By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
YOU JUST KNOW things have gotten ugly in the race for the 45th Assembly District when the candidates start going after the woman vacating the seat, termed-out Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a longtime progressive icon who helped transform the district into a hotbed of liberal-left political activity.
For weeks, the four candidates have bombarded voters with expensive campaign brochures, English-Spanish dictionaries and even ceramic Mother’s Day mugs. But with each candidate growing anxious about their prospects, they have begun turning on each other — and their many high-profile backers.
The long knives came out briefly in the campaign’s final debate, staged in an Echo Park gymnasium where three of the four candidates struggled to be heard over the roar of the Hollywood Freeway. Speaking in the heart of Goldberg territory, Mount Washington resident Gabriel Buelna described the assemblywoman as a nonentity to voters in neighborhoods like El Sereno and City Terrace. Teachers’ union organizer Kevin de León went further, saying Goldberg — who endorsed his opponent, tenants’-rights advocate Elena Popp — had a minimal presence in the district. “No one knows who she is,” he said.
Popp went after de León, saying he dropped his opposition to mayoral takeover of L.A. Unified once he needed the endorsement of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Then she offered a subtler message about Christine Chavez, who has carpet-bombed the district with images of her grandfather, legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez. “We are up against a young woman whose grandfather has a holiday named after him,” said Popp. “That is a very difficult thing to be up against.”
The one candidate with nothing to say, as usual, was Chavez. By last week, the 34-year-old organizer for the United Farm Workers had found a way to bypass no fewer than eight candidate debates by leaving at the very beginning, showing up at the very end, or skipping out altogether. Chavez was a no-show for a radio debate sponsored by KPCC, brushed aside a forum aired on KPFK, and shunned a number of endorsement interviews, including one requested by the L.A. Weekly. Suddenly, the three state Assembly hopefuls had something to agree on — why was Chavez hiding, and what the heck was her problem?
“It’s a lack of transparency,” de León declared days later. “If you can’t debate your own Democratic opponents, how are you going to take on the Republicans?”
Chavez spokesman Eddie Gutierrez said his candidate had scheduling conflicts — and a need to meet voters one-on-one. “She’s walking precincts. That’s where she needs to be now. That’s where the other candidates need to be too,” he said.
The heavily liberal nature of the 45th Assembly made it a magnet for politically ambitious progressives, left-of-center stalwarts who spent varying amounts of time over the past five years as organizers in the Central Valley, Mexico or Los Angeles. It’s the type of district where candidates brag about how many times they’ve been arrested for civil disobedience. Whoever wins on Tuesday is almost guaranteed a six-year ride in Sacramento, leaving voters to bide their time until another crop of Democrats is ejected by term limits in 2012.
That may explain why Chavez sent voters a 56-page softbound biography of herself, or why Buelna sent district residents cards for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. De León handed out free ceramic mugs with his name on them, prompting snide commentary from critics over whether they contained lead. With those tricks already tried, candidates are now becoming more outspoken on each other’s shortcomings, from Chavez’s promise to fight a Republican president to questions over de León’s ties to the district.
De León, an organizer with the California Teachers Association, portrayed himself on the campaign trail as someone with roots in Los Angeles’ low-income communities, and indeed, voting records obtained by the L.A. Weekly identify him as an eight-year resident of the working-class neighborhoods in and around the 45th Assembly District. The 39-year-old de León was registered to vote at four different locations during that period, including one apartment that he shared with high-profile patron Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez near MacArthur Park, and another where he apparently slept on the couch of a political aide. Buelna and Popp both questioned whether de León considered the district his home or more of a way station.
“While he was changing registrations, I was building roots in the community,” said Buelna, who lives in Mount Washington.
De León changed his registration in May 2003 from Highland Park to the Asbury Apartments, a place he rented with Núñez, a childhood friend who won a seat in the state Assembly the previous year. Four months later, Núñez and de León were served by the Asbury with an unlawful-detainer lawsuit, the first step in an eviction process. The case was almost immediately dropped, however, and de León registered to vote one year later at an apartment in Angeleno Heights, listing his home as 914 W. Kensington Road for nearly seven months.
The tenant at that address, Iris Miranda, said she offered to let de León “crash on the couch” in her apartment while he was working in another part of the state and searching for an apartment. Miranda — an aide to state Senator Gil Cedillo, who has enthusiastically endorsed de León — said de León was living part of the time in the Central Valley but came down for two to three days at a time to share the apartment with her family of four. “He would come at different times,” she said. “It was not just simply a weekend thing.”