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Haunting Skeletons

At election time, you shouldn’t care so much about what your veteran representative did 40 years ago, whether he was in the ninth-grade glee club, for example. What does matter is how officials vote on the issues, how hard they work, how honestly they conduct themselves.

It’s different with a young newcomer — when character and résumé are mostly what you’ve got to go on. So it could be meaningful if he made honor society or ran a small business. Such details suggest brainpower or scrappiness. It might matter, too, if a candidate got arrested for drug trafficking as a young adult or recently filed for bankruptcy.

Enter Deron Williams and Martin Ludlow. Both are 30-something candidates vying to replace termed-out Nate Holden in the 10th City Council District, a diverse swath that runs north and south of the 10 freeway from about Western Avenue to Robertson Boulevard. Black voters are the largest voting bloc — and both candidates are African-American — but the district also encompasses a working-class Latino majority, much of Koreatown, and largely middle-class Anglo and Jewish enclaves.

Each aspirant brings a remarkable personal story that has been a focus of the campaign. They’re the kind of personal-triumph tales good enough to get into Harvard: Williams overcame horrendous adversity to make something of himself; Ludlow was rescued from hardship by saintly parents and determined to follow in their crusading footsteps. On the issues, both candidates present themselves as liberal, inclusive and progressive. So it’s hard not to get personal with them — especially because their narratives sometimes collide with the facts. Williams, for one, has lied about the distant criminal background that preceded his upright present. Ludlow, for his part, has been plagued with more recent financial and family problems that belie a seemingly brilliant professional career.

The criminal transgressions of 35-year-old Deron Williams could have worked in his favor, part of a tale of redemption, if only he’d shared the whole truth.

His story, which he’s told repeatedly over the course of the campaign, begins with his birth to a young mother who would leave him and his three older siblings for weeks at a time, sometimes with near-strangers. His brother and sisters, he says, have led tortured lives. But Deron was different. He virtually raised himself. He had to — most of the time his make-do caretakers were alcoholics or abusive, he says.

Somehow he did it. Thanks to sports and church and himself, he stayed clean and focused and out of trouble, graduating from Fremont High with respectable grades.

Then, by chance one evening, as he was headed to the movies with three friends, he bumped into City Councilman Holden at a drugstore in 1988. The boys had stopped to buy gum. They didn’t know Holden from a hole in the wall. But Holden, impressed with their well-groomed appearance, chatted for a while and also left his card.

Williams followed up immediately and got a job cleaning up graffiti. He would eventually rise to become Holden’s chief deputy. And while much of the 10th District is a disaster in terms of economic development and crime, many residents and business owners give Williams good marks for cleaning alleys, handling nuisance properties and managing street-level tasks. Williams has Holden’s blessing to succeed him in office.

But Williams didn’t mention that he was arrested at Ontario International Airport on March 22, 1988. Police reports say that officers found three bags of cocaine — a total of about 3 ounces — in his underwear. One of his two companions had purchased plane tickets to New Orleans. Williams later served 117 days in jail for felony cocaine possession.

To his immense credit, Williams turned his life around. Besides his council work, he’s been active in the PTA and the Mid-City Chamber of Commerce while raising his family of three. In addition to his day-to-day district duties, he engineered a job-training link between Dorsey High and an auto-parts chain. City Councilman Bernard Parks, the former police chief, has endorsed Williams in large part, he said, because Williams’ turnaround is an uplifting example in a district where many young people need to turn their own lives around.

When the L.A. Times broke the story about his criminal record, Williams claimed that he’d never hidden his past. But that wasn’t true. In his interview with the Weekly editorial board, for example, he said that he’d never been in trouble. (A portion of this transcript is available on-line.) In the same interview, when asked for people who could talk about his work and life, Williams offered a list of campaign endorsers. He said he didn’t have any mentors. When pressed further, he mentioned a longtime Holden aide — one who died some time ago.

After the Times story, Williams made other claims that were false. At one point, in recounting his arrest, Williams said he had been carrying a package for friends and didn’t know what was in it — that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He also said he’d spent 90 days in a rehab center, rather than admitting that he’d gone to jail.

“It required four stories to get at the truth,” said a grateful John Shallman, campaign consultant for Ludlow. “You can limit these things to one-day stories if you just fess up. And he didn’t.”

Maybe this period of Williams’ life is simply too hard for him to confront. Williams apparently thought the conviction had been expunged — erased from the record — because of good behavior. Maybe he thought that gave him the privilege of acting as though the arrest never happened. Maybe he should have that right.

Instead, voters now have to ponder whether Williams has an honesty problem.

Nor is the story of his youth entirely settled. The Weekly has asked Williams for friends, acquaintances or family members who could verify his current account of his past — for example, his assertion that he never belonged to a gang. For that matter, his own allegations about his family and caretakers have not been independently verified. Williams has declined to cooperate, though he recently said he would think about it.

Is it that he doesn’t know where his family is? He knows, he said.

Is he estranged from his family? No, he said. He sees his mother every once in a while.

Is he angry with them? No, he said. He has found peace through God.

What would be the harm in allowing access to one of them?

“There was not a lot of love there as I was growing up,” he said. One sister, he added, shouldn’t be contacted because of bad things that happened to her. “My other sister lives out of town. My brother — he had to leave a house where we were living when I was growing up. If I was going to stay, he had to leave. And when he left me, that did something.”

Deron Williams could well be a good man with painful personal issues to work through. He also could be a calculating pol trying to minimize the disclosures long enough to get into office. Ludlow’s campaign hasn’t sent out mailers regarding the arrest, but Ludlow has raised the issue at public gatherings, saying that drug trafficking is an especially serious offense in this crime-torn district.

Ludlow, 38, could have been headed for trouble himself — he was a mixed-race baby with neither parent in his life. But young Martin was adopted by a remarkable white couple in Idaho. The career odyssey of the Reverend Willis Ludlow spanned the country with a series of crusades on behalf of sugar-beet pickers, minorities and assorted other oppressed groups. His politics sometimes cost him his job, forcing him to move on. At one point, Reverend Ludlow, in his capacity as a campus minister, recruited and hosted commencement speakers at Oberlin College in Ohio. As a boy, Martin Ludlow shared his dinner table with scholar Cornel West, civil rights pioneer James Lawson and South African clergyman Desmond Tutu. His mother was a pioneer too, helping organize a clerical workers union at Oberlin. Anne Ludlow, now a widow, heads her local senior-citizens tenants association.

Like his father, Martin Ludlow has spent much of his career pushing worker-justice causes. He’s been a top labor official and a key political and policy strategist for various politicians, most notably Antonio Villaraigosa, for whom he also served as Southern California chief of staff when Villaraigosa led the state Assembly.

His causes have included the ongoing push for an expanded living wage and the successful campaign to pass the Christopher Commission police reforms. Ludlow gets rave reviews from fellow travelers in the labor movement, who relish the prospect of him teaming with newly elected City Councilman Villaraigosa, who has campaigned on behalf of Ludlow.

But Ludlow has stumbled in his personal life. He filed for bankruptcy in 1998 in the wake of his marriage’s breakup and his father’s fatal illness. His marital difficulties included his filing of a restraining order against his wife in 1995. In 2001, the District Attorney’s Office filed against him for payment of a court-supervised program for one of his children.

The Williams camp has mailed out fliers about the bankruptcy. “If you can’t manage your own affairs, what makes you think you can manage the affairs of the city?” said former state Assemblyman Rod Wright, who lost in the 10th District primary and then went to work for Williams.

Nate Holden and Williams’ campaign aides also have called Ludlow a deadbeat dad, referring to Ludlow’s debt to the county program attended by his child.

Ludlow vigorously denies that allegation. He said the court filing was intended to recoup county costs, but that he never dodged payment. A subsequent court action began, Ludlow said, when he forgot to make one monthly payment. At another point, said Ludlow, he hired an attorney to prevent the county from overcharging him. All of these events appear, without sufficient explanation, in county court records.

County staff said it is against policy to comment on an individual case because of privacy protections. But in an interview, Ludlow produced a receipt indicating that he has paid his county obligation in full, about $3,600. As for the bankruptcy, public records show that it was discharged the same year it was filed.

“My family expenditures doubled the minute we moved into two residences, and unfortunately my income did not double,” said Ludlow. “Common sense says something has got to give. So I made a good financial decision with the children in mind to file bankruptcy. I am very good managing budgets. I have 16 years of experience running nonprofits, campaigns, organizations and government offices, and I have always managed the budget well.”

The record suggests that Ludlow’s glittering political résumé was achieved partly at the expense of attention on the home front. Which would make him a weak contender for husband of the year, but not necessarily a poor councilman.

Ludlow and Williams each had a child prior to marriage. And each has assumed financial responsibility.

Not surprisingly, organized labor is pushing hard on behalf of Ludlow. Holden’s traditional backers — in the business and black community — have supported Williams. Williams will win if he retains the older black vote that kept Holden in office — and if he gets a little more from elsewhere. Ludlow will prevail if he pulls in some black votes, combined with a strong showing everywhere else, which could happen if labor’s get-out-the-vote drive does just that, especially among Latinos. Total expenditures are likely to top $2 million.

When it’s over, the character and responsibility question will subside. For both candidates, it will become a been-there-done-that, let’s-move-on-for-good sort of thing. Maybe forever, or at least until one or both of them run for mayor.