In Filling Holden's Shoes, a Choice Between Past and Future

In less than three weeks, a great moment in Los Angeles history will be upon us. City Councilman Nate Holden will be termed out of City Hall, if not chased out, and the Ethics Commission won't know what to do with all its extra time.

I can't think of a better tribute than a City Hall statue of Holden with his hand out. He snubbed campaign funding limits an impressive 334 times in his championship career, never met a hack he couldn't add to the payroll, and gladly accepted gifts that included a $12,000 gold wristwatch.

Unfortunately, the mid-city's 10th Council District wasn't golden under his rule. Now two candidates are in a runoff to see if they can rescue the district from the rubble, but that's only part of what's up for grabs.

Look at this race, and you're looking at the L.A. story of shifting population. The election in former Mayor Tom Bradley's district is a test of whether black leadership can hold on, once more, to a seat that will one day be owned by the growing Latino population. Already, Latino residents are in the majority in the 10th, but 52% of registered voters are African American.

The two candidates, fittingly, couldn't be more different. Deron Williams is the past -- a pothole-fixer with no polish and less vision. Martin Ludlow is the future -- a smooth-talking operative with City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa as friend and mentor.

And Williams' chief backer?

You didn't think Nate Holden was going to just disappear, did you?

Holden is pushing Williams, who served as his aide for 14 years. Holden even appeared in a mailer called "Passing the Torch."

There was only one thing Williams could have done at that point. He should have called a news conference and said:

"I never met Nate Holden in my life."

A lie, yes. But the alternative is no good.

Of course, that's just me talking. The fact is, Williams did all right for himself in March. He won 39% of the vote in a field of six candidates, forcing a May 20 runoff with Ludlow, who was second at 26%.

So how does the guy with the least on the ball come out ahead of the pack? Because a lot of black voters in the district would rather have a stiff they can trust than somebody with ideas of his own.

And then the four losers, some of whom had smacked Williams around for his link to Holden, immediately jumped into Williams' arms like remorseful lapdogs.

Did Williams follow the Nate Holden tradition and offer them jobs or other goodies down the line? Or did they just prefer the old black guard to what Ludlow might represent, given his ties to Latino power players like former state Assemblyman Villaraigosa -- whom he served as chief of staff -- and labor leader Miguel Contreras?

Before I could nail down an answer, news surfaced involving a little problem Williams had in 1988. He was collared at Ontario International Airport with three bags of cocaine stuffed into his underpants.

All right, look. He was young, he made a mistake, he went to jail, and then he went to work for Holden. It's a natural progression, and everyone deserves a second chance.

The problem is that when asked about his arrest by The Times' Matea Gold, Williams was hazy about where he was arrested, how much time he did, whether he was in jail, and what that white stuff was in his pants.

Johnson & Johnson baby powder? Fairy dust? It could have been anything. I often carry Bisquick around in my drawers in case I get a sudden urge to make pancakes.

There's only one way Williams could have dug himself in deeper, and of course, he did. He tried to clear things up in a conference call to The Times, with Holden playing the role of Perry Mason.

"Were you in a dormitory-type setting?" Holden asked at one point.

The word is J-A-I-L. And the way to handle the problem is to say, "Yes, I screwed up and served my time, but I made the best of a second chance, and now I want to lead the renewal of the 10th District."

"That's what I said," Williams insisted when I met up with him on the campaign trail.

He spoke for no more than two minutes to a seniors group, telling them he had prayed that morning, volunteers are important, and he's got lots of experience. Then he was out the door.

This is known as hiding a candidate. In some cases, it's the best strategy.

I also met with Ludlow, who is slicker by a mile but has some baggage of his own, including a personal bankruptcy.

Critics call him a carpetbagger and a puppet because he rents on the whiter west side of the district and is bankrolled by labor.

Ludlow has an answer for that, which you'll read about soon, along with his take on what black residents of the 10th District need to understand about the future of Los Angeles.

But if the past prevails and Williams wins, there's a terrifying rumor going around about who will run his office.

Can you read my mind?

Nate Holden.

"No way," snaps Deron Williams, who insists his mentor won't be hanging around.

He may have to change the locks.

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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