At Crabby's restaurant in Montebello, Hector Chacon sipped from a steaming bowl of shrimp soup, trying to soothe a nervous stomach.
It was election day last November in the small, working-class cities southeast of downtown Los Angeles. For Chacon, a campaign strategist for hire, it was game day.
He was helping half a dozen candidates, including one particularly hot prospect: a young real estate agent trying to become Montebello's first Armenian American council member.
Few seemed to be slam-dunk winners, though, and Chacon was anxious. His phone would start ringing soon with news from the election front.
In the bruising political world of southeast L.A. County, this affable 44-year-old and his family are admired and feared. They are go-to campaign gurus, political gatekeepers with checkered pasts whom candidates hire when they want to break into politics — or bat down a challenge from an upstart.
Chacon, along with his nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, has run or worked on more than 100 campaigns, including heated races for city councils, water districts and school boards. Three family members, including Chacon himself, have won public office.
"They are not the James Carvilles or David Axelrods. They are blue-collar political heavy lifters," said Phil Giarrizzo, a Sacramento consultant who has collaborated with the Chacons on campaigns.
Their turf, a region of overwhelmingly Latino cities with large immigrant populations, has made headlines in recent years — and not the good kind. Corruption scandals have burned in cities such as Bell, Commerce, Montebello and South Gate.
Races here are often won by the slimmest of margins. A Times analysis of voting records found that, since 2005, less than 10% of the voting-age population turned out for more than 20 separate elections in the area — a participation rate dwarfed by that of the rest of Los Angeles County. Recall efforts are routine, as are election complaints filed with the district attorney's office.
The political climate has created a cottage industry for consultants, printers and other operatives, and the Chacons have thrived, becoming experts in voter analysis, phone banking and political strategy.
In the whirlwind of a campaign, Hector Chacon says, he feels "like a prizefighter in the ring. You go into a zone."
Win or lose, whether managing campaigns or running for office themselves, the family has prospered. The Chacons have regularly paid one another to be consultants on their own campaigns, according to disclosure records — even, in one case, when a Chacon brother ran unopposed for a seat on a local water board.
Hector Chacon raised more than $50,000 for his recent reelection bid for the Montebello school board and paid nearly $10,000 in fees to his family or companies they control, records show. He won the seat, a part-time post that pays just $750 a month.
The Chacons have also faced accusations that they skirt campaign finance rules, conceal transactions, intimidate opponents and miss campaign reporting deadlines. The Times has found evidence that the source of some of their political contributions was misrepresented in campaign disclosure documents.
Chacon denies any wrongdoing and says the criticism comes with the territory.
"Unfortunately, in politics there's people who win and people who lose," he said. "My critics would be the people who lose."
Hector Chacon and his six siblings grew up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights, raised by a single mother.
On election day last fall, he drove his white minivan down Crusado Lane in his old neighborhood. After getting out of the van, he walked through the tiny courtyard where he and his friends once played hockey with brooms and crushed cans.
He recalled looking down from the family's second-story apartment and seeing his oldest brother, Lorenzo, shot by a gang member. Hector was 7 years old.
He was bused to a mostly white school in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. He kept his grades up but got into fights over racial slurs and other slights, he remembered. Eventually he went to UCLA, where, although he didn't graduate, he developed a passion for politics.
In 1993, at age 26, he ran for a seat on the board of the Montebello Unified School District.
His relatives all helped out. They printed 5,000 fliers inviting people to a campaign kickoff at a local park. On the day of the rally, Chacon recalled, "no one showed up. It was just my family."
But he retooled his campaign with the help of Lloyd Monserratt, a local political operative and close friend, and won the most votes in the multi-seat race.
He was hooked. Within a few years, he had opened his own political consulting business.
It was then that Chacon began to develop what he called "the science," learning to craft a winning message and mobilize residents. His sister, Leticia, analyzed electoral data to pinpoint likely voters. A brother, Fernando, designed mailers.
By 1996, Hector had helped his half-brother, Hugo Argumedo, win a seat on the Commerce City Council. Candidates from around the region began hiring the siblings, who were quickly building a reputation for their tough tactics and winning ways.
The Chacons are reluctant these days to share campaign secrets. "My sister doesn't like to divulge strategy," Hector Chacon explained. "She says, 'If you go to Colonel Sanders, he doesn't give you the recipe to
But it's clear a big part of "the science" involves identifying the residents most likely to vote and making sure they do.
Leticia calls it a "math game." She uses public records to determine which residents have registered to vote or requested absentee ballots and focuses campaign efforts on those households. Then, on election day, if a poll check shows they haven't cast a ballot, she sends volunteers to persuade them to come out to vote.
Among their tactics are straightforward appeals to the heartstrings, such as featuring a candidate's mother in a mailer to win the hearts of voters. During one especially close race, Hector drove a yellow truck with a loudspeaker through the streets of Commerce, urging residents to go to the polls.
But they can also play hardball. A committee Hector Chacon advised once flooded Cathedral City with mailers linking the incumbent mayor to a city employee charged with fraud. The mayor, Kathleen DeRosa, remembers that with anger: The pieces were "very well done graphically and incredibly mean-spirited," she said. (She won reelection anyway.)
That wasn't an isolated case. Records show the family's own committees have paid thousands of dollars to a printer once convicted of producing fraudulent campaign hit pieces in South Gate. Hector Chacon acknowledged hiring the printer — a "political assassin," he said — but says these days the family eschews negative campaign tactics.
The Chacons have also relied at times on Victory Outreach, a church that ministers to former gang members. The family uses church volunteers as ground troops to answer phones, pass out campaign literature and help with get-out-the-vote efforts. Family committees have paid more than $10,000 in campaign funds to the church since 2003, records show.
The Chacons' political juggernaut fell apart in 2003 during a dispute over a Commerce council race.
Most of the family supported Tina Baca Del Rio, who'd become involved in city politics as a volunteer, and Argumedo helped manage her campaign.
But Hector decided to run the campaign of Nancy Ramos, a former City Hall staffer. He was eyeing a seat in the state Assembly. Ramos said Hector believed her close ties to labor unions might help him in his bid.
The race was ugly. The half-brothers, Argumedo and Hector, nearly came to blows at one point, the candidates recalled.
David Negrete, a campaign consultant who worked with Hector, said he got "scary" anonymous messages on his cellphone and told the Sheriff's Department about them. "Hector said, 'Just let it go. Don't be a sissy,'" Negrete recalled with a laugh. "These guys grew up in Ramona Gardens…. They didn't sweat the little things."
After Ramos won the race, it took more than a year to mend the family ties. The siblings reunited in 2006 when Hector's older brother, Art, decided to run for the board of the Central Basin Municipal Water District.
Some were surprised. Art Chacon was a controversial figure in the community who had been shot three separate times when he was younger (earning him the nickname "Gato," a cat with nine lives). As Leticia put it: "Art has a good heart" — but also a tendency to lash out if pushed into a corner.
In his bid for the water board, Art Chacon described himself as the president of a company called Chacon Water Advisory. Critics say he invented the company for his resume, and The Times could not verify that it was an active business before the election.
When Art won the race, Hector Chacon regarded it as a major achievement: Three brothers had managed to rise from a childhood in the projects to hold elected office.
The Chacon family's reputation continued to grow.
In 2009, Rachel Canchola, a veteran LAPD sergeant, asked Hector Chacon to run her race for one of several open seats on the Pico
"I did everything he asked me to do," Canchola said. "Not only did I win, but I got the most votes."
As the Chacon brand grew, the family faced greater political and financial scrutiny. In 2003, Hector Chacon's consulting company was suspended from doing business for failing to pay taxes. (He called it a misunderstanding.)
Argumedo's campaign missed several financial reporting deadlines, leading to a $9,000 fine from the California Fair Political Practices Commission in 2009.
Then, in 2010, Argumedo was charged with perjury for allegedly signing a false affidavit supporting an attorney in a fee dispute with the city of Commerce. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice and resigned from the City Council as part of the plea deal.
Last year, Art Chacon drew a $30,000 penalty from the FPPC for failing to report transactions made by his campaign committee, among other things. Some of the unreported payments went to his siblings, the commission said.
In fact, the Chacon brothers used funds from their committees to pay siblings or other relatives at least 30 times over the last six years, according to campaign finance records reviewed by The Times.
In 2010, Art Chacon's campaign committee awarded $5,000 in consulting fees to his brother and sister, even though he was running unopposed for the Central Basin water board. (No election was held: Chacon was proclaimed the winner.) Hector Chacon said the money was for work completed before the family learned that Art had no challenger.
California Citizens for Good Government, a political action committee Hector Chacon helped manage in 2008 and 2009, raised thousands of dollars from attorneys, trash haulers and construction management firms who relied on contracts from government agencies across Southern California. The money was used to fund some notably heated campaigns, including a City Council election in Bell and a recall in Commerce.
One day in late 2008, Art Chacon visited Gustavo Villa, who ran a small water company in Maywood. He gave him $2,000 in cash and asked him to write a check for the same amount to the political action committee, Villa told The Times. It wasn't clear why Chacon wanted the arrangement; campaign finance rules require that all donors be specifically identified.
Villa said he didn't have a checkbook, so he asked his assistant, Beatriz Ortega, to write the check in exchange for the cash. Ortega confirmed the account.
Enrique Curiel, who hired Art Chacon to help manage his unsuccessful campaign for the Maywood City Council, is also listed as giving the committee $2,500. He told The Times he never made the contribution.
Hector denied that his brother acted inappropriately; Art Chacon declined to be interviewed for this story.
Hector Chacon was a major beneficiary of the political action committee that he helped manage. From January 2008 through mid-2009, the group raised just over $102,000 and paid nearly $75,000 to Hector Chacon's consulting firm, Quantum Management Services.
Hector Chacon says he had limited control over how the fund's money was spent and that, in any case, some of it went to subcontractors.
Who were those contractors? According to disclosure forms, they included his brother Fernando's graphic design company and Victory Outreach, his brother Art's church.
By the time election results began rolling in at Crabby's restaurant, Hector Chacon had barely touched his shrimp soup.
A little after 8 p.m., his cellphone rang. It was his sister Leticia, who weeks before had left her husband and five children behind in El Paso to work on several of the campaigns.
Leticia had spent much of the day getting out the vote for the Montebello council candidate, Jack Hadjinian, and battling a rumor that he was anti-Mexican.
On the phone, Leticia told Hector that Hadjinian was leading the absentee count.
A wide grin crossed Hector's face, and he flashed two thumbs up.
"An Armenian! Never before in the history of Montebello!" he exclaimed.
The phone calls kept coming. Nearly every one of the family's candidates was winning.