Jim Newton on Jose Huizar: Bare-knuckle politics II

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When The Times endorsed Rudy Martinez in the contentious 14th Council District election and I followed up with a column about Martinez a few days later, a consultant for incumbent Councilman Jose Huizar chewed on my ear. It was only fair, he argued, that if I spent a day with Martinez, I should do the same with Huizar. Given that the 14th is one of L.A.’s most interesting districts and the race there has been the most heated in the spring council election, I agreed.

Then something ominous happened: The two candidates, appearing at a forum on Feb. 8, promised to lay off negative campaigning. A race that had featured Martinez accusing Huizar of being under investigation by the FBI, Huizar revealing that Martinez was investigated by the LAPD for improperly carrying a police badge and a Huizar spokesman threatening to put a “political bullet in between Rudy Martinez’s forehead” now threatened to turn to civil debates on whether to dissolve the Community Redevelopment Agency and how to lure new businesses to Boyle Heights. I figured I was in for a long day.

When we met last week, Huizar was indeed determined to highlight his achievements, not denigrate his challenger. We started at Mendez Learning Center, a modern and impressive high school in Boyle Heights that Huizar pushed for as a school board member and, later, as a councilman, helped complete. Circling the building, Huizar proudly pointed to his contribution in creating the first new high school on the Eastside in 80 years.


Next, Huizar dropped in at Dolores Mission, where a small group of women gathered beneath the colorful canopy of the courtyard to ask the councilman’s help in sponsoring a summer program. Maria Rangel has nine children, so finding something for them to do during the summer is no small task. “There were other programs, but they cost,” she explained in Spanish. “I couldn’t afford them.”

Huizar listened and then, also in Spanish, promised to help. As he prepared to leave, the women in the group teased him about his growing family. He’s a father of four, and these women want more. “We expect five this Christmas!” one exclaimed.

Around the district, which touches downtown at its southern edge and then winds through Boyle Heights and El Sereno, Mount Washington and Eagle Rock, Huizar pointed to signs of progress, many brought to fruition with his help. In Mariachi Plaza, a historic hotel is being refurbished. The pool at Roosevelt High School has been fixed up. There are new skate parks and open space and several bridge projects, including one that has eliminated legendary waits for freight trains that pass through the district. There’s a new sports field, complete with artificial turf, near Salesian High School, Huizar’s alma mater.

The councilman acknowledged that constituents sometimes fail to recognize his efforts. And he conceded that there’s plenty left to do — areas that remain dirty, sidewalks in disrepair, trees that have gone decades without being trimmed. “Half of my job,” he said, “is getting money for my district.”

Huizar is a cerebral candidate, earnest and well meaning, slightly awkward with constituents, prone to malapropisms, more comfortable on issues and policy. He can also be charmingly inartful. During our afternoon, he repeatedly brought up, often without being asked, some of the less-than-flattering things said about him. Huizar has been criticized for churning through staff; he explained he drives his aides hard. As we drove down Eastern Avenue, he remarked: “This place needs attention.”

And, without prompting, he raised the controversy over the Southwest Museum, a sore point in the district. Huizar said he attempted to get a guarantee from the Autry National Center of the American West to reopen the museum building (which the Autry owns), only to have the project fall apart. It was, I suggested, a “lose-lose,” a phrase that unnerved Huizar so much that he missed the green light turning red and wound up stranded in the intersection. Recovering, he responded: “It was a lose-lose, but I think we’re in a good position now.”


As the day progressed, Huizar loosened up. The offer to campaign on positives, as he and others pointed out, had been accepted initially by Martinez but then rejected. Huizar, understandably, no longer felt bound by a deal that Martinez had rebuffed, and by the end of our day together he was happy to talk about his opponent in less-than-flattering terms.

Noting the number of people who spoke to him that day in Spanish, Huizar remarked: “Rudy Martinez doesn’t speak Spanish.” We discussed Huizar’s home neighborhood in Boyle Heights, and the councilman pointed out that Martinez, though a native of Echo Park, until recently lived in Glendale. He mused about Martinez’s character: Martinez was arrested four times as a young person. Finally, Huizar let loose. Martinez, he fumed, “is just inept.”

The next day, a group of medical marijuana distributors — who are sore at Huizar for his work to limit their trade — unleashed a negative ad campaign against the councilman. This came on the heels of an inflammatory mailer sent out by Martinez. Huizar’s consultant denounced the Martinez campaign for reneging on the pledge to go positive and said the latest ads were characterized by “unsupported personal attacks.” On Larry Mantle’s KPCC-FM show, Martinez called the attacks on him “appalling”; Huizar countered that he had never been “involved in a campaign where there’s been so many untruths spoken by my opponent.”

Everything is back to normal.