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José vs. Nick

There must have been a hundred people packed into Nick Pacheco’s campaign headquarters, and they were pumped. Boyle Heights teens, Eagle Rock moms, volunteers from around L.A.’s Eastside. They all agreed that Pacheco had been a terrific city councilman who brought improvements and city money to what had been an urban backwater. Nick did things like spruce up the parks and pave dirt alleys, wipe out graffiti and offer leadership training to the next generation of activists. He got City Hall to notice the 14th council district. Why would you want anyone else? Now these volunteers were about to take to the streets and spread the word, after a quick shout of inspiration from the handful of elected officials who had signed on. Like this last guy, this clean-cut, baby-faced youngster, who grabbed the microphone in one hand and shot his other into the air while exhorting the small crowd in Spanish.

“!Vamos a ganar en marzo!” said freshman school-board member José Huizar. We’re going to win in March! We’re going to beat Antonio Villaraigosa!

But that was then. Despite the support from Huizar and from City Council incumbents like Alex Padilla and Ed Reyes, Nick Pacheco did not win re-election in March 2003, but was ousted by the charismatic Villaraigosa, who promised that, no, he was not seeking Pacheco’s seat simply for the purpose of running for mayor in a few months’ time.

And this is now. It’s the autumn of 2005. Antonio Villaraigosa did run for mayor, after all, and he won big. The City Council seat he so recently captured from Nick Pacheco sits empty, and Pacheco wants it back. He’s trying to claim the last year and a half of the unfinished term by winning the November 8 special election, or at least getting into a runoff to be around for a January vote. Standing in his way this time, instead of pumping up the crowd for him, is José Huizar, who wants to move up and over from the part-time school board and its $24,000 annual salary to the high-profile Los Angeles City Council, its $140,000 a year, its front-row seat on all things political. Huizar’s most potent weapon is his endorsement from Villaraigosa, who wants a new ally, not an old rival, running the show in the easternmost section of L.A.

Ten of the 13 City Council members, including most of those who worked alongside Pacheco when he was one of them, have backed Huizar. So has former Mayor Richard Riordan, who once was Pacheco’s highest-profile backer. Democrats, Republicans, labor, big business. All are onboard with Huizar. Why? Two reasons, apparently. One, that’s where Villaraigosa wants them, and he’s the most powerful man in town at the moment. “I really need to get my projects through City Hall, and I don’t need the mayor mad at me,” one council member explained under condition, of course, of anonymity.

Reason two: Pacheco himself. Maybe. The ex-councilman has a reputation of being a sore winner who was unresponsive to the power players at City Hall when they failed to back him in his initial run, back in 1999. Plus, he stepped on toes when he made a play to grab part of downtown for his district at the expense of a colleague, and he moved clumsily in his failed effort to be elected council president.

But it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly which reason is at play. When Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, for example, explained her endorsement by calling Huizar “a team player,” the implication was that Pacheco was not. Or, perhaps, it’s just that Pacheco would not be on the mayor’s team, and right now the mayor’s team is the one with the ball. Ed Reyes, whose own successful dark-horse candidacy four years ago was practically sponsored by Pacheco, and who walked precincts for Pacheco against Villaraigosa in 2003, offered that Huizar returns phone calls on time.

So the question is whether the council race is a lock for Huizar as the new guy in the Eastside political machine that is now falling into line behind Villaraigosa and his historic mayoral victory on May 17. Or if Pacheco, a man who refused to wait his turn when he first got into politics, nearly a decade ago, again has a shot at bucking the powers that be.

Illustration by Mr. Fish

It’s not exclusively a battle between the old pol and the new, the Villaraigosa-backed and the Villaraigosa-shunned. There are eight other candidates. On paper, they round out a field that makes it hard to argue that the district is not getting a choice.

Brian Heckmann, for example, is a Republican attorney endorsed by county Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Antonovich does not represent this area but applauds Heckman for his focus on public safety. Ruby De Vera, a council aide to former 14th District rep Richard Alatorre, a staffer for Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and now office manager for Councilman Ed Reyes, boasts years of constituent-service know-how, and has the backing of many of the district’s thousands of Filipino residents to boot. David Sanchez is practically a legend on the Eastside, having virtually invented Chicano activism. He helped found the Brown Berets before leading the 1968 walkout at a handful of high schools to protest substandard educational opportunities for Latinos. You can check out his story in an HBO movie scheduled to air in February.

Paul Gonzales, who failed to make a dent last time in either Pacheco or Villaraigosa, still tries to woo voters with tales of his 1984 Olympic gold medal for boxing. Clifford Ramiro Mosely was unhappy with the current state of education and started his own Eagle Rock charter school. Juan “Johnny Jay” Jimenez is an anti-gang counselor. Crystal Arceo is a 19-year-old college student. Diana Newberry is a meatpacker and carries the banner for the Socialist Workers Party.

So there is plenty to choose from, right? Yes — but only in theory. In a City Council district with a quarter-million residents, and about 70,000 registered voters, it’s simply not possible to win with good intentions and a few lawn signs. You need an operation. The kind that you can only get with lots of money, and lots of friends in high places. You need a targeted letter, like the one Mayor Villaraigosa sent to district residents to assure them that they would be in good hands with Huizar. You need slick mailers, like the one Pacheco put out touting “the value of a good education,” or the one Huizar circulates in the classic campaign-mailer pose — in an elementary school classroom, looking both cheerful and sartorial, as a handful of smiling kids raise their hands high.

Friday evenings are kind of iffy for precinct walking, especially in October, when it’s already getting dark by 7 p.m. Not everyone’s happy to get a knock on the door at night from a stranger carrying a list that includes their name, address and voting registration. But there are a lot of streets in the 14th council district to walk, and this evening, Huizar’s people have assigned him Chickasaw, a road of tidy bungalows and apartment buildings just off Eagle Rock Boulevard. Like many streets in this part of town, this one (so the registration lists say) is relatively heavy with Republicans. No problem for Huizar, a Democrat, whose campaign volunteers have a special script for members of the GOP. Instead of being told about the endorsement from Villaraigosa, they are reminded that Huizar was endorsed by Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. Also Sheriff Lee Baca, who many don’t know is a registered Republican, but they may still be impressed by a law-enforcement name. Not part of the script is that Baca’s endorsement is a joint one, given also to Pacheco — the only major elected official the former councilman can claim.

Huizar walked these same streets just a few months ago, for Villaraigosa. At his first stop, he greets a man sitting on his porch.

“Are you José?” the man asks. “Sure, we met.” During Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign.

“Last time, you were cleaning out your garage,” Huizar says. “Did you finish?”

This is what some of Huizar’s people are afraid of. Their guy’s pretty friendly and sometimes has trouble getting to the next house. He shouldn’t be spending any time here at all, since this man on the porch doesn’t show up on his registration list. His wife does, but she’s not home. “Gotta talk to everybody,” Huizar says. There follows a discussion of the school board, and the quality of teachers.

The orange-and-pink sunset is fading. It’s getting pretty dark.

“I’m 85 percent certain I’ll go with you,” the man says finally. “I haven’t made an honest decision. I would tell you. You’ve got a candidate, Nick Pachinko, who served on the City Council before.” He pronounces the name like the Japanese pinball game. “And you’ve got Miss Chávez, if I’m not mistaken. César Chávez’s daughter.”

No, Huizar explains, that’s another election. State Assembly, 2006.

That campaign will start unmercifully soon. First this election in November, then time off for the holidays. Then start expecting the mailers and the knocks on the door for state Assembly and state Senate soon after that. June primary, November general. And then it’s time for the City Council election again.

Yes, this very same City Council. This very same seat. Whoever wins now is just getting the tail end of Villaraigosa’s term and will have to be out among these same houses and apartments in a little over a year’s time.

“Republican,” Huizar says, looking at his list and ringing the next doorbell. A woman answers.

“Sorry to bother you on a Friday evening,” the candidate begins, but he’s cut off.

“You know, I’ve already picked somebody,” the woman says. “Nick Pacheco. I liked him when he was our councilman before. I was sort of brokenhearted when Vila-Garosa won. But now we have him as mayor.”

“Well, good,” Huizar answers cheerfully. “You know, Villaraigosa has endorsed me, and I think it’s important for the councilman to have a good working relationship with the mayor.”

Los Morales, the small village in Zacatecas, Mexico, where Huizar was born, is now a ghost town, having lost its entire population to Anaheim and East L.A. Huizar’s father started coming here as a seasonal laborer in the bracero program, and finally just decided to stay, bringing the family with him. José, who was 4, doesn’t remember the trip. They rented a home at Fourth and Lorena in Boyle Heights, right by the famous Fourth Street bridge that is used so often as a landmark in movies and TV shows.

“My first words in English were car, and bridge, because when you looked outside the house, that’s what you saw,” Huizar recalls.

Expelled from his first middle school for fighting, he turned himself around when a counselor told him he had the smarts to go to college, he says. “I had neighbors coming back from prison, but nobody ever came back from college. So then, that’s when I started, I think, taking my education more seriously.”

He was supposed to go on to Roosevelt High School, where the same crowd that led him into trouble was headed. A man up the street suggested he try Salesian, a Catholic school. So he did, paying the $80-a-month tuition from money he made delivering Rafu Shimpo, a venerable newspaper for Japanese-Americans living in Boyle Heights and nearby Little Tokyo. An old interest in student government was re-sparked, and he was elected 10th-grade president. Then on to UC Berkeley, where one of the upperclassmen at the time was another student from Boyle Heights interested in government and activism. Nick Pacheco.

Like Pacheco, Huizar wanted to go to law school. But he was offered a fellowship at Princeton to earn a master’s degree in public policy, so why not? Then back to his mother’s house, at Fourth and Lorena (his father had died), while he attended UCLA law school.

When he graduated, he went to work for Burke, Williams & Sorensen, a law firm well-known to anyone in land use or municipal government in the Los Angeles area. Then he went to Weston Benshoof, a powerhouse firm whose partners are big political donors and City Hall lobbyists. He became an expert in water law. He came to the attention of Mayor Riordan, who appointed him to the panel that oversees Olvera Street and the historic Plaza, and to the new East Area Planning Commission.

Next, Riordan asked him to join his effort to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, a $13-billion-a-year agency charged with educating pubic school students in Los Angeles and several adjacent municipalities and unincorporated county areas.

He was Riordan’s kind of guy. A lawyer, for one, with a graduate degree from Princeton, his own alma mater. Huizar saw himself as running for office at some point. Just not the school board, where you often wind up being pretty unpopular, and you only get a part-time salary.

“People asked me, why would you want to run for the school board?” Huizar recalls. “The district is a mess. They can’t build any schools. Test scores are in the gutter. And, politically, no Latino has been able to move on from the school board to higher office. I really had to do some soul-searching.”

He says he then told himself that if he was serious about wanting to get into public service, he would take on the job, whether or not it would leave him able to move up the ladder in electoral politics. So, with only marginal opposition, and with backing from labor as well as from Riordan, he cruised into the office with little effort.

It’s a blazing Saturday afternoon, and Nick Pacheco and two campaign workers are driving their black SUV up one of the narrow streets of Mount Washington. Over in Boyle Heights or El Sereno, the neighbors would be angry to see streets in such shape — rutted, weed-strewn, with vines and messy trees covering the street signs. Here, in tony Mount Washington, the residents sometimes complain too, but they seem to secretly like it this way because it adds to the hidden, rural character. It’s perhaps the equivalent of the rich kid paying an extra 50 bucks to have her blue jeans pre-worn and ripped in all the stylish places.

This is Antonio Villaraigoisa territory. Villaraigosa lives a few blocks from the street that Pacheco is now walking up, or at least he did before recently moving into the Getty House, the mayor’s mansion in Windsor Square. The neighbors here tend to be upscale, liberal, environmentalist. It’s a misplaced piece of Brentwood set just north of downtown.

When he was challenging Pacheco, Villaraigosa claimed his house was deliberately left out of the district when the lines were redrawn. He had to rent a house across the arroyo to run. Members of the commission that did the line drawing denied they were intentionally pulling anyone in or leaving anyone out, but the story persists, and it became part of a body of lore about Pacheco that his adversaries repeat, as if around the campfire.

Some of the stories are true. Yes, his college friend Ricardo Torres II did send out mailers that framed Villaraigosa in racial and sexual terms. Pacheco continues to say he had nothing to do with it. Believe what you will.

“I think the Villaraigosa campaign in 2003 extracted their pound of flesh on that,” Pacheco says. “At this point, it’s pretty much been exhausted history, you know? My friends know those were grave mistakes that hurt me and cost me dearly. They’re not going to do it again.”

Same with the recorded anti-Villaraigosa phone calls from the 2001 mayoral election, which were sent out on equipment leased from a nonprofit set up by Pacheco. A Pacheco staff aide (on leave) was involved. District Attorney Steve Cooley investigated and came up with no charges — only a report that lets Pacheco assert that he was cleared but still manages to taint him by multiple associations.

“Old allegations are just old,” Pacheco says. “People have moved on. Antonio’s success has shown that, basically. Antonio’s success in the recent mayoral campaign shows that old, stale allegations don’t work.”

The statement is an example of a curious part of Pacheco’s campaign. He has sought, at times, to identify himself with Villaraigosa. Even before he declared his intention to try to get his seat back, he sent out an e-mail that congratulated his erstwhile electoral opponent on his mayoral win.

“My dad was over at the house helping me with stuff, and we were in the garage,” Pacheco says. “He was telling me how excited he was that I was interested in going back to the City Council. And he also thought it was an exciting time in Los Angeles, with Antonio getting elected. He told me that it was important that Antonio be successful, because of the Latino community; it creates an opportunity for people to follow. And he told me that he expected me to support Antonio. That he wanted me to work to make sure Antonio is successful.”

Then how about Pacheco’s mailer that sports quotes from both Villaraigosa and Riordan criticizing L.A. schools? Any jury examining the evidence carefully would dismiss the charge that Pacheco is claiming Villaraigosa’s endorsement. But then voters rarely examine mailers as if they were jurors.

When a dog park opened earlier this year in Hermon, across the Arroyo Seco from Mount Washington, Pacheco sent out a mailer that boasted, “Another Nick Pacheco Project.” Well, it was true, in a way, even though the park ?opened two years after Pacheco left office. It was Pacheco, after all, who started the process.

The same is true, says Pacheco campaign manager Robert Urteaga, of numerous parks and projects around the district. Driving through Boyle Heights, Highland Park, El Sereno and Eagle Rock, he points out one project after another that Pacheco started. Villaraigosa (and Huizar) partisans claim that Pacheco only opened a file on the various new athletic fields and paved alleys he takes credit for but did nothing to finance.

“It doesn’t mean much if you don’t fund it,” Huizar says.

But Urteaga says Pacheco left careful instructions for Villaraigosa on how to complete the various land acquisitions or where to find the pots of money reserved for converting unused fields into baseball diamonds.

“He took too long, so of course the project costs went up,” Urteaga says. “There was plenty of money when Nick left.”

So, is Pacheco trying to claim Villaraigosa as an ally, or to run against his short two-year legacy as a councilman? It’s not always clear.

“I want to apologize to you,” Pacheco began at a candidates’ forum in Highland Park. Aha! Here it comes. He did something wrong, and he’s about to admit it!

“I want to apologize to you for not being able to get the council office to keep Liberty Mesa.” Oh. A big cheer follows from residents who loved working with Mesa and other Pacheco staffers, and who were sorry to see them go when Villaraigosa brought in his own staff.

More recently, after Pacheco switched campaign consultants, and after the crowd at a Roosevelt High School forum roundly booed Huizar when he made an issue of his close relationship with the mayor, Pacheco has been bolder about criticizing Villaraigosa.

“We had great promises two years ago from another candidate,” Pacheco tells a Glassell Park candidates’ forum, citing several community projects he started himself but couldn’t see to completion before being defeated for re-election.

“For two years we were stalled and sputtering,” he goes on. “And I don’t want to see that happen again.”

Back on the campaign trail on the street in Mount Washington, Pacheco is pulling on the gate of a ranchy sort of house, and a man heading toward his car looks over and stops.

“Nick Pacheco, yeah,” the man says. “Of course. We want you back. Put me down as a ‘yes.’ ”

Pacheco has not said a word.

The next house is a tougher sell. “I’m Nick Pacheco,” he says. “I was your councilman before, and I’m running to serve you again.”

A crusty-looking woman eyes him warily. “Pacheco, huh?” she says. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. I think I’m going another way.”

Spirits are raised, then they are dashed. Now they are raised again, as a young couple recognize Pacheco and act as if they’re face-to-face with a video star.

“That was fun,” Pacheco says afterward.

Huizar recalls that winter Saturday, two years ago, when he was rallying the troops for Pacheco.

“I was on the school board, and we were working well together,” Huizar says. “He was the incumbent. Although a lot of my friends were supporting Antonio. Why would I go against someone with whom I had a relationship and was working on school issues together?”

Then as Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign began to pick up steam, Huizar says, he and Pacheco saw each other occasionally. Both mentioned they were thinking of running for the council.

“And we just kind of left it at that,” Huizar said. “And we never talked about it again. I wished we would have spoken. I think I would still be running. I would have been a bit more frank with him about why he’s running. I don’t see him having support. I haven’t spoken to an elected official yet who is seriously considering endorsing him.”

A councilman needs a good relationship with other elected officials, Huizar says. Particularly now that we have a new mayor.

“Given what happened between Antonio and Nick in the last election, it was a horrible, nasty fight,” Huizar says, even though, in fact, it was a pretty run-of-the-mill election — after the Torres mailers.

“You know, Nick has a style of campaigning. I mean, God bless. He sent out an e-mail announcing the dog-park opening. He’s making it seem like he’s the council member and he’s doing this, and come join me that day, so that if people do go that day, [they'd think] oh, this is a Nick Pacheco event. And it’s a city event! And you know, that type of — that’s not my style. I wouldn’t put things out there that kind of twist the truth or play games. And you know. I hope it’s not, but you never know. The fact is, he’s starting that way. That’s his style, I think.”

Watching Huizar in action at any of the seemingly interminable election forums, it’s hard to come away with a negative impression. He’s a good candidate. Polished, practiced, sometimes cutting the air with a karate-chop-like gesture to emphasize his point. But he moves too quickly over his real accomplishments — leading a school board that’s building schools, cutting class sizes, putting college in the sights of every student. And he skimps on his up-from-poverty story, knowing perhaps that on the Eastside those stories are common. Too often, he falls back on the tried and true: He’s Villaraigosa’s choice.

Pacheco, too, finds it hard to focus attention on what may be his real draw. He surprised the Eastside power structure when he burst onto the scene and beat the anointed candidate in 1999, and angered it when he went his own way in City Hall. That gave him an air of independence, but it also won him the reputation of not playing well with others. Only after Villaraigosa defeated him and he finished out his term as a lame duck did he start getting good press for his constituent-service projects and his fierce defense of city coffers. It’s like something out of Flannery O’Connor. Pacheco would be a great councilman, if there were someone around to defeat him all the time.

So far the campaign has been quiet, except for the candidate forums and a steadily growing stack of (so far) upbeat mailers. It may heat up — but only a bit — in the next several weeks. After that, though, if there’s a runoff between Pacheco and Huizar, everything starts over again, and doesn’t finish until January 31.


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