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Campaign Consultants Stank up L.A. on March 8

The big winners in the City Council elections were the same people who won four years ago. The big losers: voters. The March 8 election got stunk up by paid campaign consultants who managed to become the news, making a city the size of L.A. seem like a backwater of incompetence, pettiness and high jinks.

One campaign consultant, Eric Hacopian, urged District 14 challenger Rudy Martinez to go negative and stay negative, ironically turning off the newly awakened voters whom Martinez, as a challenger, badly needed to drag from their homes on Election Day if he wanted to win.

On the other side of that race, candidate Jose Huizar's campaign consultant, Michael Trujillo, was so driven by bile that somebody inside Huizar's own camp leaked to the media Trujillo's offensive e-mail about putting "a political bullet in" Martinez's forehead. Trujillo was fired.

As a result of these antics, in District 14, a vast place with 250,000 people, where most adults knew about the Martinez-Huizar election race and tens of thousands arguably had opinions about it, voters stayed home in droves. The extensively covered race was decided by just 14,429 voters.

In City Council District 8, meanwhile, campaign consultant Ruben Gonzalez of Englander, Knabe & Allen lazily slopped together a mailer that damaged the campaign of City Councilman Bernard C. Parks when it turned out that a dozen of Parks' named "endorsers" are dead.

The potential scandal was conveyed as a breathless "tip" to the media. Then Parks' sworn enemy L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called a press conference to claim that Parks "besmirches the dead." Parks got significant bad press at a crucial hour very late in the election cycle.

But the story died when it turned out Parks had nothing to do with it. The bungled mailer was sent by the Los Angeles Jobs Political Action Committee, a group sponsored by the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, which actually wanted Parks to beat Forescee Hogan-Rowles.

Matt Knabe, a partner with Englander, Knabe & Allen, says the mailer was the brainchild of campaign consultant Gonzalez, who resigned when it was discovered Gonzalez had used a 2003 list of Parks supporters to produce the mailer.

"It was an extreme oversight on his part," says Knabe, who admits, "It went through our chain of command and nobody caught it. It was a big screwup on our part."

In the race for District 4, Councilman Tom LaBonge followed his paid consultant's advice and chose to virtually ignore his two challengers, Tomás O'Grady and Stephen Box.

O'Grady and Box lacked the money to mount six-figure campaigns, all but dooming their chances of beating the gregarious LaBonge. But O'Grady, in particular, connected with voters, as he and Box repeatedly focused on the City Council's $404 million budget hole and L.A.'s decaying infrastructure. The two men civilly asked why LaBonge spends year after year in power focused on small-town minutiae.

LaBonge frequently skirted the questions, sticking to his tried-and-true campaign strategy of showering people and small organizations with "constituent services." Called "patronage" in places like Chicago, it's a system of awarding favors, which puts some L.A. residents ahead of those waiting their turn for street services, tree trimming and other city department help.

L.A. incumbents use these trappings of office to win by 65 percent or even 75 percent. But LaBonge won by just 55 percent, five points from being forced into a runoff by the self-made immigrant from Ireland, O'Grady.

All the incumbents won, of course. Huizar crushed Martinez with 9,266 votes to 5,163. Parks apparently survived a labor-backed challenge from Hogan-Rowles, with 7,934 votes to 6,858 (he won 50.9 percent and she 44 percent, but he may still face a runoff), and LaBonge got 8,956 votes to fend off O'Grady (5,028 votes) and Box (2,273 votes).

Back in the beginning, though, it looked as if District 14, in particular, could have had a different result.

Martinez, a restaurant owner and star of reality TV series Flip This House, was toying last year with the idea of running against Huizar.

Then he met Eric Hacopian, a paid campaign consultant who managed Paul Krekorian's successful City Council District 2 bid in 2009 against stiff competition. That was a major victory, as then-legislator Krekorian had his own problems, having carpetbagged inside the Los Angeles city limits from his home in Burbank, fresh from his legislative post on the controversial Sacramento team that had dreamed up the widely pilloried, months-late 2009 California state budget.

Now, here was Rudy Martinez, a political unknown with private wealth, willing to put up some $200,000 to take on incumbent Huizar.

Hacopian was willing to take Martinez's money. At Hacopian's urging, Martinez announced his candidacy and hired Hacopian as his campaign consultant.

In the wake of the March 8 disaster for Martinez, some horse-race theorists suggest Hacopian's motive was not to elect Martinez but to use him to slime Huizar in the event that the job-hopping Krekorian decides to run for city attorney — a job Huizar may desire. Hacopian calls the idea "absolutely ridiculous. I didn't even know who Rudy Martinez was until late fall of last year."

Krekorian was re-elected to the state Legislature from Burbank in 2009 but soon abandoned it to run for L.A. City Council, forcing a special election costing $1.8 million to replace him in the Legislature. Before that, Krekorian used his elected post on the Burbank Unified School District to run for the Legislature in 2006.

Hacopian insists Krekorian isn't eyeing the City Attorney's Office: "It's not on [Krekorian's] radar screen," he says. "Paul just won re-election for City Council."

But with all the mud produced by the March 8 elections, nothing seems clear.

Martinez, for example, says he had planned to run a positive campaign on issues such as jobs and quality of life, but Hacopian talked him out of it.

His camp is widely assumed to have leaked to the media a frenenemies list of people ranked by Huizar according to their influence — and their willingness or unwillingness to help out Huizar. Martinez also claimed the FBI was investigating Huizar for misusing special community money from the CLARTS (Central L.A. Recycling and Transfer Station) fund to pay staff.

Huizar's side piled on its attacks against Martinez, getting significant press by alleging that Martinez had in his younger years flashed a dead cop's badge around town.

Martinez claims he stopped attacking Huizar after an Eagle Rock candidate forum in early February, but that Hacopian told him that when you're trying to kill the king, you had better chop off his head.

"I told Eric no," Martinez insists.

Yet asked what he should have done differently, Martinez tells the Weekly, "I probably should have gone more negative."

For voters, there was a somewhat different lesson.

Eagle Rock resident Suzanne Luke voted for Huizar "with lots of hostility. I hated this campaign, with its nonstop, relentless phone calls from LAUSD and these two. The [Jose-Rudy] campaign has been acrimonious and noisy. Rudy was not as well-versed on the issues."

But her greatest distress is that "there is no democracy in Los Angeles. We live in an oligarchy" — power in the hands of a few.

Eagle Rock voter Amanda Millett came away with basically the same idea. "I reluctantly voted for Jose, who is an arrogant prick," Millett says. "On the other hand, Rudy is an asshole with no experience."

Reach the writer at davidfutch@ roadrunner.com.

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