City Councilman-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who vowed to run a positive campaign in his bid to unseat incumbent Nick Pacheco, sent voters several mailers in the waning days of this month's Los Angeles municipal election that his opponent says violated that pledge.
The three mailers accused Pacheco of responsibility for several controversial campaign episodes linked to two of his longtime friends. The district attorney's office, which investigated two of the incidents, has not released any evidence that Pacheco was behind the tactics.
Villaraigosa defended the campaign literature he used in the 14th District race, saying the mailed brochures were accurate and appropriate responses to a barrage of mailers from Pacheco and his supporters attacking Villaraigosa's record on public safety. He maintained that he had stuck to his promise to run a clean campaign.
"The vast majority of our mail pieces were positive and talked about my record," he said. "The two or three pieces where we focused on Nick Pacheco's record were justified responses to a deluge of misrepresentations and distortions of my record."
Pacheco sent voters at least six mailers saying, among other things, that Villaraigosa wanted to protect the privacy of sexual predators and opposed increasing penalties for recruiting gang members. Outside groups, including the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and Mothers for Nick, put out another half-dozen mailers attacking Villaraigosa along similar lines.
Villaraigosa ended up beating Pacheco by 17 percentage points in the March 4 election and takes office July 1.
During the council race and his 2001 mayoral campaign, Villaraigosa promised to stay above the fray of rough-and-tumble politicking, even when he was being hit hard by opponents. When Ricardo Torres II, a college friend of Pacheco, sent two mailers attacking Villaraigosa personally in November, the former speaker of the state Assembly renewed that commitment.
"I have always run a clean, positive campaign, and I will continue to do so," he said then.
But Pacheco said, of the mailers Villaraigosa sent out in the days before the election: "The fact that they knew the truth and completely disregarded the truth when they sent the mailers out at the last minute in a sneaky way really is the most offensive thing about them."
Pacheco defended his own mailers as legitimate criticisms of Villaraigosa's public record, saying every vote he cited was accurate. "If Antonio Villaraigosa can't stand up to his own record, then he shouldn't be running for office," Pacheco said.
The councilman wrote last week to United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who is pictured prominently in one of Villaraigosa's mailers, asking her to apologize for her involvement. Huerta did not respond to a call for comment.
Pacheco also said he is exploring legal options regarding one Villaraigosa campaign piece that accused him of using public money designated for health-care outreach to pay campaign workers in his 1999 council bid. "What kind of person would take money meant to provide health care for children and spend it on a political campaign?" the mailer asked.
The brochure did not mention that the district attorney's office closed an investigation into the matter in May 2002 without filing any charges, which The Times reported Feb. 21.
The workers in question were actually employed by Pacheco's friend Martin GutieRuiz, who ran a now-defunct field operation called La Colectiva that was hired by an Eastside health provider in 1999 to sign up poor people for low-income health insurance. La Colectiva also had a contract with Pacheco at the same time to supply fieldworkers for his campaign. Although GutieRuiz acknowledged that 11 La Colectiva employees worked on both projects, he denied using the health funds to pay for the campaign work.
Another Villaraigosa mailer accused Pacheco of operating a phone bank in the 2001 mayor's race that sent voters a recorded message accusing Villaraigosa of being soft on crime.
The phone bank, which was owned by a nonprofit group co-founded by Pacheco, was leased by La Colectiva at the time the call went out. An investigation by the district attorney's office determined that the anonymous phone call had been placed through another mayoral campaign, and prosecutors did not find any evidence that Pacheco had been involved in the call.
A third flier, featuring Huerta, blamed Pacheco's campaign for the mailers sent out by Torres in November that criticized Villaraigosa for having white advisors and accused him of marital infidelities. Pacheco denied that he had been behind the tactic and said he had asked Torres to halt the mailings.
Steve Barkan, Villaraigosa's campaign consultant, said the campaign decided to send the mailers in the last week of the race because voters were receiving multiple fliers from Pacheco and his supporters targeting Villaraigosa.
"He was savaging us with three hits a day," said Barkan, who believes all of Villaraigosa's mailers were factual. Torres was "clearly an operative of Nick Pacheco's," he said.
He acknowledged that La Colectiva was technically run by GutieRuiz, but said the councilman was closely tied to the group. Pacheco steered $145,000 in city contracts to the field operation and gave the organization an improper loan from his officeholder account -- a move that garnered the councilman a $10,000 fine from the city Ethics Commission.
As for the allegations involving Pacheco's 1999 campaign, Barkan said that, even though the district attorney's office did not file charges, former La Colectiva employees have stated that they were sent to campaign for Pacheco after being hired to do health-care outreach.
"It's sour grapes," Villaraigosa said. "After the kind of campaign he ran from the very beginning, it takes a great deal of hubris to call what we did negative campaigning."