Hector Chacon

Hector Chacon, 44, visits the Boyle Heights housing project where he grew up. In politics, he and his family have prospered. ( Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times / February 24, 2012)

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."

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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.