TO NICK PACHECO, IT'S REAL SIMPLE: HE PAID HIS dues, and his mentors let him down three years ago when they failed to endorse him in L.A.'s 14th City Council District. He won without them and vows to get even, now that they're sending Antonio Villaraigosa up against him in the March primary.
Pacheco says he will give Villaraigosa his worst defeat. Of course, Pacheco insists he had nothing to do with Ricardo Torres II and the acerbic mailers he sent out this month, depicting Villaraigosa as a womanizer and a sellout to the "gringo" establishment. Still, the tone has been set for this race.
The story behind what may become the dirtiest political race in the Eastside's history is made up of a tangled web of long relationships, broken alliances and loyalties based on convenience. According to observers, it's about the old versus the new, the long-established old guard against the young guns fighting for power in the traditionally Latino district.
The characters in this race -- all of them at one time or another played golf together and belonged to exclusive clubs where only a few are admitted, with the side benefits of becoming power players on the Eastside. Yet unlike the old days when things were clear-cut about who was against whom, these days the lines that used to set politicos apart are unrecognizable.
Take Pacheco. As a law student, he supported Gloria Molina in her first bid for county supervisor in 1991, walking precincts and running her campaign's mailing system.
Pacheco endorsed Villaraigosa for state Assembly and worked for Mike Hernandez's successful City Council campaign during the early 1990s. Then known to insiders as "the Macho Dogs," the faction also included Henry Lozano (who is now working with Pacheco and Congressman Xavier Becerra).
"For Gloria Molina's campaign, I was using a laser printer when they used to cost $4,000," said Pacheco during an interview at a Boyle Heights taco stand near his campaign office. "When you think about it, that's why it becomes this sort of intriguing web of information, because at one point or another we all worked together or helped each other."
Pacheco said Molina and Villaraigosa advised him to study hard, to stay in his community and to heed the needs of his people. But when the race to succeed Richard Alatorre for the 14th Council District emerged, Molina and Villaraigosa endorsed Victor Griego over seven homegrown candidates including Pacheco. "Here are all those mentors I looked up to, who, when I did all that, for their own political reasons didn't embrace me," he said. "What kind of message are we going to send all the young Latinos who want to serve their districts, when the established leadership moves someone in from South Pasadena to bump out seven organic candidates from the race? I was hurt."
The old-style camps may be a thing of the past. The factions, though nebulous, have taken root on the two sides of the 14th Council race. The stakes are high: The winner will be the top political honcho in Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock and parts of Mount Washington.
In Pacheco's corner is his friend Congressman Becerra and Lozano, the behind-the-scenes politico who has epitomized Eastside backroom deals ever since Latinos began playing a role in East Los Angeles politics. Torres II, an Alhambra attorney, represented Lozano in a 1999 legal battle with Alatorre and his wife, Angie, over the custody of her niece. Angie's niece, Melinda, is Lozano's daughter. The Alatorres won custody; the judge granted Lozano visitation rights.
In Villaraigosa's corner is Molina, the powerful county supervisor who has played a key role in the Eastside since the early 1980s. Victor Griego, the man whom Pacheco defeated three years ago for the 14th Council District, is also part of this faction, as well as union leaders Miguel Contreras, Maria Elena Durazo and Mike Garcia.
Villaraigosa's campaign spokesman, Steve Barkin, said it is ludicrous for Pacheco to complain about not being endorsed by leading Eastside politicos. According to Barkin, Pacheco threatened to run a dirty campaign even before Villaraigosa ran for mayor.
"I find it fascinating that he's so bitter," Barkin said. "He talks as if he's entitled to this seat and resentful that leaders like Supervisor Molina and Antonio would step on his power." Another challenger, Paul Gonzales, has also qualified to run against Pacheco.
On Monday Molina and Becerra called a press conference and decried the personal attacks. They threatened to pull their endorsements if their candidates run dirty campaigns.
RICHARD ALATORRE, WHO REPRESENTED THE 14th District from 1985 to 1999, said Villaraigosa and Pacheco are even when it comes to money, influence and connections. In the end, he said, it will come down to what the two want to accomplish on the City Council. "It'll probably go down in history as one of the dirtiest elections, and that's unfortunate," Alatorre said. "The question is, who is going to get their message out to the point where they're going to get people to support them? But I expect the campaign to reach an all-time low."
Many Eastside political experts say that the Pacheco- Villaraigosa race has already reached new lows for East Los Angeles politics. David Ayon, a Loyola Marymount expert in Latino politics, said that Pacheco and Becerra, with the help of veteran insider Lozano, have managed to mix new- and old-style politics and made a creature of their own design. Ayon believes this faction has proved they can be the dirtiest players in the game.
"I call it the formula: the idea of running a candidate (Pacheco) who poses as this squeaky-clean Boy Scout, but that image is paired with a ruthless, vicious willingness to do the negative behind the scenes, under the table," Ayon said. "Before, they used to hide. Yet [Torres' mailers were] just so out in the open, but in this case they took one of their group, who stood up and said, 'Hey, this is me and it's just me.' Nobody buys it."
Ayon said the war between the factions can be traced to the 1998 state Assembly race between Torres II (who was endorsed by Becerra) and Gil Cedillo (who was Villaraigosa's candidate). Torres II lost, making sore losers of the candidate and Becerra.
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Pacheco won the second bout when he defeated Griego, Ayon added. But it was their third match, when Becerra lost to Villaraigosa in last year's mayoral primary, that showed how dirty the Pacheco-Becerra faction could play.
Someone impersonating Molina left phone messages urging callers not to vote for Villaraigosa during the primaries. The District Attorney's Office found that the calls were fabricated by one of Becerra's campaign workers; the machine used for that job belonged to La Colectiva, a community agency linked to Pacheco that has Torres II as its lawyer. (La Colectiva denies the accusation and is currently suing the county for defamation.) Although Villaraigosa defeated Becerra in the mayoral primary, he lost to James Hahn in the runoff.
Becerra and Pacheco take issue with Ayon's analysis. Pacheco said that the professor doesn't know what it's like to be in the trenches; Becerra said none of the accusations linking him to the smears against Villaraigosa could be proved because they are simply not true. "Their whispering campaign is just as bad as what they criticize Torres of doing," Becerra said.
Alatorre said that the Eastside rivalry pitting him against Molina for almost two decades was real and persistent though sometimes exaggerated. But now, Eastside leaders have to play the political game differently, forging quick alliances for one race and often finding themselves pitted against old partisans in others. "Politics makes strange bedfellows," said Alatorre. "And this campaign is certainly going to show that."