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The young guns

Times Staff Writers

Jeff MILLMAN looked like he was trying to keep a low profile. The 23-year-old campaign aide to Mayor James K. Hahn was lurking quietly behind a row of television cameras as challenger Antonio Villaraigosa made yet another campaign stop at a charter school.

But one person was watching him carefully.

Nathan James, the 25-year-old spokesman for Villaraigosa, sidled up to his nemesis, eyebrows raised.

“Jeff, do you have an all-access pass today?” he asked, before quickly slipping off to another task.

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Millman, his cover blown, went affably about his intelligence-gathering mission on rival turf.

It was one of many mildly sarcastic exchanges between these two adversaries who, in some ways, have more in common with each other than they do with almost anyone else in Los Angeles.

The twentysomething political operative is common to the Potomac Basin, where it’s not considered bizarre to talk Social Security reform over a backyard keg. In Los Angeles -- where hipsters, screenwriters and pop-culturistas have cornered the market on cool -- the junior politico is an exotic species.

“The great thing about being involved in politics in L.A. is you get to totally fly under the radar,” said Millman, who has a lot of friends from high school trying to make it in the city’s entertainment industry. “But then you get to walk around with pride knowing what you do is far more important. That’s just your little secret.”

Behind the media events and endorsements, the school stops and church visits, the attack e-mails and snide news releases are these sleep-deprived young men who could pass for college students. They prepare talking points. They monitor the opposition. And they summon reporters to events.

Often they attend the rival campaign’s events, enduring hostility as they quietly hand out hit pieces.

Kam Kuwata, a longtime strategist for Hahn who hired Millman, said that he identifies the next-generation Kam Kuwatas by posing this scenario:

“Think of the woman or man you have wanted to date for your entire life. You have a date, and it is 5:55 and you are going to pick them up.” Your cellphone rings just as you approach the dream date’s home. It’s Kuwata.

“Cancel everything. We’ve got to put together a press conference.”

The correct response: Sure. No problem. Right away.

It takes a peculiar kind of person to answer that call. One who craves work in the 18-hour, high-endorphin world of a political campaign. It requires a mixture of wonkishness and ambition, ego and the ability to play well with others. A liberal arts degree and a clutch of Brooks Brothers button-downs don’t hurt either.

At age 51, Kuwata is a respected Democratic political consultant. He is also single and still working as if he were three decades younger.

“I don’t wish it on anybody,” he said of the lifestyle of what he calls “being a political hack.”

Millman, whom Kuwata hired, caught the political bug in high school, seduced by the political skills of Bill Clinton -- and fascinated by the mechanics of the impeachment proceedings.

A longtime sports nut, Millman, who is 5 feet, 5 inches, also realized that the thrill of politics could equal the rush of a great game. But he liked that the stakes were a lot higher.

An election, he said, “is the ultimate scoreboard.”

Millman grew up in Mar Vista, attended the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School and then went to the University of Pennsylvania.

After graduation, he worked on the failed campaign to keep Gov. Gray Davis from being recalled and then on the successful Proposition 55 school bond campaign, where he met Kuwata.

“He’s as reliable as they come,” Kuwata said. “If you say, ‘Be on the corner of 1st and Main streets at 3 a.m. because a blue car will come at some point,’ he’ll be there.”

James, Villaraigosa’s spokesman, is from New Jersey and took a more circuitous route into politics. He majored in environmental studies at Brown University and went to work for environmental nonprofits.

“Working for an environmental nonprofit while George Bush is president is like swimming upstream,” he said. “So I thought the pressure point, the way to make change on the issues that I cared about, was to be directly involved in politics.”

James worked for Shannon O’Brien’s 2002 race for Massachusetts governor. O’Brien lost to Mitt Romney, but James learned something important: He liked doing opposition research, taking particular pride in having discovered that some of Romney’s companies engaged in anti-union activities.

Op research -- digging deep into the public and private lives of candidates -- has become an essential job on campaigns.

Ace Smith, a feared and skilled practitioner of the black arts of politics, heard about James’ work on the Massachusetts race and hired him in 2003. Smith, a 46-year-old consultant based in San Francisco, said James has proved himself a “superstar” with a “brilliant political mind.”

Millman and James run into each other often on the campaign trail. And, in the small world of Los Angeles politics, they also see each other socially. Not long after the March 8 election, which set up the rematch between their candidates, Millman and James encountered each other at a party thrown by Villaraigosa supporter Michael Trujillo, also a friend of Millman.

Millman recalled it as awkward: “I guess Nathan and some other people took my presence there as the embodiment of the enemy,” he said. “I don’t consider Nathan the enemy at all.”

“How do you view Millman as the enemy? Come on,” said James, taken aback at the idea that there was any antipathy between them.

Aware of the political hostilities swirling in the air, Trujillo, who is Villaraigosa’s volunteer driver on weekends, said he declared his party “Switzerland.”

The 26-year-old, who describes himself as “old,” said both James and Millman “eat, breathe and live politics,” and are “addicted to the adrenaline rush” of watching their work turn up in the news.

James is known to work to the edge of human endurance. And Millman, Trujillo added, “may look like a modern-day version of Dennis the Menace, but behind that lurks one of the most operational operatives I’ve ever met. He’s tough.”

Millman, who greets the world with an almost ever-present smile, often keeps tabs on the Villaraigosa campaign. His M.O. when he arrives on Villaraigosa territory is to keep it friendly, keep it fun -- and hope his opponent messes up.

It’s a job he carries out with a professional and friendly air. But there is also a discernible hint of impish glee as he offers up prefabricated anti-Villaraigosa zingers or hands out the Hahn campaign’s hit piece du jour against Villaraigosa.

Millman concedes he has a fondness for public mischief, a taste he cultivated in college. He was once kicked out of his home gym during a basketball game after unfurling a banner that took a personal swipe against the opposing coach.

He has a sardonic, even crooked sense of humor, but it tends to go straight when the topic is Hahn. He calls the mayor a “profile in courage” and also “incredibly nice.”

Millman said he was attracted to the idea of working on a “challenging” campaign. Hahn, he knew, faced four well-funded and well-known opponents in the first round. His chrome-plated reputation was dulled by investigations into his administration. And his decision to oust Bernard C. Parks as police chief had irked many black voters.

“I’d much rather work on a campaign that will be interesting and close, rather than a total loser or a bona fide winner,” he said.

James, who has an angular face that telegraphs his serious demeanor, is the spokesman for the Villaraigosa campaign. But other campaign workers say that no title could aptly describe all that he does. “He’s like a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week campaign office,” Trujillo said.

James, who lives in Oakland with his girlfriend, drove down to Los Angeles in January in his tan 1985 Volvo. He has embarked on a crash course about Los Angeles. In a gray messenger bag that is so large it threatens to dwarf his thin frame, he carries an academic tome about progressive politics in the city.

On a practical level, James said he is fascinated by the way campaigns get their message to the media.

And Los Angeles, because it is not a place where local politics garners much attention, is a challenging place to learn, he said.

James is also committed to electing Villaraigosa. If given a chance, he will spool out Villaraigosa campaign themes in an endless stream.

But, like Millman, James plans to be in the game long past this election: “I want to be doing this. I want to be working on campaigns. And I want to be winning them.”


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