Bare-knuckle politics


The Los Angeles City Council’s 14th District takes in Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mount Washington, El Sereno and a chunk of central Los Angeles, and it historically has featured some of the city’s most fervid politics. It’s where Richard Alatorre once held office, where Antonio Villaraigosa knocked off Nick Pacheco in 2003 and where Jose Huizar thwarted Pacheco’s attempted comeback when Villaraigosa went on to be mayor. This year, for the second time in recent memory, it is supplying that great rarity: a credible challenge to a council incumbent.

Huizar and businessman Rudy Martinez are both fighting hard, and their contrasting styles, backgrounds and approaches have made the campaign a daily blitz of charges and countercharges. Once friends, they now fairly detest one another, and their camps are similarly animated.

Huizar dominates the inside game. He’s a polished, educated, experienced candidate, strong on issues. He impresses people at candidate forums, has raised money and has rounded up endorsements. Some advocates praise his tenure for bringing civic improvements and protecting open space. Evla Yanez, a resident of El Sereno, notes that Huizar helped set aside more than 100 acres on Ascot Hill and Elephant Hill, the latter having been subject to a long battle over development.


On the ground, though, the talk is more about Martinez. Some residents find him naive, others charming.

One recent Friday afternoon, Martinez’s campaign headquarters was humming as half a dozen volunteers worked the phones in English and Spanish. After checking in there, Martinez headed for a little oaxaqueno restaurant in Boyle Heights. There, four women, all residents of the district, were gathered around a platter of taquitos and quesadillas (in L.A. politics, the rubber-chicken dinner of lore has given way to more modern fare). Martinez plopped down, sipped a Fanta and listened.

“I have a list here,” began Martha Cisneros, who’s lived in the area for more than 50 years and who was carrying four sheets of stationery covered in notes. “It’s like I live in the Third World.” She ticked off complaints: People on her block are dumping dirty water into the street. A man is doing mechanic work in the yard. Ice cream trucks crawl around the neighborhood at night peddling who-knows-what.

Cisneros has asked for help from Huizar but feels ignored. Next to Cisneros, Teresa Marquez, a Martinez loyalist, agreed. She complained about the proliferation of liquor licenses in the area, which she believes contributes to violence, and to domestic violence in particular. Marquez blames Huizar.

Incumbency comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Huizar’s numbers show strong support in the district, and he can point to achievements, but he is also the area’s most obvious target. With the economy struggling and the city in tough shape, dissatisfaction with the status quo is widespread, and Huizar bears the burden.

Martinez promises he’ll be different. He’ll listen, focus on the community, tend to basics. “These are things that can be fixed,” he said.

Marquez already was sold. After a few minutes, Cisneros was convinced too. “I’ve seen you more in this campaign than I’ve seen Jose in five years,” she said.

The Huizar campaign is sensitive to the charge that he’s detached from such everyday concerns, and it’s fighting back. It has trumpeted Martinez’s misdemeanor assault convictions when he was younger. And on Friday, Huizar supporters gloated over allegations that Martinez improperly possessed an LAPD badge while he was a volunteer with the department. Miguel Trujillo, a spokesman for the Huizar campaign, described Martinez in an e-mail to Huizar supporters as “a disgusting human being” drawn from a “vile bag of tripe.” When Trujillo looked forward to putting “a political bullet” in Martinez’s forehead, he’d gone one step too far. He was fired on Sunday.

Martinez says he has been surprised at the campaign’s vitriol, but he’s contributed a fair bit himself, releasing details of talks he’s had with the FBI regarding some contracting work Martinez did for Huizar. How much of this is reaching likely voters is hard to tell. Last week, voters in the district seemed largely unaware of the kerfuffle, though many were following the candidates.

Huizar has represented the district for years, but Martinez is familiar too. He has been buying and selling houses in this area since 1994, flipping them for a profit. The practice is controversial, with some people saying it contributed to the housing bubble, but the council candidate said it has made him a tidy income and helped improve some neighborhood eyesores. When he dropped in on a project in City Terrace, neighbors recognized him. They waved, leaned across fences to shake his hand and wished him well.

On York Boulevard, Martinez pulled up in front of one of his restaurants — Marty’s, named for his son; his other restaurant, Mia Sushi, is named for his daughter. The space that houses Marty’s used to be a grimy bar known well to LAPD vice. Today it is clean and inviting; the signature dish is a Kobe beef burger. The stretch of once-ragged York Boulevard on which it sits now has a crisp, prosperous feel.

“People say it can’t change,” Martinez said. “It does change.”

Over on Colorado, at Four Cafe, chef Michelle Wilton related her appreciation for Martinez, who helped her and her husband through the city’s permit process; today, their restaurant is a popular neighborhood attraction with a devoted clientele.

A few doors down, John Nugent and his wife, Jennifer Morgan, own a wine store. Martinez “gave us a lot of tips,” Nugent said. He and Martinez help each other too: Anyone who buys wine at Colorado Wine Store can bring it to Martinez’s restaurant and drink it without paying a corkage fee. Happy with their success in Eagle Rock, Nugent and Morgan are embarking on a second place, a beer store they’re hoping to open in Echo Park.

These aren’t competitors, Martinez explained as he scooted to his next stop; they’re allies in anchoring a neighborhood, showing those who live here that they don’t need to go to Pasadena or Glendale to go out to dinner or buy a bottle of wine. They stay close. Business grows. The district gets healthier.

As he meets with voters, Martinez doesn’t talk a lot about the proposal to create a ratepayer advocate for the Department of Water and Power or how to reform the city’s pension system (nor does anyone ask). Huizar has far better command of those areas; his experience at City Hall and the school board before that equip him with a political vocabulary and skill. And he has his own core of avid supporters.

At the end of our afternoon together, Martinez pulled up to his headquarters and checked in with his staff. They were up to 2,300 soft “yeses,” people who’ve pledged to vote for Martinez. Martinez works for them one at a time, figuring he needs 10,000 to win.

“Don’t give up,” he said to one constituent despairing about the state of the community. “We can change it.” The constituent nodded appreciatively: 2,301.