IT'S HARD NOT TO LIKE PAUL GONZALES. CONSTANTLY upbeat, he brings to the bitter race for the 14th Council District seat the naive optimism of the first-time candidate who believes that enthusiasm and the desire to serve make him a contender.
He's wrong, of course. Gonzales is not going to win this one. Residents of his native Eastside district respond to his quest for office with affection and, to some degree, respect, but not with donations or promises of support. The serious bout is between incumbent Nick Pacheco and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa.
The big question about Gonzales is whether he can run sufficiently hard to keep either of his two opponents from getting more than 50 percent of the vote on March 4. If so, the Pacheco-Villaraigosa battle will stretch on for two more months and end in a May 20 runoff.
Perhaps it shouldn't be that way. Gonzales, 38, is a hero in his native Boyle Heights, having brought fame to his neighborhood with his 1984 Olympic gold medal for boxing in the light-flyweight division. Years before anyone heard of Oscar de la Hoya, Gonzales was the young Mexican-American kid from the projects who discovered boxing and made it his ticket out of poverty.
But after he won his medal and turned pro, Gonzales was hampered by injuries. He did well enough to buy his mother a house, but riches eluded him. He was eclipsed by de la Hoya and largely forgotten outside of his community, until news of his plans to run for council first appeared more than a year ago in the sports pages.
Although he makes his living now as a motivational speaker, Gonzales has been slow to warm up to campaign debates and to express his positions on issues. "As a councilman," he said at one forum to puzzled residents, "I will fight for everything."
In his satellite campaign headquarters a table at El Sol restaurant on Avenida Cesar Chavez he talked recently about the election and why he got into it.
"I want to see this community grow," Gonzales said. "I grew up in this community. I am not out of touch with them. I grew up in the Aliso Village Housing Projects. I'm going to be the squeaky wheel for this district."
He conceded that he knows Boyle Heights best, but pointed out that as a boy he delivered papers in Highland Park, and that as a young boxer training for the Olympics he ran through Eagle Rock and El Sereno.
He said he likes Villaraigosa but is more in touch with the neighborhood than the former Assembly speaker is. As for Pacheco, Gonzales declined to go into details, but said the councilman is not doing enough for the people of the Eastside.
"My fight is not with them," he said of his two opponents. "My fight is for the district. When it comes time for me to lace up the gloves, I'll lace them up. But I'll lace them up for the community."
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Former Mayor Richard Riordan appointed Gonzales to serve on the Commission for Children, Youth and Their Families, and the ex-boxer repeatedly pointed out that he is no stranger to City Hall.
But the Olympic experience continues to define him, and in some sense to limit him. He wears, along with his jeans and his boots, a red-white-and-blue U.S. Olympic Team jacket, a souvenir of his honored guest role at the 1996 Atlanta games, but a reminder as well of the gold medal that is now almost two decades old.
He said the Olympic experience from the 1984 Los Angeles games tells voters all they need to know about his character.
"If people want to know my history," he said, "pick up a history book. It's in there."