As Antonio Villaraigosa canvassed the hilly Echo Park precinct, a voter asked why he should support his candidacy.
"Because I've taken on tough battles," said the Democratic Assembly candidate.
Whether graduating from high school on time after dropping out for a year or arguing for better bus service for area riders, Villaraigosa has not shied away from a challenge. Today, he is locked in a tough primary battle in the 45th Assembly District in Northeast Los Angeles.
"I think when you grow up as poor as I did, you learn to be able to scrap it out," said Villaraigosa, 41, who was raised by his mother in City Terrace. "You have to be able to get in there and mix it up. That's the difference."
In his first attempt to win public office, Villaraigosa finds himself one of two front-runners in the June 7 race to fill a seat being vacated by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who is running for the state Senate. The winner is virtually assured of victory in the November general election because 62% of the district's registered voters are Democrats.
The other main candidate is Bill Mabie, chief of staff to Polanco. Some Latino lawmakers have said they are upset that Polanco is endorsing Mabie, who is white, for a seat that has been held by Latinos since 1972.
However, Villaraigosa and many district residents do not believe that race is an issue in the campaign. "I think it's demeaning to both of us to package us as white or Latino candidates."
In his 25 years of area community work, Villaraigosa has been involved in issues ranging from voter registration to union activism. But he is perhaps best known for speaking out for the tens of thousands of low-income bus riders.
He was a board member of the now-defunct Rapid Transit District and currently is County Supervisor Gloria Molina's alternate to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board of directors. With both agencies, Villaraigosa has been a leading advocate for affordable bus fares and increased security on crime-ridden bus lines.
"Antonio is a person of integrity, with a strong sense of social justice and the ability to fight for what's right," said Lisa Hoyos, an activist who has worked with Villaraigosa on a number of transportation and union issues.
Villaraigosa said he also is a coalition builder: "You can get a lot more with honey than vinegar. But when you can't get it done with honey, youhave to do it with vinegar."
For most of his life, Villaraigosa's name was Antonio Villar. But when he married in 1988, he dropped the r on his last name and added her maiden name, Raigosa. "We both were progressive-minded people and wanted to combine our names," he said.
He and his wife live in Mt. Washington and have two children. Villaraigosa also has two other children from two previous relationships.
On a recent evening, he canvassed the precinct near the lake in Echo Park. "I have a better sense of the heartbeat of this district," he said as he walked up a steep hill. "When you grow up in the area and see the changes, you're part of the (community) fabric."
Villaraigosa's road to the Assembly race has not been easy.
He was one of four children raised in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Dinner often consisted of rice, beans and tortillas; meat was a luxury the family could rarely afford.
"We lived an incredibly tough life," Villaraigosa said.
In a neighborhood where opportunities were few and where the temptation to get in trouble was great, many of his acquaintances joined gangs. Villaraigosa describes himself as an "at-risk youth" who could have followed that path. "I could have gone either way."
In 11th grade, Villaraigosa dropped out of Roosevelt High School. He said he was more interested in working part-time jobs and running around with his friends than in studying.
But Villaraigosa went back to school his senior year for one reason: "I had a mother who never stopped believing in me and turned me around."
A former secretary who worked her way up to an administrative position with Caltrans, his mother was a woman who realized the value of education and hard work. Villaraigosa said she persuaded him to go back to school so he could have a better life than she did. She died in 1991.
Villaraigosa attended night school and graduated with his class in 1971. One Roosevelt High teacher who taught Villaraigosa is not surprised that he graduated on time and became successful.
"He was a really bright kid," said Herman Katz, who is now a part-time counselor at Roosevelt. "I knew right away that this kid was college material."
In fact, it was Katz who paid for Villaraigosa's college placement examination. Villaraigosa had no money and said he would not have taken the test had his teacher not helped out.
Villaraigosa went on to attend East Los Angeles College before transferring to UCLA, where he graduated with a history degree in 1977.
Since UCLA, Villaraigosa has been involved with many groups and causes. He has knocked door-to-door for the Greater Eastside Voter Registration Project, been president of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and worked as a local representative for United Teacher Los Angeles.
"I've been battling to increase opportunities for everyone all my life," he said.
Other candidates running for the 45th Assembly District seat are:
* Democrat: businessman Spencer Burton, teacher Gonzalo Molina and businessman Brian Quintana.
* Republican: engineer Robert K. Jung.
* Libertarian: teacher Pam Probst.
45th Assembly District
The district encompasses parts of Hollywood, Silver Lake, Mount Washington, Highland Park, Echo Park and Boyle Heights.