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Emanuel Pleitez makes a long shot run for mayor

Emanuel Pleitez is loping down a South Los Angeles side street of bungalows, propelling his 6-foot, 3-inch frame toward a registered voter his campaign advance team has discovered is home. Aides, including one carrying a camera to document his long shot run for mayor, try to keep up.

Once he finds the voter waiting in the front yard, he greets him exuberantly in Spanish, answers some questions, hands him a flier and moves on.

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Pleitez is a 30-year-old former tech executive in a hurry, who seems to believe no vote-harvesting opportunity can be passed by. He chats up Latina mothers selling snacks outside an elementary campus. He intercepts teens walking home from high school. “You want to go to college?” Pleitez asks, before offering to help them apply to Stanford, where he earned a degree on scholarship.

When he spots an African American woman parking her car, he raps on the driver’s side window. Ruby Graham is startled at the sight of Pleitez and his entourage. But after a moment she rolls her window down and listens to his pitch, smiling when he says he was born just a few blocks away.

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Facing daunting odds against better-known and well-financed candidates in the March 5 primary, Pleitez holds a unique place in a tight and fluid campaign to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. With the only Spanish surname on the ballot, and his success in elevating himself into recent television and radio debates, he could affect the outcome simply by drawing a respectable share of the growing Latino vote. Latinos made up 25% of the vote in Villaraigosa’s 2005 election, up from 10% in 1993, when Richard Riordan was elected mayor, exit polls showed.

His scramble to connect with voters in lower-income neighborhoods like South Los Angeles, the Eastside and the east San Fernando Valley is partly a reflection of the challenge Pleitez faces building name recognition. “I’m the only candidate that is going to some of these neighborhoods,” Pleitez said.

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Political scientist Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said Pleitez’s surname could be a plus, but not necessarily a significant one in the absence of such other advantages as a large campaign war chest.

“The voters who show up for a mayoral election are people who are paying a little bit more attention to politics” and already are familiar with the better-known candidates, he said.

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Pleitez’s campaign team is long on enthusiasm and short on local political experience and connections. Pleitez says that’s kind of the point. He’s offering something different, seeking to engage constituencies that usually stay away from the polls and live in the city’s most “underserved” neighborhoods.

He acknowledges that several politicos he came to know while working as an aide to Villaraigosa, and during an unsuccessful run for Congress when he was just 26, advised him against entering the mayor’s race.

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“They said I have no shot, that I’m crazy,” Pleitez recalled with no apparent rancor.

He’s struggled to raise money and draw media attention, particularly in the first few months after getting into the mayoral contest in July. Scores of earnest young political activists drawn to his campaign complained loudly when he was excluded from the first televised debate.

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That changed last month, when Pleitez collected enough contributions to qualify for public campaign funding, and debate sponsors began including him with the four main candidates: Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, city Controller Wendy Greuel and former radio talk show host Kevin James.

By then, Pleitez had quit his job with the data firm Spokeo, and he and his wife, Rebecca, moved into his mother’s El Sereno home so they could devote all their time to the campaign.

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“It’s a momentum game,” Pleitez said in an interview at his storefront headquarters in Boyle Heights, shortly after he got his first citywide exposure in a televised debate at UCLA. Gilliam, a panelist at that debate, said Pleitez has some other things in his favor, an appealing personal story, ethnic diversity, dedicated staff and volunteers and, like James, an outsider status that could appeal to disenchanted voters. However, Gilliam said, “He’s very young and very green.”

“It was certainly my impression at the debate that he is very inexperienced at campaigning,” Gilliam said. Though he admires Pleitez’s interest in neighborhoods that don’t get much attention, Gilliam said it is nearly impossible to pull off a successful campaign in a city the size of Los Angeles without something more: backing from labor or another interest group, enough money to advertise heavily or help from the Democratic Party or a local political machine.

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Pleitez has none of those and insists he doesn’t need them. He is counting on people like Jeremy Mazur, who joined his campaign as a photographer but also helps with the driving and event organizing. Mazur, 27, is an ex-Marine who said he was disillusioned with politics before meeting Pleitez.

“He was very excited about what he was doing, and that got me excited,” Mazur said. “I became convinced that what he was trying to do was for the good of other people, not for himself … otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

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Born to immigrants, Pleitez and his sister were raised by their single mother, moving from one gang-infested, impoverished neighborhood to another before winding up in El Sereno. Sometimes they lived in garages or friends’ bedrooms. Pleitez played five sports, earning 19 varsity letters, and winning election as senior class president before graduating from Woodrow Wilson High in 2001.

After Stanford, he worked as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, before going to work for then-Councilman Villaraigosa and later joining his campaign for mayor, where he filled a trusted “personal assistant” role. After the 2008 presidential election, he moved to the Obama-Biden transition team.

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“He was a success story,” said former Villaraigosa aide Jimmy Blackman, explaining why he hired Pleitez at City Hall in 2003. “He stayed on the straight and narrow” throughout his childhood in challenging circumstances, Blackman said.

Pleitez ran in a 2009 special congressional election, coming in third in a field of 12. He moved back to Washington as a special assistant to Paul Volcker, then chairman of the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. The following year, he returned to L.A. as a consultant for the management firm McKinsey & Co., leaving in 2012 to become chief strategy officer at Spokeo.

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He presents himself as a true outsider, despite his brief stints with Villaraigosa. And he talks about some of the same priorities — building safer communities, attracting jobs, fixing the city’s budget woes, solving traffic problems and improving education — as the other candidates.

How Pleitez’s ambitions will play out is uncertain, not just in terms of the current mayor’s race but also his future prospects in the public arena. Pleitez is widely regarded as “a talented man with the best of intentions,” Blackman said. “But the decisions to run an uphill race for Congress and an even more uphill race for mayor makes some people wonder whether he’s harming his own political future.”

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Not necessarily, says UCLA’s Gilliam. “He’s a young guy, and this kind of visibility will certainly open opportunities,” he said, though perhaps not for an elected office.

jean.merl@latimes.com


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