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Antonio "The Heartthrob" Villaraigosa vs. Nick "The Choirboy" Pacheco for the welterweight championship of the city

Thursday, Feb 13 2003
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Illustration by Michelle Chang

A ROUND OF SNICKERING, SOFT BUT UNMISTAKABLE, rises from a clutch of Nick Pacheco supporters as Antonio Villaraigosa addresses the crowd in Spanish.

"Where'd he learn that?" one young woman holding a Pacheco sign utters in a half whisper, half chuckle.

"You notice the cat-calling?" Villaraigosa asks the 200 or so residents of Mount Washington and Highland Park, with a good number of City Hall workers mixed in. "You won't hear that from me." His message in this do-or-die comeback attempt: We will keep this campaign positive.

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Pacheco tells the gathering at Ramona Hall that the 14th Council District, where he is battling to fend off a strong challenge from the popular and charismatic Villaraigosa, produces enough leaders of its own.

"We no longer need to move in talent to move our agenda," Pacheco says.

More chuckles and whispers, as Pacheco supporters remind one another that Villaraigosa rented a home a stone's throw across the freeway to qualify as a district resident; Villaraigosa backers scoff that City Hall put most of their man's street in the district last year but suspiciously left out his house, plus a few on either side.

But this sniping is kid stuff. Since November, people in the district — and throughout the city — have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The race between council freshman Pacheco and Villaraigosa, the former Assembly speaker and crusading mayoral candidate, oozed into the public consciousness three months ago with two now-notorious mailers sent by Pacheco friend Ricardo Torres II. Taboos went out the window as Torres slammed Villa-raigosa on race, sex and family.

Elections for City Council rarely generate much interest beyond the purely parochial, but this one, which also features 1984 Olympic boxing gold medalist Paul Gonzales, is different. It is a resurrection bid for Villaraigosa, now 50, who was speaker of the state Assembly and captured national interest with his 2001 campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

Journalists and pundits zeroed in obsessively on the fact that the influential city with a Latino past and a Latino future could soon elect its first (in modern times) Latino mayor. But along the way they were forced to take note of the broad coalition of liberals and centrists who were galvanized by the Villaraigosa phenomenon.

James Hahn stopped the juggernaut, and Villaraigosa has been absent from elected office for nearly two years. He has vowed not to run for mayor in 2005, but a win in the council race would keep his image and his message fresh, and make him viable for a mayoral run in six years. A loss could make him a has-been.

For Pacheco, a homegrown former prosecutor who upset the labor establishment in his first run for council and demonstrated the power of grassroots support, a win would make him, at 39, one of the senior-most elected officials at City Hall. A run for city attorney in four years beckons.

A loss would make him an asterisk in the Villaraigosa story.

But the stakes are not limited to the personal aspirations of the two men. The outcome will have ramifications for the balance of power in City Hall, as Hahn tries to hold together his fragile coalition while eyeing the potential competition from not just Villaraigosa, but now a councilful of possible challengers.

It could also determine the future shape of organized labor — and the continuing self-definition of Latino leadership in Los Angeles and around the state.


Villaraigosa: A visionary in
search of an audience
(Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)

Still, the mailers defined the race. Endorsements were pulled, supporters rallied, and from City Hall to Sacramento pundits predicted that the run-up to Election Day would offer the sleaziest campaigning anyone had seen this side of South Gate. If Gonzales captures enough votes to force a May 20 runoff, it could only get worse.

Pacheco denied involvement in the Torres mailers and called them "stupid." Villaraigosa labeled Torres a Pacheco "operative," and his campaign called for a probe to nail down a Pacheco link.

"Well, at least people are paying attention now," a philosophical Pacheco said after the furor had died down. "We never got any coverage in our district before. Maybe now they will see what we have accomplished."

VILLARAIGOSA TROTS UP THE FRONT STEPS OF A modest Eagle Rock bungalow and raps on the door. "Give me one of those, honey," he calls to his wife, Corina, who arrives on the front porch carrying an armful of Villa-raigosa-for-Council brochures. Behind them, their two children, Natalia and Antonio Jr., vie for the attention of a cat curled up on a bench in the shade.

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