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14th District Holds a Key for Mayor

Times Staff Writer

The candidates for Los Angeles’ 14th Council District sparred at a community forum Thursday night, touting their plans for job growth and better schools. But the stakes are much higher than a single seat.

The Nov. 8 election in the Eastside district could determine the dimensions of political power enjoyed by Los Angeles’ new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa made some big promises during his campaign, and to fulfill them he will require a broad base of support, especially on the City Council. But building loyal coalitions on that 15-member body has been especially tricky for mayors since the 1993 introduction of term limits to City Hall, which undercut incentives for long-term political relationships.

That is why Villaraigosa is looking to fill two open council seats with particularly stalwart friends in elections this fall.

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His prospects look good in the Mid-City/South L.A. 10th District, where his longtime ally, former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, is heavily favored to win. Wesson’s most promising opponent, community activist Denise Fairchild, took a job with the Villaraigosa administration last week.

But the 14th District is another matter. Villaraigosa has endorsed Jose Huizar, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Huizar’s main opponent is longtime Villaraigosa foe Nick Pacheco, who was the 14th District councilman from 1999 to 2003, when he was unseated by Villaraigosa.

In recent months, Pacheco has said some positive things about the new mayor -- a smart move politically, given Villaraigosa’s landslide victory and burgeoning national profile. But experts say that if Pacheco returns to the council, he will be a possible thorn in Villaraigosa’s side.

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“Oh, he’ll be the gadfly, he will be the opposition. The enmity between them is pretty stark,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “And if Antonio is trying to build his governing coalition, that means he’s after those eight consistent votes, if not more, on the council.... The stakes are high.”

The current council is considered generally friendly toward Villaraigosa, but alliances will probably shift, depending on the subject.

For example, Councilman Bernard C. Parks has pledged to work closely with Villaraigosa after losing his own bid for mayor. But the men disagree on “inclusionary zoning,” which forces builders to set aside affordable housing for the poor. Villaraigosa said he supports the concept; Parks opposes it.

“There is no permanent coalition on the L.A. City Council,” said Harvey Englander, a public affairs consultant who has made campaign contributions to Villaraigosa and Huizar. “It’s a coalition based on the issue of the moment.”

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Villaraigosa said he expects Huizar to be “on my team.” And in a phone interview Thursday, Huizar said he would be happy to fulfill that role.

“I think we have a new era in Los Angeles where there’s a momentum of people working together to get things done,” said Huizar, a lawyer and former deputy city attorney. “I feel like I’d be part of a team, and that team includes the mayor and the City Council.”

Huizar’s campaign themes are complementary to Villaraigosa’s vision. He said he wanted to see the expansion of rail projects, but not at the expense of buses. He would put a priority on adding police. And he said his experience at L.A. Unified would benefit the city as it tries to find ways to help the school district.

“There’s lots and lots of opportunities to work closer together,” Huizar said. “I could be that linkage between the city and the school district.”

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Pacheco’s campaign manager, Robert Urteaga, said his candidate shares many of Villaraigosa’s goals, especially in improving the quality of life in the 14th District, which encompasses Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, as well as parts of Mount Washington and downtown.

In a recent campaign e-mail, Pacheco noted that he started a volunteer street clean-up program that Villaraigosa inherited and built up “to the point that thousands now show up.”

But Urteaga said that unlike Huizar, Pacheco “will keep the mayor accountable to his promises.”

Huizar has racked up some key endorsements, including those of seven City Council members. And as of late June, he had also raised $160,897, roughly twice the amount raised by Pacheco.

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That makes neighborhood events like Thursday’s debate at Roosevelt High School especially vital for Pacheco, who is hoping his name recognition and record will overcome his lack of funds.

The event drew about 200 people. A man from the audience acted as self-appointed ringmaster, kicking off the event with some ground rules -- a nod to the district’s rough-and-tumble politics: “No scratching, no spitting, no cussing.”

Huizar and Pacheco shared the stage with six of the 15 dark-horse candidates running for the seat. But Pacheco was able to direct some jabs specifically at Huizar.

“We don’t have time for on-the-job training,” Pacheco said, referring to Huizar’s lack of City Hall experience.

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Huizar shot back, saying he had overseen L.A. Unified’s plan to build 160 new schools. “That’s experience,” he said.

Pacheco, who has blamed the district’s poor performance on Huizar in the past, said district officials “think we should be impressed because they figured out how to build a school.”

Pacheco said he would “build our children’s minds” with a focus on charter schools.

Huizar painted himself as a force for reform at L.A. Unified, claiming that his efforts led the district to finally confront its high dropout rate.

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