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
Lara learned some other lessons from that campaign as well. Firebaugh was getting sicker, and would cough in endorsement interviews. Opponents were whispering about his ability to serve. Part of Lara's job was to downplay the issue.
"Politics is ruthless," Lara says. "We did a great job of hiding what was going on."
There came a point where it couldn't be concealed any more. In March, Lara was called to Firebaugh's bedside at UCLA Medical Center to say his goodbye. His last responsibility in the campaign was to announce that his boss had died.
"The toughest thing to do was to go home and write the damn press release."
Lara is charismatic, but not in a fiery way. Instead, he absorbs the energy of his audience and reflects it back. He listens. He asks questions. He's easy to like.
Walking precincts in Downey on a recent Saturday morning, Lara makes a pitch that blends his uplifting biography with concern for the top issue of the day: jobs.
"My name is Ricardo Lara," he says, at house after house. "I'm the first in my family to graduate from college, and I want to give kids the same opportunity. I also want to bring jobs back into the community. I would love to have your support on June 8."
He approaches the exercise with the efficiency of an old hand. He has been walking precincts in just about every election since college.
A lot of people aren't home. Lara leaves his campaign literature — it features his picture in front of an Obama "Hope" logo — with a personalized message. Those who are home don't seem to know there was an election coming.
Back in his Ford pickup, Lara has MGMT in the CD player. On the drive back to South Gate, he mentions that he was about to finish a master's degree at USC in executive leadership. The courses taught him that people generally don't listen to you unless you appeal to their core values and use storytelling. He has been trying to apply that lesson to politics.
One of his instructors was Kevin Starr, the California historian.
"He was talking about the future of the state," Lara says. "He said Mexican-Americans are about to inherit a broken state."
A few days later, Marquez walks precincts in a quiet neighborhood in Bellflower. He wears a shirt with the Downey city seal on it. His delivery is a little clumsier — without Lara's polish.
"The reason why I'm running is to make government work for us," he tells voters. "I'm about true local representation. It's about having someone that's from here representing us."
Marquez is not an ideal homegrown candidate. He moved to the district from L.A. in 2002. Still, he took offense that Lara could swoop in and presume to understand this community and its issues.
"He has to buy the election," Marquez tells one voter. "He's going to sensationalize who he is. I'm just coming out and meeting you and I'm just going to let my record speak for itself."
Part of the problem in taking on Lara is that local elected officials couldn't decide whether to back Avalos or Marquez. There was talk that one of them should drop out. Avalos' supporters say that Marquez is just using the Downey council seat as a stepping stone to higher office, while Marquez's supporters argue that Avalos can't raise money and is out of her league.
Avalos says Marquez has offered to drop out if he can run her campaign and be her chief of staff, provided she wins.
"I've never been one to be controlled," Avalos says. "I'm very proud of the fact I owe nobody anything."
The man with the clout to settle it is De La Torre, but he is close to both candidates and for most of the race he has refused to take sides. Then, three weeks before the election, he threw his support behind Marquez, who he says has shown greater viability.
The endorsement is a big lift for Marquez's campaign, and it has prompted another fence-sitter to come onboard: Tony "El Tigre" Mendoza.
More volunteers have shown up to walk precincts. The battle lines are now more clearly drawn: Villaraigosa and the Fed backing Lara on one side, and on the other a collection of local and state elected officials backing Marquez in a fight against encroachment from L.A.
"The city of Los Angeles is all-powerful, and what the mayor wants up there, he has enough influence to get," says South Gate City Councilman Bill De Witt. "By getting the 50th Assembly District in his pocket ... it gives the city of L.A. more power at our expense."
The proof that Lara is taking this seriously came a couple of weeks ago, when his campaign unleashed a mailer that attacked both Avalos and Marquez. As such pieces often are, it was a cynical manipulation of voters' own cynicism. It accuses Avalos of missing meetings of the Cerritos Community College board, and slams Marquez for taking money from Downey city contractors.
Lara is just as guilty, if not more so, of both charges. He has missed a year of meetings at the Consumer Affairs Commission and has taken money from all kinds of vested interests all over the state.