised her arms in a gesture of victory and appeared pleased as she was congratulated by well-wishers, many of them wearing yellow “Helen’s Dream” T-shirts. She was accompanied by her daughter and spokesperson, Sheryl Miyamoto, who attended many council meetings on Kawagoe’s behalf.
After suffering a devastating stroke in September 2011, Kawagoe left the elected office she had held for more than 37 years. Her supporters asked that the Council Chambers be named in her honor as soon as possible so that she would be alive to see it.
But last year a three-member majority — Mayor Pro Tem Julie Ruiz-Raber and Councilmembers Lula Davis-Holmes and Mike Gipson — voted to recognize Kawagoe posthumously, citing a policy of not naming city buildings after living persons. In the minority were Mayor Jim Dear and Councilmember Elito Santarina.
The Helen’s Dream Coalition was formed to push for an immediate name change.
The March 5 election provided a turning point. Dear was re-elected mayor, surviving a challenge by Davis-Holmes, who remains on the council; Gipson was re-elected, but Water Replenishment District President Albert Robles, a supporter of the coalition, finished ahead of Ruiz-Raber.
Dear was sworn in by Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), Gipson by California State Board of Equalization Chairman Jerome Horton, and Robles by Assemblymember Isadore Hall (D-Compton). City Clerk Donesia Gause presented Dear, Gipson and Robles with certificates of election. The reconstituted council chose Santarina as mayor pro tem.
Robles kept his speech relatively short, saying, “I don’t want to further delay Helen’s dream, so let’s get to business.”
In her farewell speech, Ruiz-Raber cited Kawagoe as a mentor: “When I was first elected in 2003, then-City Clerk Helen Kawagoe encouraged me to be an active participant of the National League of Cities and urged me to join Women in Municipal Government, where I became a board of directors member. Helen and I worked hard on women’s issues on the federal and local level.”
Rep. Hahn, daughter of the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and his wife Ramona, spoke fondly of Kawagoe. “I personally want to thank Helen Kawagoe for her incredible years of service as the great city clerk for the City of Carson and dear family friend of the Hahns … At Easter time, every single year — I’m trying not to get teared up — since the passing of my father [in 1997], Helen would send my mother an Easter lily … My mother passed away about a year and a half ago, but every Easter Helen would never forget that my mother needed a little cheering up … You are a friend for life.”
During the public comment period, Ron Shimokaji, a frequent speaker at council meetings, said, “The majority of the members of Helen’s Dream Coalition and I have had our differences … but we all agree that this is a suitable honor for a woman who has devoted her entire life to city service, and to her people as two-term president of the National Japanese American Citizens League as well as two-term service as president of the Gardena Valley Chapter.”
Janice Schaefer, chair of the coalition, stated, “We came together over a year ago from all corners of Carson and the South Bay. This was as a result of the council’s refusal to name the Carson Council Chambers for our beloved Helen Kawagoe during her lifetime. We believe this to be a great and cruel injustice. The sole purpose of the coalition has been to honor Helen.
“Helen Kawagoe is one of the founders of our city. Then she went on to be elected 10 times as Carson city clerk, serving since 1974 … She is known for going above and beyond the call of duty, being committed to her profession and serving the residents of Carson with distinction. Helen is held in the highest esteem by civic leaders, elected officials from all over the state and the nation. She was even honored by the emperor of Japan.
“Her dedication … has brought pride and honor to our city. She was known as the ‘Mother of City Hall.’ Her only wish, and our wish, is that the Council Chambers, where she served for so long, bear her name. We have worked as a team out of love and respect for Helen and for no other reason.
“We have spent our time and energy informing and enlightening the community about Helen’s achievements and the council’s actions. We have dispelled the misinformation about nonexistent ordinances and policies and the fear of setting precedent. We have passed out flyers, we have spoken out, we have written letters, and we have rallied even in the cold and the rain, all of this to bring attention to this cause. We have gathered thousands of signatures in support of our mission, including those of … Congresswoman Maxine Waters and our own Janice Hahn.
“This is truly the will of the people. The residents of Carson have spoken. It is time to move forward and do the honorable thing, and that is to name the chambers after Helen Kawagoe now, tonight!”
Before the vote on the resolution, Davis-Holmes emphasized, “There was never any doubt we were going … to honor Helen Kawagoe, it was just [a question of]when. So this new council is moving in the direction of naming it now, and I will support that … We do listen to the will of what the majority of the council wants.”
After the vote, Dear commented, “I had the opportunity to visit Helen many, many times the last several months. She’s always expressed great gratitude and respect for the people of the City of Carson, and I want to thank her caregivers and her family for supporting Helen … Helen, we love you very much and we really appreciate everything you’ve done for the people of Carson.”
Among the well-wishers in the audience was Chief Deputy City Clerk Wanda Higaki, who worked with Kawagoe for 31 years and was considered for appointment as her successor. “She deserves it,” Higaki said.
The program included presentation of colors by the Carson High School ROTC; flag salute by Arlene B. Harris, president of the Carson Women’s Club, and Carson Boy Scout Troop 232; the singing of the national anthem by Lisi Masalosalo of the Carson Christian Center; invocation by Francis Cottrell, minister of Religious Science International; benediction by Bishop William Todd Ervin Sr., senior pastor of One Lord One Faith One Baptism Christian Church; and a performance by the Apollo West Carson Players.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo