As she wages a tough campaign to oust Nury Martinez from her seat on the Los Angeles City Council, rival candidate Cindy Montañez takes the same complaint to audiences in Van Nuys, Panorama City and Sunland.
The San Fernando Valley incumbent, Montañez says, hasn't delivered on promises to clean up the 6th District or revitalize the Van Nuys Boulevard commercial corridor, nor has Martinez leveraged her post as chairwoman of the council Audits Committee to demand better services.
After 18 months on the job, Martinez hasn't shown the political chops necessary to deliver for her constituents, the challenger contends.
"We deserve better," Montañez told a standing-room-only debate crowd at the Van Nuys Civic Center this month.
Sitting beside Montañez, Martinez took the criticism in stride. She listed her achievements, including removing 500 tons of trash from streets, cleaning up a Sunland recycling operation, stepping up arrests in the Valley's thriving sex-trafficking trade, and helping a Van Nuys bakery expand, bringing 115 jobs. She noted that she co-wrote a living wage ordinance that provides a $15.37-an-hour base salary for workers in large hotels.
"People have said to me, very honestly, you have done more now than anyone has ever done in this district in prior years," Martinez told the crowd.
Although the two candidates largely agree on most issues, their race is distinctive because it is a rematch of their 2013 special election battle, which featured a surprise ending. Montañez handily won the primary as a City Hall favorite, but Martinez delivered a stunning 55%-44% win in their midsummer runoff.
Martinez campaign consultant Roy Behr contends that a desire to salve that political wound is the only reason Montañez is running now. "She doesn't have a rationale other than she is angry about 2013," Behr said.
Montañez laughed when asked for a response to Behr's charge. "It's not about any individual," she said. "It's about this community. And I've heard that this community feels it is being ignored and neglected."
Montañez said she was unconcerned that she and Martinez seem to have reversed roles: It is Martinez who now enjoys the backing of City Hall heavyweights and labor groups who were on Montañez's side in 2013.
"It's not downtown L.A. that's in this race," Montañez said. "We have hundreds of community members who are supporting us…. I went to the [County Federation of Labor] for its [endorsement] interview, but for the most part I haven't sought downtown's backing.... This is a grass-roots campaign. My focus has been the community — not the politics."
By positioning herself as a City Hall outsider now, Montañez is staking out the same ground as Gloria Molina, the former county supervisor challenging Jose Huizar for the 14th District seat covering downtown to Eagle Rock, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political analyst at Cal State L.A. That appeals to voters who are unhappy with current conditions and could be particularly effective in a low-turnout election in which one candidate is more successful at getting supporters to the polls.
"I still think it's an uphill battle," he said of Montañez's push. "But a small number of enthusiastic people on either side can make a big difference."
This time around, Montañez says she is running a relentless campaign to persuade voters that, as a former state legislator and Department of Water and Power executive, she's better informed and more respected than Martinez.
Analysts say low turnout was a factor in Martinez's 2013 come-from-behind win, but Montañez's camp also believes voters weren't sure how the two women differed and that some chose Martinez because her name came first on the ballot. Montañez's current campaign materials emphasize her first name in large letters to help avoid confusion.
Montañez is also highlighting what she says are clear differences in the contenders' suitability for the job, emphasizing her UCLA degree, a state legislative career and her penchant as a "policy nerd" to dig into the details of municipal lawmaking. At the Van Nuys debate, she took a dig at Martinez after the incumbent appeared to struggle to come up with the amount of the city's unfunded pension liability — an issue of great concern in City Hall, Montañez said.
"If you really care about your city services, you have to know the specifics, the details on these questions," Montañez said. "If you don't, then you don't belong as a council member."
Behr, Martinez's political consultant, brushed off Montañez's attacks as "spite and self-aggrandizement." Martinez, who holds a degree in political science from Cal State Northridge and is a former Los Angeles school board member, would not have the support of most of the City Hall establishment if she were not effective, Behr said.
Voter confusion over the women could be understandable: Their surnames sound similar, and they both have up-from-the-bootstraps family histories, are 41, and are Latina. But their political advantages heading into the March 3 primary are starkly different.
As the incumbent, Martinez has reported contributions of $251,000 to her campaign and is endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Council President Herb Wesson and the Democratic Party, all of whom endorsed Montañez 18 months ago.
Martinez is also backed by her colleagues on the council, by the city's largest labor groups, business organizations, environmental advocates and women's groups. In addition to her campaign war chest, outside committees have raised $190,000 to support her run.
Those outside groups — funded primarily by labor unions, a billboard company, developers and individuals — are paying for mailers, billboard advertising and phone banking operations intended to steer voters to the polls.
Montañez's campaign, by contrast, has raised $72,000 and no independent committee has arisen to boost her chances. She has sent out a few mailers, has a social media presence and is attending as many community forums, debates and coffee get-togethers as she can, said Eric Hacopian, her political consultant.
"It's a meat-and-potatoes campaign," he said.