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‘Mind-blowing.’ Eastside residents, community leaders react to the Jose Huizar case

Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, shown at a council meeting in 2014. He is facing a felony racketeering charge.
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, at a council meeting in 2014, is facing a racketeering charge in a federal corruption case.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As she watched the TV coverage of the FBI arrest of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, Isela Gracian felt her heart sink.

Gracian, a former executive with the nonprofit East Los Angeles Community Corp., spent a decade working with Huizar on efforts to build affordable housing, adopt anti-pollution measures and make life better for sidewalk vendors. On Tuesday, Spanish-language Univision was talking about bribes and showing stacks of cash seized from the councilman’s home.

“I can’t find a deeper word than disappointed,” she said. “It’s just mind-blowing — the depth and extent of it.”

Federal prosecutors charged Huizar on Tuesday with felony racketeering, alleging he wrested cash bribes, lavish casino trips and five-figure campaign donations from businessmen who needed his help at City Hall. Huizar has yet to enter a plea and, so far, his lawyers have said little, arguing that allegations should be discussed in court, not in the media.

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But for some, the federal corruption case has dealt a crippling blow to the reputation of a politician whose life story had been an inspiration, not just on the Eastside but across the city.

Huizar, 51, came to the United States as a boy from Zacatecas, Mexico, grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights and made his way through a series of top-tier colleges — UC Berkeley, then Princeton University and finally UCLA School of Law.

“To achieve all that, coming from the neighborhood, is really hard,” said Raquel Zamora, owner of Zamora Bros. restaurant on Cesar Chavez Avenue, and a former council candidate herself. “It was like — wow, we can do this. Anybody here can go to college, go to a big university, and come back here and give back” to their community.

Zamora, who lives in Boyle Heights, said Huizar’s life story helped spur her to enroll at USC. Now, following months of allegations about illicit payments, she says she feels let down.

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“At one point,” she said, “he was good.”

Restaurant owner Raquel Zamora says of Jose Huizar: "At one point he was good."
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Huizar was elected to the school board in 2001. Four years later, he won a council seat with major backing from then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. His career trajectory meant something to the district’s immigrant families, said political consultant Javier Gonzalez, a consultant on a number of political campaigns on L.A.'s Eastside.

Gonzalez said that in recent years, he occasionally walked with Huizar to a taco truck on Cesar Chavez Avenue, not far from the councilman’s home. On those evenings, Huizar’s constituents would shout out his name, greet him on the street and sometimes pepper him with questions, Gonzalez said.

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“You know when somebody has status in a community,” he said. “You can tell.”

For some Huizar supporters, that status has been diminished. Boyle Heights resident Frances Sandoval said she voted for the councilman in each of his elections and now, she’s angry. “We trusted him,” she said.

Sandoval said city workers should move quickly to remove the sign that bears Huizar’s name in front of his Boyle Heights field office at 1st and Chicago streets. “He’s an embarrassment to the community,” she added.

Atanacio Simiano, 82, seated on a nearby bus bench, agreed that the allegations against Huizar were terrible. But he said he is reserving judgment.

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“We’re just going to have to be patient about determining if he truly did commit a crime,” said the Boyle Heights resident.

Huizar, whose district takes in such neighborhoods as downtown, Eagle Rock and El Sereno, has spoken regularly of his humble origins. He has discussed his mother’s job at a meatpacking firm, and how his father, after working a regular work week, would head to the strawberry fields in Orange County to pick fruit.

Many of the allegations against Jose Huizar laid out by prosecutors have been described in previous court filings. But there are some new allegations.

In one video interview conducted by the Immigrant Archive Project, Huizar said he made sure to remember what it meant to lack the money to pay for basic life necessities.

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“I try not to forget how [easy] it was to join gangs when I was growing up, how easy it was to get into a life of crime, how easy it would have been to get involved in things that would have a negative long-lasting effect on our lives,” he said in the interview.

In federal filings, prosecutors have portrayed Huizar as the head of a criminal enterprise, the recipient of about $1.5 million in improper financial benefits in a scheme involving developers and other businessmen. In one instance, they said, a Chinese billionaire provided $600,000 in financial assistance to help the councilman settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Some who know Huizar personally have struggled to reconcile the sordid allegations with their own experiences.

Margarita Amador, a former member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, said the Huizar she knows checked in on her regularly while she was battling cancer. The Huizar she knows visited another community activist after she became terminally ill.

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Amador said Huizar made the neighborhood cleaner and safer, renovating parks, adding more low-income housing and constructing a new police station on 1st Street. No matter what happens in court, the case is “not going to change my perception of who he is,” she said.

“I’m still going to be there for him and support his family,” she said.

As the corruption case progressed, Huizar’s influence at City Hall has steadily waned. After FBI agents searched his home, he was removed from several council committees, including the powerful panel that reviews and approves major real estate projects.

Huizar stopped attending council meetings in recent weeks, following calls for his resignation from his colleagues. And on Tuesday, while he was still in custody, the council unanimously suspended him, opening the door to the selection of a temporary replacement.

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Residents of Huizar’s 14th District have not had a council member casting votes as L.A.'s political leaders debate budget cuts, relief for renters and strategies for ending police brutality. Some in the district have voiced alarm over that situation, saying they are being denied representation.

Still, others have greeted Huizar’s arrest as a cause for celebration. On the day of Huizar’s arrest, one group of activists gathered outside the councilman’s Boyle Heights home, taping an eviction notice to his garage door.

“The community won’t forgive, they won’t forget” said the anti-gentrification group known as Defend Boyle Heights, in a message on Twitter.


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