If you Google "José Huizar images," you'll find this photo of the Los Angeles City Council District 14 representative: Huizar high in the saddle on Pancho, a horse adorned with silver parade trappings. Huizar's in his finest fiesta wear, a charcoal gray suit trimmed in black brocade, with a Tournament of Roses sash across his chest.
That photo says more than a thousand words to Rudy Martinez, star of A&E's Flip This House. In Martinez's opinion, Huizar is all show.
"José Huizar is lazy. He doesn't care and he doesn't listen," says Martinez, 43. "He considers his City Council seat his own little fiefdom. While everybody in the city is taking cuts, José orders a $60,000 Toyota Highlander hybrid, fully loaded with a DVD player, and he has a driver who picks him up every morning and takes him wherever he needs to go.
That attitude goes both ways. "Rudy's facts are wrong," retorts Huizar, 42. "The car [price] is in the low 30s. I don't have a driver. ... Sometimes they drive, sometimes I drive. This guy pisses me off when he says things that have no foundation. Rudy will say or do anything to get elected."
It's election season within the squiggly boundaries of "the 14th," the district encompassing Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights, El Sereno and eastern downtown that stops just shy of Skid Row's Midnight Mission. A quarter of a million people live there — Latinos with a smattering of whites, blacks, Asians and Filipino-Americans.
"District 14 is always the marquee race in city elections," says Michael Trujillo, Huizar's campaign manager. "It's the longest-held Latino office in the city. Elections become ingrained in daily life. People get involved."
It's going to be especially involved — even ugly — before the March primary election. This guy named Rudy, from outside the traditional power structure, has enough campaign money to upset a City Hall incumbent.
Frankly, that's verboten.
Los Angeles peddles itself as a place of newcomers, an example of democracy in action. At City Hall, it really isn't.
The 15-member City Council votes unanimously 99.993 percent of the time. And the last time an outsider forced a City Council incumbent out of office was 1987. That year, environmental activist and council candidate Ruth Galanter was viciously slashed by a robber. While fighting her way back to health, she shocked the downtown crowd by beating pro-development incumbent Pat Russell on the Westside.
But Jorge Flores, vice president of Marathon Communications, says, "No outsider has ever beaten an incumbent in District 14." Antonio Villaraigosa beat incumbent Nick Pacheco in 2001, but Villaraigosa "had been [California Assembly] Speaker for two years."
The unofficial rule Martinez is ignoring is that you must be a legislator, City Council staffer, school board member, union honcho or similar to get a slot.
Huizar, for example, was all but anointed when Villaraigosa left the 14th District seat early to become mayor. Huizar had done stints as L.A. Unified School District board president, a deputy city attorney and member of the East L.A. Planning Commission. He won a special election on Nov. 8, 2005, and was re-elected in March 2007.
Once you're in, it's a lock until term limits push you out.
The 15 council members are the highest-paid in the U.S., pulling in 400 percent of the average L.A. household income. At $178,789, they earn roughly twice what New York City Council members do. They earn more than federal judges or members of Congress.
During their 12 years in office, they are lavished with heavily subsidized health care, taxpayer-provided cars, free gas and special cash accounts. The Weekly calculates a City Council seat is worth nearly $3 million to its holder.
That, plus the sheer power — each member wields extraordinary say over district land development — means each seat is defended by a richly backed incumbent.
Enter Martinez, reality TV star.
Flip This House follows three teams who buy dilapidated homes, invest as little money as possible to fix them up and try to sell them. Martinez leads an L.A. construction crew and flips three houses a month for a profit averaging $50,000 per house.
A small-scale developer in real life, he owns the Mia Sushi restaurant tucked in Eagle Rock Boulevard's Bodine Building, which he rehabbed and also owns.
Not long ago, he plunked down $150,000 of his own money to open a campaign office in Eagle Rock. Soon after, on Broadway downtown, a rooftop billboard began displaying a 55-by-25-foot photo of Martinez emblazoned, "The time is now. The choice is clear."
It certainly is to Roberto Saldaña, attorney for Mideb Nominees Inc., an Australian development firm whose owner, Joseph Hellen, has clashed with preservationists in his push to turn Broadway into a shopping Mecca. Hellen owns condo buildings, historic theaters and office towers on Broadway, and recently spent $45 million on renovations. The company owns the billboard and is donating its ad space — worth $24,000 — to the Martinez campaign.
"In the years José Huizar has been in office, there have been no improvements along Broadway," Saldaña says. "He has done nothing. Just because he says he's 'bringing back Broadway' doesn't mean he's accomplishing it."
Since the 1960s, when huge numbers of Angelenos fled the city's core for the San Fernando Valley, politicians like Huizar have been promising to lead a Broadway revival.
"You could get hurt walking or lose a transmission in some of the potholes," Saldaña says. Large sections of sidewalk between Fifth and Sixth streets have been patched with 4-by-8-foot pieces of plywood so the mostly Latino shoppers don't fall 20 feet to a subterranean parking lot. Saldaña says Mideb was forced to do that because the city permitting process got gummed up, and Huizar has been no help.
Baloney, Huizar retorts. He points to District 14 projects he's pushed through or initiated, such as the Valley Bridge in El Sereno; $1.5 billion in capital improvements in Boyle Heights; open space in Elephant Hill; and, yes, even the renovation of Broadway.
"Rudy's living in a black box and doesn't know what's going on," Huizar says. "I'm one of the hardest-working council members."
But as Bill Boyarsky, former Los Angeles Times city editor, notes, "City Hall is extremely functional for entrepreneurs and developers. It's dysfunctional for the poor, for immigrants and people living in overcrowded areas. ... City Hall is run by land developers and unions."
Saldaña believes Broadway will rise — if Martinez beats Huizar. "I've seen Rudy Martinez come to Broadway and talk to merchants," he says. "I have never seen José Huizar" do that.
It's clear Martinez is no messiah. As a restaurant investor in the 1990s, Martinez lobbied to roll back smoking restrictions as part of the National Smokers Alliance funded by Philip Morris.
The Echo Park native had run-ins with the law as a young man. Arrested two decades ago for drunk driving, he eventually was convicted of using a suspended license. He later was convicted of assault after a 1991 brawl at his dad's bar.
But Martinez is not Huizar, which is why he's getting Elizabeth Agosto's vote. Agosto, a waitress for 19 years at Pat & Lorraine's Coffee Shop on Eagle Rock Boulevard, remembers a 2007 Huizar campaign event on the restaurant's patio.
"There were 30 or 40 people here for a party — and they didn't order one thing and José didn't tip a dime," Agosto says of Huizar. "He's been on my shit list ever since." She plans to "canvass neighborhoods for Rudy."
Right now, however, Martinez is mainly just scaring important people with his money and his moxie. He still has a huge, historic wall to climb.
For one thing, there's the "Durazo Effect," named for Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. She directs 300 local unions with 800,000 members, many of whom will canvass neighborhoods and vote the way Durazo says — for Huizar. Political types say when Durazo taps a candidate's shoulder, an opponent's tears are all that's left.
Still, Martinez is making inroads. Huizar is known for his arrogance, and some former allies have defected to Martinez, notably Huizar's ex-campaign spokesman George Gonzalez.
Since he jumped in the race, Martinez says, Huizar is "at every quinceañera, bar and bat mitzvah and senior citizen events. He's going to lose — and have to go out and earn a living like 95 percent of the rest of us."