At a recent fundraiser to help defeat four charter amendments before voters in November, Robert Fox stood before a crowd with his sleeves rolled up and an amethyst clip holding an aqua tie in place.

Around the room inside the Long Beach Petroleum Club stood displays illustrating how difficult it’s been for past incumbents to win as write-in candidates, and a stand-alone TV looped video of public testimony with a sign that read “Mayor and City Council IGNORING ALL PUBLIC COMMENTS AGAINST CHANGING TERM LIMITS.”

Fox, 66, bellowed that the people of Long Beach weren’t being heard, and he beckoned the crowd in his bombastic style to make sure their voices are registered at the ballot box on election night.

“Democracy depends on you,” Fox said.

Robert Fox, executive director of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations, stands next to Corliss Lee (left) and Ian Patton (right) at a fundraising event for the anti-charter reform cause at the Long Beach Petroleum Club in Long Beach, Sept. 20, 2018. (John Valenzuela/ Correspondent)

Robert Fox, executive director of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations, stands next to Joe Sopo (far left) Corliss Lee (left) and Ian Patton (right) at a fundraising event for the anti-charter reform cause at the Long Beach Petroleum Club in Long Beach, Sept. 20, 2018. (John Valenzuela/ Correspondent)

Fox is not new to civic engagement in Long Beach, but he has emerged over the last year as the most visible and vocal City Hall antagonist. And he has seen undeniable success as a one-man force who has enlisted and organized a powerful bloc of supporters, primarily in East Long Beach:

  • Fox was the ringleader of vehement opposition to the Land Use Element, a planning document that called for increases in the city’s housing supply. The document was ultimately scaled down to limit the height of buildings and reduce density.
  • Former director of development services Amy Bodek, who was hounded at community meetings by Fox’s coalition, left the city to run a larger agency for Los Angeles County. Though officials close to her say the move had nothing to do with outrage over the land use plan, Fox admits he did a “happy dance” when she left.
  • After flirting with a run for mayor this spring, Fox bragged in an email that he scrapped plans to seek office after striking a deal with Mayor Robert Garcia, who agreed to scale back the land use plan and voice opposition to a push for rent control.

Fox has now turned his energy to the Nov. 6 election. Local residents will decide whether to endorse four changes to the city charter that guides local governance, including how long elected leaders can serve.

He and the Long Beach Reform Coalition, formed in late August, have brought together members of several organizations that have rallied against City Hall over various causes, from airport noise to environmental issues.

They have held community meetings and town halls and taken to social media, devising nicknames for each of the four ballot measures the City Council placed on the ballot, calling Measure BBB—which would give elected officials a third term and do away with any ability to run as a write-in beyond that—“Bobby’s Big Bamboozle,” in reference to the mayor.

Amid his success, Fox has also been accused of fanning unrealistic fears, promoting “not in my backyard” tribalism, and even using racist remarks against detractors.

A handful of city employees and representatives, who agreed to speak only on background for fear of retribution, said Fox, either purposefully or accidentally, did not always use facts to further his cause.

“On the one hand, what he was trying to do was not a bad thing, to have a sort of united voice for neighborhoods and bring people together and more involved in the process,” said one city employee. “But unfortunately what he was doing was not only getting people involved but getting them involved in a vitriolic way using scare tactics and information that wasn’t even correct.”

Detractors pointed to rhetoric used online and at land use element meetings that alluded to density creating crime and “certain kinds of people” living in multi-family housing.

And many city officials were silently outraged at the personal attacks against Bodek. Residents, led by Fox, chanted her name at community meetings, mocked her during open meetings and even posted salacious rumors and personal insults about her online.

Bodek declined to be interviewed for his story.

Pure intentions

The Post sat down for a series of interviews with Fox, who is in some ways a study in contrasts: He is openly gay, studied Indian philosophy and is a millionaire who owns 15 buildings between Long Beach and Honolulu, where he also waged a land use fight.

A self-described “down-to-earth boy from Indiana,” Fox speaks seven languages including Cantonese, Mandarin and German, the language of the country where he says his family descends from nobility. He’s lived in Jamaica and studied in India and China as he sought the meaning of life as a teenager.

He served as a master chef for 25 years, a distinction he earned by making the 501 sauces in Larousse Gastronomique. His favorite recipe is Canard à l’orange (duck with orange sauce).

His fortune, he said, was the result of elbow grease and determination as he transformed his cleaning service, which he said he started with $50 in cleaning supplies, into his first real estate acquisitions.

He refers to Indian philosophy, which he studied while at the University of Bangalore, to explain his political path with a saying about the wrong man on the right path always going wrong, while the right man on the wrong path will always turn right.

And Fox believes he is the right man.

“You can’t go down the wrong path for long if your intentions are pure,” Fox said.

His community involvement stretches back decades. He’s helped found, and served on, dozens of neighborhood associations and committees.

In many ways, the 1980s shaped his philosophy on development. He was a board member of the Bluff Park Neighborhood Association, then called Beach Area Concerned Citizens, when the City Council approved zoning changes that allowed eight- to 10-unit apartment complexes to be built in neighborhoods that had historically been designated for single-family homes.

Hundreds of apartment buildings flooded the city. The resulting “cracker box debacle”—the buildings were dubbed cracker boxes for their simple, cheap designs—was an oft-cited call to arms in the land use element process, and Fox used it to fan flames of suburban rage.

“It was a destruction of quality of life,” Fox said. “Do you want to live in a Craftsman bungalow from 1913 and have people looking down on your backyard? People bought their homes for a purpose, for a reason.

“This is why when the land use element came up, those of us that have been here for a while remember what had happened.”

Community members pack a community center at Whaley Park in October 2017 during meetings over the Land Use Element. Photo courtesy of the Long Beach Business Journal.

Neighborhood associations fought back and forced the council into passing a moratorium on “cracker box” projects, but not before the damage had already been done, Fox said. He could not stand by and watch the city do the same thing again.

Fox denied that he utilized fear to mobilize residents, instead saying that he simply presented “consequences.”

He said it’s dangerous to use fear because once it’s released it’s hard to contain. Fox denied producing any yard signs that may have tried to connect crime to density, but said if they did exist they might be accurate.

“There’s a truth to certain aspects of that,” Fox said. “The truth is whenever you put a population too densely together crime always goes up. And it’s not because any individual being bad, it’s because it’s the nature of mammals. You put too many rats in a cage and they’ll start eating each other.”

‘We were not going to say no’

Fox takes pride in the fact that he was elected as president of neighborhood associations in an era when being an openly gay man should have been a hindrance. He also takes pride in helping gentrify Alamitos Beach, where he lives. It was something he touted when entering the debate against rent control.

And he nearly ran for mayor in the 2018 election, but pulled out after a fabled meeting with the current mayor, Garcia, at Park Pantry, where Fox claims the two reached an agreement of sorts. Fox did not file his paperwork to run.

The topic drew out a momentarily demurred Fox—but he doesn’t rule out a mayoral bid in the future.

“(Garcia) did something that I just didn’t like, but I also had to be realistic and I wasn’t prepared financially at the time,” Fox said. “There wasn’t enough time, and if you’re going to prepare for something you better prepare in advance. If I want to run for mayor in (the future), I’ll prepare myself accordingly.”

Fox is, in a way, already the mayor of a contingent of Long Beach’s electorate. As the hero of the land use element, the man that saved the city from density and poor planning, his name is revered by those who some refer to as the C.A.V.E. people—citizens against virtually everything.

“Humongous, instrumental,” said East Long Beach resident Dena Bergman in describing Fox’s impact on the land use element proceedings. “For me, personally, it was a call to arms. The earthquake, nine magnitude. Whatever you want to call it. He’s the one that said ‘Hey folks, you need to pay attention.’ He was huge.”

The land use element was a guiding document that proposed increased height and density allotments in an effort to prepare the city for future population growth. While they were mere zoning changes—not directives to actually build—residents of the suburbs, where density and tall buildings do not exist, revolted against the idea of bringing in more people.

Fox spearheaded the outrage that ultimately ended reductions across the city, leaving Long Beach facing a future where it will have far fewer places to house people if the population continues to increase. He is heading a similar zoning fight in his second home, Hawaii, where his crosshairs on set on blocking the building of “monster homes” on Honolulu.

Former Eighth District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who has joined Fox in the fight against charter reform, said Fox is just as gracious and outspoken now as he was 30 years ago when she first met him at community meetings hosted at his home.

She credited him with mobilizing thousands of residents to voice opposition against proposed land uses and likened his victory to a fight that she was intimately part of decades ago—the battle to keep the Long Beach Airport noise ordinance strong and locally controlled.

“That was a collective effort,” Gabelich said. “It was like giving a dog a bone and we were not going to say no.”

Local political consultant Ian Patton, who Fox said roused him into his almost-bid for mayor, said Fox has tried to give people the benefit of the doubt but has been dragged into these recent fights against the city “kicking and screaming.”

The coalition is glad to have him, Patton said, because they believe his clout with voters will pay off in November.

“We think this is really going to be a historic thing and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without him,” Patton said.

‘Divisiveness’

Some within the city feel that the reductions in the land use element would have happened with or without Fox.

“It would’ve been a different process, definitely would’ve been more civil,” said one city official. “There was a diverse group already at the table, but the result we ended up with, and it was a good spot where it ended, it would have gotten there anyway because of the council discussions with the community.”

Nearly every person interviewed for this story said that while Fox was charming and polite, those who opposed his positions said he could get personal with his attacks. However, behind closed doors he was characterized as rude and unproductive, leading some city employees to rebuff meeting requests from Fox.

Josh Butler, the executive director of Housing Long Beach, has faced heated public exchanges with Fox during rent control discussions in the city, which spilled out from the council chambers to social media.

Butler, who is biracial, said the time that Fox referred to him as a zebra—something Butler took as a dig at his heritage—still sticks with him.

Fox said he was unaware of Butler’s ethnicity and vehemently denies others’ allegations that he’s racist, but has also doubled down on a claim that he posted online that Butler doesn’t live in Long Beach and has tried to fleece his deceased father of his estate.

Butler praised Fox’s intelligence and his organizing power, but questioned why Fox is allowed to get away with the language he uses, and the unfounded character assassinations he lobs at his opponents.

“It’s frustrating because in some instances I share Mr. Fox’s frustrations with City Hall, but he comes across so aggressively that it’s difficult to even think about building relationships with him,” Butler said. “It’s hard to think of him as a community leader when he acts with such divisiveness.”

Is Fox the right man on the wrong path? Or is he the wrong man on the right path?

To his supporters he’s a man who carried the torch that forced the city’s hand to bend to their will. To his detractors he’s a charming man who is invested in his own economic interests — and is willing to play fast and loose with the truth.

One thing is certain. Fox believes he is advocating for the good of the city and he views the land use element “wins” as proof of what is possible when the community’s voice becomes so loud that it can’t be ignored.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz__LB on Twitter.

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