Last year's race to fill the seat of departing Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas was a grab-the-popcorn kind of show: two established public officials — and onetime allies — dueling to represent some of the most impoverished parts of the San Fernando Valley.
On one side was Nury Martinez, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, which was dealing with the fallout from a sexual abuse scandal in the city's schools. On the other was Cindy Montañez, a former state lawmaker employed by the Department of Water and Power, one of the city's most reviled agencies. In the end, Martinez pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory.
Montañez now wants a rematch. But the March 3 contest will be considerably different, in large part because Martinez is the incumbent. And at City Hall, incumbents almost never lose.
That's not a revelation. Incumbents are routinely bolstered by name recognition, endorsements, establishment support and plentiful campaign cash, much of it from those with a stake in government decisions.
Still, the numbers are striking. Over the last 20 years, L.A. city office-holders prevailed in 59 out of 62 contests. The three exceptions were Councilman Nick Pacheco and Mayor James Hahn — both defeated by Antonio Villaraigosa, in 2003 and 2005, respectively — and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who lost reelection last year.
Martinez has been in office just 15 months. But the shift in alliances over that time period is telling. Council President Herb Wesson, who backed Montañez last time around, now supports Martinez — and is offering to serve as her campaign co-chair. Councilman Tom LaBonge also endorsed Montañez last year but is now part of Team Nury.
"She's one of the bright new leaders of Los Angeles," he said.
Political donors aren't likely to cross Martinez by giving to her opponent, said lobbyist Steve Afriat. "Nothing's impossible," he added. "But I just don't know how [Montañez] pulls it off."
Montañez, who served in the Assembly from 2002 to 2006, said she has little expectation of support from the City Hall establishment this time around. But she contends there's plenty of dissatisfaction in Martinez's district, which stretches from Sun Valley on the northeast to the Sepulveda Basin on the southwest. Last week, during a 90-minute tour of the district, she pointed out buckled sidewalks in Lake Balboa, gang graffiti in North Hills and abandoned couches, mattresses and shopping carts in Van Nuys.
Those issues, Montañez argues, are more important than Martinez's political position or support. "The power of incumbency means nothing out here when she can't pick up trash, clean up graffiti, stop the gangs from getting more powerful [or] bring jobs" to the district, said Montañez, steering her 2012 Prius through Van Nuys. "That's what I think is going to make the difference out here. Incumbency doesn't mean anything to us."
Martinez, appearing Thursday at the opening of a new children's science museum in the Valley, said she hasn't seen Montañez much in the district — at neighborhood cleanups or anywhere else. And she predicted voters will recognize her accomplishments. Since last year's election, she said, city crews in the district have resurfaced 70 miles of streets, trimmed 1,500 trees, painted out 1 million square feet of graffiti and removed 500 tons of trash — including abandoned furniture.
"I'm not sure I really believe so much in the power of incumbency, as much as I believe in the power of getting things done," Martinez said.
Montañez is not the only civic leader looking to oust a sitting L.A. politician. Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina is seeking to unseat Councilman Jose Huizar, now running for a third full term. Koreatown nonprofit group executive Grace Yoo is planning a run against Wesson, a veteran campaigner and among the city's most powerful politicians. Huizar and Wesson both have campaign war chests that dwarf those of their opponents. Martinez has collected more than $120,000 for her reelection campaign, while Montañez has not yet started raising money.
Neighborhood activists who support Montañez, meeting recently at Hometown Buffet in Panorama City, acknowledged their candidate has an uphill climb. But they were gleeful about this month's tight contest between state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima) and political novice Patty Lopez, a self-described community representative.
Bocanegra, who represents some of the same neighborhoods as Martinez, raised more than $600,000 this year for his reelection bid, far more than his opponent. Yet as of Friday, he was trailing by 46 votes, according to county results. Lopez's strong showing is a sign challengers have a chance of toppling Valley-based incumbents, said Panorama City resident Saul Mejia, who is backing Montañez.
"It's the people that actually vote, not the people with the big pockets," he said.
Martinez's husband, Gerry Guzman, works for Bocanegra and was a consultant on his campaign. But while Bocanegra's vulnerability took many observers by surprise, Martinez sees Montañez coming.
Since taking office, Martinez has forged ties with several of the neighborhood activists who backed her rival last time around. One of those is Don Schultz, who praised Martinez for making progress on prostitution problems along Sepulveda Boulevard and blight at Van Nuys Airport. "She's done a great job for a first-year city council member," he said.
Montañez is convinced most voters will reach a different conclusion. She said pimps still make harassing statements to passing women on one part of Sepulveda. Two miles north, more than a dozen shopping carts now serve as a makeshift homeless encampment. "When people say it's better, I'm like — my reality every day … is that it's worse," she said.