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Illustration by Michelle Chang

A ROUND OF SNICKERING, SOFT BUT UNMISTAKABLE, rises from a clutch of Nick Pacheco supporters as Antonio Villaraigosa addresses the crowd in Spanish.

"Where'd he learn that?" one young woman holding a Pacheco sign utters in a half whisper, half chuckle.

"You notice the cat-calling?" Villaraigosa asks the 200 or so residents of Mount Washington and Highland Park, with a good number of City Hall workers mixed in. "You won't hear that from me." His message in this do-or-die comeback attempt: We will keep this campaign positive.

Pacheco tells the gathering at Ramona Hall that the 14th Council District, where he is battling to fend off a strong challenge from the popular and charismatic Villaraigosa, produces enough leaders of its own.

"We no longer need to move in talent to move our agenda," Pacheco says.

More chuckles and whispers, as Pacheco supporters remind one another that Villaraigosa rented a home a stone's throw across the freeway to qualify as a district resident; Villaraigosa backers scoff that City Hall put most of their man's street in the district last year but suspiciously left out his house, plus a few on either side.

But this sniping is kid stuff. Since November, people in the district — and throughout the city — have been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The race between council freshman Pacheco and Villaraigosa, the former Assembly speaker and crusading mayoral candidate, oozed into the public consciousness three months ago with two now-notorious mailers sent by Pacheco friend Ricardo Torres II. Taboos went out the window as Torres slammed Villa-raigosa on race, sex and family.

Elections for City Council rarely generate much interest beyond the purely parochial, but this one, which also features 1984 Olympic boxing gold medalist Paul Gonzales, is different. It is a resurrection bid for Villaraigosa, now 50, who was speaker of the state Assembly and captured national interest with his 2001 campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

Journalists and pundits zeroed in obsessively on the fact that the influential city with a Latino past and a Latino future could soon elect its first (in modern times) Latino mayor. But along the way they were forced to take note of the broad coalition of liberals and centrists who were galvanized by the Villaraigosa phenomenon.

James Hahn stopped the juggernaut, and Villaraigosa has been absent from elected office for nearly two years. He has vowed not to run for mayor in 2005, but a win in the council race would keep his image and his message fresh, and make him viable for a mayoral run in six years. A loss could make him a has-been.

For Pacheco, a homegrown former prosecutor who upset the labor establishment in his first run for council and demonstrated the power of grassroots support, a win would make him, at 39, one of the senior-most elected officials at City Hall. A run for city attorney in four years beckons.

A loss would make him an asterisk in the Villaraigosa story.

But the stakes are not limited to the personal aspirations of the two men. The outcome will have ramifications for the balance of power in City Hall, as Hahn tries to hold together his fragile coalition while eyeing the potential competition from not just Villaraigosa, but now a councilful of possible challengers.

It could also determine the future shape of organized labor — and the continuing self-definition of Latino leadership in Los Angeles and around the state.


Villaraigosa: A visionary in
search of an audience
(Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)

Still, the mailers defined the race. Endorsements were pulled, supporters rallied, and from City Hall to Sacramento pundits predicted that the run-up to Election Day would offer the sleaziest campaigning anyone had seen this side of South Gate. If Gonzales captures enough votes to force a May 20 runoff, it could only get worse.

Pacheco denied involvement in the Torres mailers and called them "stupid." Villaraigosa labeled Torres a Pacheco "operative," and his campaign called for a probe to nail down a Pacheco link.

"Well, at least people are paying attention now," a philosophical Pacheco said after the furor had died down. "We never got any coverage in our district before. Maybe now they will see what we have accomplished."

VILLARAIGOSA TROTS UP THE FRONT STEPS OF A modest Eagle Rock bungalow and raps on the door. "Give me one of those, honey," he calls to his wife, Corina, who arrives on the front porch carrying an armful of Villa-raigosa-for-Council brochures. Behind them, their two children, Natalia and Antonio Jr., vie for the attention of a cat curled up on a bench in the shade.

 

"Hi, I'm Antonio Villaraigosa," he says to the couple who answer the door. "I represented you in the Assembly for six years. I wrote the largest school bond in the nation's history. I wrote Proposition 12, the largest urban park bond ever. I co-chaired Prop. K, to support our schools. And now I want to come work for you in the City Council."

He is greeted with smiles.

"Good luck to you," the woman says. "Maybe you can do something about our graffiti problem."

"When I was on the MTA board we eliminated graffiti on the buses by getting everyone involved," he replies.

Between doors, Villaraigosa says he has a surprise in store for people who think running for council would seem a comedown for a former Assembly speaker.

"The City Council is where things get done in the community," he says. "And I've shown I know how to get things done. But I don't believe a council member is just a person that ensures that services have been delivered. I think a council member should be a leader as well. Someone who can help create that vision for improving the quality of life in the neighborhood. Someone with the energy and the skill set to organize a community, build consensus about what the future should look like."

He talks about after-school programs and their importance in giving youth a positive direction. He talks about crime and how to combat it. More police officers, more opportunity for youth.

"I'm committing that in my term we're going to have an after-school program in every school," he says at another door. "If you think everything is as good as it can be in the community, then maybe I'm not the candidate for you. But I think we can do better. Together we can do better. What a leader can do is inspire all of you to do a little more."

At the next door a woman who looks to be in her 60s opens her screen door and says she recognizes him.

"Oh, sure, of course, Antonio," the woman says. "It's been great. We've got the street cleaned up and everything's looking so nice. We're behind you, Councilman."

Nonplused, Villaraigosa talks about himself and his accomplishments as Assembly speaker, asks about crime on the street, says goodbye and walks back down the steps. He marks the woman as a "maybe."


Pacheco: A pothole-filler
proud of his roots
(Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)

"She had him mixed up with Nick," Corina says, referring to incumbent Councilman Nick Pacheco, Villaraigosa's opponent. "That happens. We were out to dinner the other night, and a woman came up to Antonio and said, 'Hi, Councilman, good to see you.' And she called me Liberty" — the name of a Pacheco staffer.

Across the street, resident Rebecca Villa counsels Villaraigosa to "keep it clean."

"It's going to be clean," he responds. "I ran a clean campaign in the mayor's race."

Villa mentions something about the Torres mailers, although she never actually saw either of them. They will backfire on Pacheco, she says. "You know he's out because of that language," Villa says. "We're all watching. If we re-elect him after that, we're no better than that."

It is not the first low blow he has faced. When he ran for Assembly, opponents dug up a 1977 assault arrest, failing to mention in mailers that he was defending his mother or that the jury failed to convict him. The turning point in his 2001 mayoral campaign against James Hahn was the notorious but effective television ad that showed Villaraigosa in the same frame as a smoking crack pipe.

Supporters see the mailer sent out in November by Torres as being in the same tradition, although slimier.

"I'll tell you this," Villaraigosa says, repeating words he said he told 13-year-old Antonio Jr. "I think the best way to fight back is to distinguish myself. They started out this campaign in a very ugly way. They exhibited the worst sort of political machinations that I've seen in a long time. And I fully expect that we'll see more. But hope usually trumps fear."

A CROWD IS BEGINNING TO GATHER in the upstairs Soto Avenue suite that serves as one of two Re-Elect Pacheco headquarters. It is early December, and Nick Pacheco, baby-faced but with gray streaks in his black hair, young-looking but sporting a bit of a paunch, has just concluded an upbeat campaign kickoff in Eagle Rock, hosted by Congressman Xavier Becerra. In a few minutes, City Council President Alex Padilla will appear and do similar duties here in Boyle Heights.

 

But first Pacheco needs to grab a bite. A succession of women who look to be his mother's age push plates of food toward him.

"Here, mijo, you need your strength," two say simultaneously. Others try to get his attention.

"Hi, son, how are you?" Victoria Torres calls to him.

Torres explains that she has called Pacheco "son" for upward of 25 years.

"He's done a lot for us," Torres says. "He's one of us. Nick is already familiar with the community and should be re-elected. I haven't seen Antonio Villaraigosa out in the community."

Others are even more passionate.

"Nick has been a real hero to me," 54-year-old Manny Hernandez says in Eagle Rock. "I have had four heroes. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, my father. And Nick Pacheco. Because when you look at the work that this young man has done, we haven't ever had representation before that is this outstanding."

The daughter of Hernandez's partner was killed by a car at a Highland Park crossing on Figueroa at Burwood. Others had died there before and had begged Councilman Richard Alatorre to put up a signal. No signal came.

When Hernandez approached Pacheco, the new councilman had a crossing light installed within weeks. That signal, in this man's eyes, ranks Pacheco with King and Chavez.

Startling, perhaps, but it's the type of thing Pacheco supporters point to over and over. Traffic signals. Street paving. The shutdown of a freeway offramp to 18-wheel diesel trucks that spewed fumes over a residential neighborhood. A leadership institute to educate residents on the ins and outs of working with City Hall.

Later — after Padilla enumerates for the crowd the value of having a representative like Pacheco in charge of the council's Budget Committee, after Valley Councilman Dennis Zine weighs in with support, after school-board member Jose Huizar promises "¡Vamos a ganar en marzo!" and after Pacheco's close friend, chief of staff and top campaign aide Lloyd Monserratt shouts out, "Go team!" — Pacheco is gazing confidently out the window of a sport utility vehicle as it pulls up to the corner of Mathews and First Street. Monserratt is at the wheel. In the back seat are another campaign aide, Pacheco's mother and his aunt.

"This is my street," Pacheco says as he hops out of the car on Mathews. "These people know me. They grew up with me."

As Monserratt drives off to check up on another group of campaign walkers, Pacheco grabs a stack of campaign brochures from his mother. The two chat briefly in Spanish and divvy up the street, his aunt and his mother heading south, he and his campaign aide walking north.

In between knocking on doors and courting voters, some of whom knew him as a boy, Pacheco points proudly to improvements he has made.

"This alley," the councilman says, "was never paved before. Now it is. Look at Michigan Avenue. First time it's been re-paved in decades. That's my grammar school right there, brother. Look how we blocked off that street. We put a skateboard park there. Made more sense for these kids than a tennis court, which it replaced. One of my goals now is to get rid of that blue microwave tower."

Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347 — the city's largest civilian-employee union — says Pacheco is right to tout his public-works accomplishments.

"Our people want to work, we want to get things done in the city," Butcher says. "With Nick in charge of the Budget and Finance Committee, he helped us figure out how to pave more miles of street than we've ever paved before. We've fixed more sidewalks. And somehow he figured out how to raise a hunk of money to open up a drop-off center in his district for couches and other bulky items so people can take them there instead of dumping them on the road."

Butcher is especially effusive about the drop-off center because of how Pacheco handled the labor issue. Five or six people work there, paid not with city money but with funding from Homeboy Industries. But the city has agreed to gradually take them on as city workers — union workers — so Butcher didn't lose jobs for her ranks.

 

"Every possible issue got addressed," Butcher says. "That's what local politicians are supposed to do."

A month after the kickoff walk, Pacheco is again knocking on doors in Boyle Heights, this time on streets farther away than the one where he grew up. These more distant neighbors ask what he has done for them. In his view, he is ready.

"I say, well, first, you can see that I paved a lot of streets that never have been paved before. Of course I'm not done, I haven't done all of them. Second, I got an injunction against KAM" — a former tagging crew that turned into one of the Eastside's more violent street gangs.

"And then the third thing I point out is the Evergreen jogging track, where we're converting the sidewalk around the cemetery into a collegiate-style track. And that pretty much seals the deal right there. Because I tell them, well, these are three things off the top of my head."

At other doors, and at candidate forums, Pacheco reminds voters that he was a deputy district attorney and points to his role last year in working with City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to establish neighborhood prosecutors around the city to help residents combat quality-of-life crimes. He pushed through a funding measure to hire the 18 lawyers at a time when the mayor was demanding budget cuts and had approved a hiring freeze.

His trusted chief of staff, Monserratt, died unexpectedly last month while recovering from surgery, but one of the best tributes to Pacheco's power and Monserratt's organizational skills came during a City Council memorial for the staffer. When Pacheco called on his staff to stand with him, and other council members saw how much bigger his crew was than anyone else's, several of them let out a collective, unrehearsed gasp.

Pacheco says that for much of his first term he has worked to get his district up to the level where it should have been had past representatives done their work. In the next term, he says, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Mount Washington and neighboring communities will become the envy of the city, with the best streets and sidewalks, with community-leadership training — if he is re-elected.

"All you've got to tell this district that deals with gan gs is that Antonio Villa-raigosa is against gang injunctions," Pacheco says. "That he voted against electronically monitoring child molesters. That he voted against informing the community when a felon was released. I oppose those personal mailers. I already told everyone since day one that we don't need to talk about Antonio's personal life when his public record on crime is so horrendous. Let's just focus on that."

IT IS SIMPLY NOT POSSIBLE TO WALK or to drive from one end of the 14th Council District to the other without passing through other districts or even cities. Redistricting has created a collection of precincts divided into three distinct chunks, barely linked by slivers of territory.

The traditional heart of the area is Boyle Heights, a storied neighborhood of commercial districts, industry, housing projects and tidy residential streets on the far side of the Los Angeles River. Part of the original pueblo, Boyle Heights lacked the strict zoning and restrictive covenants of the suburbs to the west, so it became the gateway for immigrants from Eastern Europe, Japan and Mexico.

Jewish socialists organized here, and founders of the United Farm Workers strategized. The Japanese were forcibly removed during World War II, and most of the Jews moved west shortly after, leaving Boyle Heights an integral part of the Latino Eastside.

Villaraigosa's childhood friend James Aguirre, now house counsel for the Automobile Club of Southern California, recalls participating in church activities and, later, car-club rallies in Boyle Heights with young Tony Villar (Villaraigosa and his wife combined their last names when they married).

"We had after-school programs," Aguirre says. "We had a teen club. A church where they organized events. You would recognize him — imagine the smile you see on the campaign brochures, but on a 10-year-old boy."

Although Villaraigosa went to school and participated in activities in Boyle Heights, Pacheco supporters make much of the fact that he actually lived in nearby unincorporated City Terrace.

"I've always thought that if you're running for something you should live in that neighborhood," upholstery cutter Richard Romero says. "It seems like since Nick is from Boyle Heights, now everyone wants to be from Boyle Heights. We see him here."

The neighborhood long has been a dumping ground for Los Angeles. It has more square miles of freeway running through it than any area of comparable size. For all of Pacheco's efforts at street paving, sidewalk repair and traffic control, the neighborhood can still appear rough and gritty.

 

Connected to Boyle Heights are a knob of the 14th Council District that crosses the river to take in the historic Plaza and Olvera Street, and a finger that reaches into the garment-and-jewelry district.

Last year, during redistricting, Pacheco sought a larger piece of downtown to boost his power base, but he overplayed his hand and sparked anger and resentment from colleagues and downtown businesses. It was not the first time he had overreached — he also made a play for the council presidency, but backed down in the wake of critical news reports about his pressure on city lobbyists to donate to Cal Inc., a charity he set up.

North of Boyle Heights lies El Sereno, a largely Latino community near Alhambra and Cal State Los Angeles. The area long has been plagued by crime and neglect.

Farther north and to the west is newly trendy Eagle Rock. Traditionally the most Republican portion of the district, filled with family pizza restaurants and real estate offices, Eagle Rock has begun to sprout coffeehouses and is attracting young professionals in the entertainment industry.

In the process, politics here has gotten more eclectic, continuing an eastward move of Los Angeles liberalism from the Westside into Hollywood and now into the formerly conservative Northeast.

Pacheco continues to tout his Boyle Heights roots. But he now lives with his fiancée, Marisela Alvarez, in a home in Eagle Rock, just a few blocks from the house of his friend Congressman Becerra.

Next to Eagle Rock are Highland Park and Glassell Park, two regions struggling for definition. Highland Park includes tattered shacks and historic Craftsman homes, and a heritage of arts and crafts that still lives in scattered galleries and workshops. A handful of communities, like Garvanza and Hermon, have re-asserted their identities as distinct from Highland Park's.

Glassell Park, with a large Filipino community and a thriving commercial section, has become energized by dynamic neighborhood leadership.

South of Highland Park is Mount Washington, a woodsy residential hill in some ways more reminiscent of Brentwood than Northeast L.A. Environmental activists here have organized against developers to protect native walnut groves and priceless views.

It is here that Villaraigosa lived for a decade, not far from county Supervisor Molina, in the 1st Council District. But while Pacheco was losing his play for downtown, the independent Redistricting Commission drew lines through Mount Washington that put much of it — but not Villaraigosa's house — in the 14th.

Pacheco opponents said the councilman, who appointed a member to the panel and sat on the council's oversight committee, engineered the move to keep Villaraigosa from running. Commission members deny it.

"There was no attempt to redistrict anyone into or out of a district," says attorney Frank Cardenas, who directed the redistricting panel. "It was an extremely open and public process. There were about a dozen large, publicly noticed meetings. I don't recall anyone speaking on Antonio Villaraigosa's behalf."

Villaraigosa rented a house in Hermon to make his run for the 14th, spurring Pacheco backers to accuse him of carpetbagging. It's just like in 1999, they claim, when big labor moved John Perez — Villaraigosa's cousin — into the district to capture the seat.

Perez dropped out, but instead of backing Pacheco, labor chose Victor Griego — a political consultant who moved in from South Pasadena to run.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NICK Pacheco and Antonio Villaraigosa may be less about policy and ideology than about generation. Villaraigosa was a teenager during the Chicano Moratorium, the 1970 anti-war protests that for the first time riveted the nation's attention on the Latino Eastside.

"There was an upheaval in society," Villaraigosa's childhood friend James Aguirre recalls. "It set us into exploring different things. Antonio and I marched for civil rights, and against the war. There were rent strikes. Unionizing efforts."

Memory of the Moratorium and of the deaths of several Latinos at the hands of Sheriff's deputies remained fresh in the early 1970s when Villaraigosa became active in the UCLA chapter of the Chicano-rights group MEChA.

Pacheco was only 6 at the time of the Moratorium.

When he was older, Pacheco willingly stepped into the community's heritage of activism, joining his mother and the mothers of his schoolmates who organized marches in the mid-'80s against a proposed state prison on the Boyle Heights side of the Los Angeles River. When Mothers of East L.A. was created by Juana Gutierrez, the wife of United Neighborhood Organizations founder Ricardo Gutierrez, Pacheco typed out the bylaws.

 

Friends and foes alike reject any suggestion that his involvement was less sincere than that of the older brothers and sisters who battled tear gas and police batons on Whittier Boulevard during the anti-war protests. But times had changed. The march against the prison was a neighborhood-oriented campaign by members of a politically maturing community, directed at Latino leaders like Richard Alatorre, who declined to fight the project, and Richard Polanco, who at first voted for it.

Pacheco's first confrontation with the establishment came during term breaks from Berkeley and, later, from Loyola Law School, working with his friend Martin GutieRuiz — son of the UNO and Mothers of East L.A. organizers — against members of the earlier generation of Latino leaders. The fight was only marginally against an Anglo power structure. It was a far cry from the call for revolution sounded 15 years earlier.

Villaraigosa was never a revolutionary, yet in the Assembly he went head-to-head with Alatorre, Polanco, Art Torres and other members of the Eastside establishment far more often than Pacheco, by then fresh out of law school, ever did.

But Villaraigosa was forged in the spirit of the '60s and '70s, carried the fervor of civil rights and labor activism, and witnessed firsthand the limitations of race-based organizing.

Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles- based fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy institute, says the clash between Villaraigosa and Pacheco has little to do with ideology.

"It's about generation," Rodriguez says. "Pacheco wasn't there as part of the Chicano generation."

Nor was Pacheco, although a child of working-class Mexican immigrants, the first in his family to go to college and join the establishment. His older brother paved the way to UC Berkeley and now practices medicine in Highland Park.

Pacheco took out papers in 1991 to challenge Alatorre for re-election to the City Council but ultimately deferred to GutierRuiz. The effort failed, but Pacheco did fieldwork for Gloria Molina, the councilwoman and county supervisor who also had dared to take on what had increasingly become an Eastside boys' club, and worked on Xavier Becerra's successful 1990 run for state Assembly, before going on to law school.

The coming of age for Pacheco's generation was crystallized in 1992 with the election of Becerra, a Stanford-educated lawyer, to succeed the legendary Edward Roybal in Congress.

A PBS documentary, Power, Politics and Latinos, followed the youthful and slender underdog Becerra as he campaigned against Alatorre-backed school-board member Leticia Quezada, an older and slightly heavy Mexican-born woman. In the wake of Becerra's victory came dozens of young, trim lawyers in his image, whose first or second jobs out of school were in elected office or other major policy positions.

Political analyst David Ayon, senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, names Assemblyman-turned-U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera and California Latino Redistricting Coalition counsel Armando Duron as being among the first batch of graduates trying to replicate Becerra's success.

Later there came MIT engineer Alex Padilla, elected to the City Council and now its president, and Harvard- and Columbia-educated City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. And Nick Pacheco.

"Latino voters, especially parents, saw these golden boys as already successful and early representatives of their community," Ayon says. "For Anglo parents, they had the same appeal. Their qualifications validated them as being acceptably assimilated and American. Older politicians got into trouble, maybe with drugs or marital problems, but with this generation, just the fact of being young helps in a campaign. They were practically going door-to-door wearing their college sweater."

The image worked well in a congressional district like Becerra's, which includes what has been generally a more conservative Anglo community in Eagle Rock and a liberal one in Mount Washington, together with the Latino bastions of Boyle Heights and El Sereno.

It also played in a council district like the 14th, which covers much of the same area. When Pacheco walked door-to-door in 1997 on his way to an upset victory over David Tokofsky to represent the district on the city's Charter Reform Commission, he took Boyle Heights for granted and focused on Eagle Rock.

"He looked so nice, dressed in a suit and tie," 82-year-old Eagle Rock community leader Eleanor Duffy recalls. "He talked about the problem with gangs. He said he was an attorney. He knew what he was doing."

By the time of Padilla's campaign for City Council, waged against 52-year-old Corinne Sanchez, the phenomenon was dubbed the "mijo effect," after the Spanishä term of endearment for a son. Voters trusted the well-educated young men they came to see as their own boys.

 

But there was an underside. The Latino "Boy Scout" image of those who took office in the 1990s sometimes covered over ruthless campaign tactics.

Becerra denied personal involvement, but his campaign was found responsible for the recordings of a Gloria Molina impersonator warning voters against supporting Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral race.

The phone bank used for the calls was owned by Cal Inc., a charitable organization set up by Pacheco. It was leased out to La Colectiva, a group put together by Pacheco's friend GutierRuiz. The tape equipment was programmed — unknowingly, he and Pacheco said — by Pacheco staffer Lloyd Monserratt, another young man of the golden-boy generation (although strictly a behind-the-scenes strategist, being far too overweight to follow the Becerra image into elected office).

And, of course, Pacheco has denied any connection with the racial and family attacks that were sent out against Villa-raigosa in November. Credit was claimed instead by another 1990s golden boy — Pacheco's Berkeley and Loyola Law School classmate Ricardo Torres.

The son of a respected Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Torres failed to ride the Becerra train to electoral victory, losing an Assembly primary to Villaraigosa's college and law-school friend Gil Cedillo. But he stayed very much on the scene, serving as attorney for Henry Lozano — former Becerra chief of staff and active strategist for Pacheco — in a bitter child-custody fight with Alatorre.

Torres also was attorney for La Colectiva, which did work for Becerra and Councilman Ed Reyes, and which in 2001 became the subject of a district attorney's probe into whether it improperly spent funds for Pacheco that were earmarked for educating families about health-care options for children. No charges have been filed.

La Colectiva has changed its name to Mothers for Nick and two weeks ago reported spending enough money for Pacheco, independent of his campaign, to lift the donation cap on all three candidates. The move was timely — with more than a month left before the election, Pacheco already had raised and very nearly spent his limit. He denies any improper coordination with his friend's group.

One older Latino official, speaking on condition of anonymity, calls the '90s generation of people like Pacheco and Torres "the beneficiary of other people's work."

"They all have this entitlement, this sense that someone owes them something," the official says. "They're mad at Alatorre, mad at Polanco, mad at Molina. They know the game, but they don't have the moral compass."

Ayon describes the Torres mailers as a turning point.

"After those fliers I don't know if anyone is ever going to buy the Boy Scout image again," Ayon says. "This now defines them forever."

LOS ANGELES COUNTY FEDERATION of Labor chief Miguel Contreras is unimpressed with Pacheco's achievements in getting the goods for a district that has long gone without.

"There've been about 50 killings here in the last year alone in Boyle Heights," Contreras complains. "And what's been done to address that crisis? What good is having a safe road if you don't have safe streets?"

The City Council that Julie Butcher and other city union leaders hail as one of the most effective in years is, in Contreras' eyes, a disaster. He faults officials like Pacheco for failing to keep up the tradition of the previous council.

"Under the last City Council, with Jackie Goldberg and Richard Alatorre and Mark Ridley-Thomas, we passed legislation like the worker-retention ordinance, the living-wage ordinance, responsible-contractors ordinance," Contreras says. "In the last year, in this City Council, we had zero type of progressive legislation."

Contreras has no qualms about bumping off a generally labor-friendly Latino Democratic incumbent like Pacheco for someone he believes will back his progressive agenda more vigorously. He has done it before.

In 2000, Contreras' County Fed grew impatient with 18-year House veteran Matthew "Marty" Martinez, who represented working-class communities in the San Gabriel Valley and parts of unincorporated East L.A. Martinez was best known for constituent services, least known for high-minded social or political agendas. He generally voted pro-labor, but bucked union leaders on the North American Free Trade Agreement and on gun control.

As it turned out, it no longer was enough to be a Democrat, Latino and a casual backer of the labor agenda. With term limits looming in Sacramento and a bevy of young elected officials looking to move on, labor and many in the Dem-ocratic Party establishment teamed to run a new-generation Latina, state Senator Hilda Solis. Labor wanted Solis' more proactive voice in Congress — and she won easily.

 

Martinez's parting shot was to become a Republican in his final months in office, but it was an empty gesture. The County Fed had shown its muscle.

This time, targeting a local City Council race rather than a congressional seat, Contreras actually has upped the ante. Not only can he knock off an incumbent, he is saying, he can knock one off midterm in a term-limits environment. He could politely wait until Pacheco completes his second term and run a candidate for an open seat — but why wait?

If Contreras succeeds, Pacheco will be the first council member ever defeated before being forced out by term limits. You can bet that every other council member will take note. So will Mayor James Hahn and, for that matter, any elected official in Los Angeles, Sacramento or even Washington who has counted on the power of incumbency. Move against the County Fed's agenda at your peril.

"I think you'll see in Antonio Villa-raigosa a real progressive Los Angeles," Contreras says. "He has almost like a folklore status in this community. We need that kind of high profile to take on an incumbent. It's that old saying, 'If you're going to shoot at a prince, you've got to make sure that you kill him.' So we're going to go all out in this campaign."

THE ELECTION WILL MAKE LITTLE difference in policy or legislation. Both men are Democrats. Villaraigosa touts a progressive agenda, but Pacheco can also claim progressive credentials. He worked with Hahn to create a housing trust fund and has demonstrated sensitivity on labor issues.

Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein says that, except for gang issues, no one would have been able to distinguish Villaraigosa from Hahn by looking at votes or initiatives. He says the same probably is true of Villaraigosa and Pacheco.

"The style becomes the substance," Sonenshein says. "For them, it plays out in the issue of crime."

The results of the election will likely have more influence on the inside power game at City Hall. Hahn has benefited from a quiet and supportive council, but that is about to change.

"This next council could be one of the feistier ones we've seen in a long time," predicts Sonenshein.

Former Police Chief Bernard Parks, nursing his anger over Hahn's decision to end his career by denying him a second term at the LAPD helm, is certain to grab the 8th District council chair. He will sit a seat or two away from Dennis Zine, a former director of his nemesis, the Police Protective League.

Former state Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, mentor to council President Alex Padilla, looks like a lock in a new San Fernando Valley district. He will sit near Wendy Greuel, who just a year ago defeated him in a close and bitter election. Their side of the council horseshoe is not expected to be a friendly neighborhood.

Elsewhere in the Valley, results are less predictable, but ornery voters could well send in staunch secession advocate and former Assembly Member Paula Boland (City Hall staffer Greig Smith and school-board veteran Julie Korenstein also could take the race). In Central L.A., it's a tossup so far among labor candidate Martin Ludlow (whose team is also working hard for Villaraigosa), academic Madison Shockley and former Assemblyman Roderick Wright.

Hahn's brain trust, which includes power broker Bill Wardlaw, is backing Pacheco to keep some order in the house. With the trusted Pacheco in place, Hahn could claim the backing of all four Latino council members — including Padilla, Cardenas and Ed Reyes.

Besides, Pacheco, as a lawyer, has an outlet for his electoral ambitions other than the Mayor's Office. If re-elected to the council, he can run next for city attorney. District attorney, even.

But if the council chamber loses Pacheco and gains another ex-legislator in Villaraigosa, who squabbled with Cardenas in Sacramento and who very nearly beat Hahn for mayor, the whole competitive dynamic of City Hall will be turned inside out.

A Councilman Villaraigosa, of course, will have his eye on a 2009 mayoral run. But he won't be alone.

Padilla is more than 20 years Villa-raigosa's junior, but he has several years under his belt as a city commissioner, is a full term ahead as a council member and has the presidency to boot. Population and Latino voting strength in his East Valley district have surged, while the traditional Latino base in Boyle Heights and the rest of the 14th District has leveled off.

 

Young Los Angeles voters of 2009 may well look to a not-yet-40-year-old Alex Padilla from the New Valley, rather than an almost-60 Villaraigosa from the Old Eastside, to take the reins as the city's first Latino mayor since 1872.

Then there is City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who already has grabbed the distinction of being the first citywide elected Latino official in the modern era. Delgadillo has his eye on the Mayor's Office — and he may not wait until 2009.

Bernie Parks, too, is a good bet to try a mayoral run. And Janice Hahn could want the job when her brother is through.

Labor, too, is watching the 14th District closely. Latinos were supposed to lead a labor coalition into power in City Hall, but things got complicated. The question now is not only Which Latinos — Valley versus Eastside, golden boys versus old school — but also Which labor.

Hahn was elected with the backing of city-employee unions like the police, the firefighters, the blue-collar workers and the bureaucrats — and the opposition of nearly every labor group outside of City Hall. Contreras, meanwhile, invested a lot in Villa-raigosa and isn't about to give up on him.

"We don't need a councilman to play it safe," Contreras says. "Or conservative. We need council members like Antonio Villaraigosa who are willing to back an agenda for a progressive Los Angeles."

Because of the Torres mailers, though, observers are also watching the race to get a sense of how future campaigning might look. The question will be, Did the mailers work?

Art Snyder, the scandal-tainted but still-beloved former 14th District councilman, sought to connect the Torres mailers' anti-"gringo" references to a legacy of Eastside racial hatred marked by the Sleepy Lagoon murders and the Zoot Suit Riots.

"Pacheco has dumped a political garbage can over the people of the 14th District as the opening gun of his campaign to try to blind us to the real issues," Snyder told a gathering of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "And he promises Antonio that this is just the beginning. When I saw what has been done to this point, I decided that this may be the beginning for Pacheco's campaign, but as far as I am concerned it is the end for him. For you see, once this kind of campaign is shown to be successful in an area, it will be repeated again and again until it is defeated."

Snyder could have a point. The outcome of the 14th Council District race could end up having at least as much influence on future campaign tactics as it does on City Hall power shifts or the future shape of Latino leadership.

"If it works," political analyst Ayon says, "you get one set of lessons out of this. If it doesn't, you get another — it will effectively bury those tactics for the foreseeable future."


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