Haunting Skeletons 

Tenth District candidates have superb personal stories, with some details they’d prefer voters to overlook

Thursday, May 8 2003

At election time, you shouldn’t care so much about what your veteran representative did 40 years ago, whether he was in the ninth-grade glee club, for example. What does matter is how officials vote on the issues, how hard they work, how honestly they conduct themselves.

It’s different with a young newcomer — when character and résumé are mostly what you’ve got to go on. So it could be meaningful if he made honor society or ran a small business. Such details suggest brainpower or scrappiness. It might matter, too, if a candidate got arrested for drug trafficking as a young adult or recently filed for bankruptcy.

Enter Deron Williams and Martin Ludlow. Both are 30-something candidates vying to replace termed-out Nate Holden in the 10th City Council District, a diverse swath that runs north and south of the 10 freeway from about Western Avenue to Robertson Boulevard. Black voters are the largest voting bloc — and both candidates are African-American — but the district also encompasses a working-class Latino majority, much of Koreatown, and largely middle-class Anglo and Jewish enclaves.

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Each aspirant brings a remarkable personal story that has been a focus of the campaign. They’re the kind of personal-triumph tales good enough to get into Harvard: Williams overcame horrendous adversity to make something of himself; Ludlow was rescued from hardship by saintly parents and determined to follow in their crusading footsteps. On the issues, both candidates present themselves as liberal, inclusive and progressive. So it’s hard not to get personal with them — especially because their narratives sometimes collide with the facts. Williams, for one, has lied about the distant criminal background that preceded his upright present. Ludlow, for his part, has been plagued with more recent financial and family problems that belie a seemingly brilliant professional career.

The criminal transgressions of 35-year-old Deron Williams could have worked in his favor, part of a tale of redemption, if only he’d shared the whole truth.

His story, which he’s told repeatedly over the course of the campaign, begins with his birth to a young mother who would leave him and his three older siblings for weeks at a time, sometimes with near-strangers. His brother and sisters, he says, have led tortured lives. But Deron was different. He virtually raised himself. He had to — most of the time his make-do caretakers were alcoholics or abusive, he says.

Somehow he did it. Thanks to sports and church and himself, he stayed clean and focused and out of trouble, graduating from Fremont High with respectable grades.

Then, by chance one evening, as he was headed to the movies with three friends, he bumped into City Councilman Holden at a drugstore in 1988. The boys had stopped to buy gum. They didn’t know Holden from a hole in the wall. But Holden, impressed with their well-groomed appearance, chatted for a while and also left his card.

Williams followed up immediately and got a job cleaning up graffiti. He would eventually rise to become Holden’s chief deputy. And while much of the 10th District is a disaster in terms of economic development and crime, many residents and business owners give Williams good marks for cleaning alleys, handling nuisance properties and managing street-level tasks. Williams has Holden’s blessing to succeed him in office.

But Williams didn’t mention that he was arrested at Ontario International Airport on March 22, 1988. Police reports say that officers found three bags of cocaine — a total of about 3 ounces — in his underwear. One of his two companions had purchased plane tickets to New Orleans. Williams later served 117 days in jail for felony cocaine possession.

To his immense credit, Williams turned his life around. Besides his council work, he’s been active in the PTA and the Mid-City Chamber of Commerce while raising his family of three. In addition to his day-to-day district duties, he engineered a job-training link between Dorsey High and an auto-parts chain. City Councilman Bernard Parks, the former police chief, has endorsed Williams in large part, he said, because Williams’ turnaround is an uplifting example in a district where many young people need to turn their own lives around.

When the L.A. Times broke the story about his criminal record, Williams claimed that he’d never hidden his past. But that wasn’t true. In his interview with the Weekly editorial board, for example, he said that he’d never been in trouble. (A portion of this transcript is available on-line.) In the same interview, when asked for people who could talk about his work and life, Williams offered a list of campaign endorsers. He said he didn’t have any mentors. When pressed further, he mentioned a longtime Holden aide — one who died some time ago.

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