YOU JUST KNOW things have gotten ugly in the race for the 45th Assembly District when the candidates start going after the woman vacating the seat, termed-out Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a longtime progressive icon who helped transform the district into a hotbed of liberal-left political activity.

For weeks, the four candidates have bombarded voters with expensive campaign brochures, English-Spanish dictionaries and even ceramic Mother’s Day mugs. But with each candidate growing anxious about their prospects, they have begun turning on each other — and their many high-profile backers.

The long knives came out briefly in the campaign’s final debate, staged in an Echo Park gymnasium where three of the four candidates struggled to be heard over the roar of the Hollywood Freeway. Speaking in the heart of Goldberg territory, Mount Washington resident Gabriel Buelna described the assemblywoman as a nonentity to voters in neighborhoods like El Sereno and City Terrace. Teachers’ union organizer Kevin de León went further, saying Goldberg — who endorsed his opponent, tenants’-rights advocate Elena Popp — had a minimal presence in the district. “No one knows who she is,” he said.

Popp went after de León, saying he dropped his opposition to mayoral takeover of L.A. Unified once he needed the endorsement of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Then she offered a subtler message about Christine Chavez, who has carpet-bombed the district with images of her grandfather, legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez. “We are up against a young woman whose grandfather has a holiday named after him,” said Popp. “That is a very difficult thing to be up against.”

The one candidate with nothing to say, as usual, was Chavez. By last week, the 34-year-old organizer for the United Farm Workers had found a way to bypass no fewer than eight candidate debates by leaving at the very beginning, showing up at the very end, or skipping out altogether. Chavez was a no-show for a radio debate sponsored by KPCC, brushed aside a forum aired on KPFK, and shunned a number of endorsement interviews, including one requested by the L.A. Weekly. Suddenly, the three state Assembly hopefuls had something to agree on — why was Chavez hiding, and what the heck was her problem?

“It’s a lack of transparency,” de León declared days later. “If you can’t debate your own Democratic opponents, how are you going to take on the Republicans?”

Chavez spokesman Eddie Gutierrez said his candidate had scheduling conflicts — and a need to meet voters one-on-one. “She’s walking precincts. That’s where she needs to be now. That’s where the other candidates need to be too,” he said.

The heavily liberal nature of the 45th Assembly made it a magnet for politically ambitious progressives, left-of-center stalwarts who spent varying amounts of time over the past five years as organizers in the Central Valley, Mexico or Los Angeles. It’s the type of district where candidates brag about how many times they’ve been arrested for civil disobedience. Whoever wins on Tuesday is almost guaranteed a six-year ride in Sacramento, leaving voters to bide their time until another crop of Democrats is ejected by term limits in 2012.

That may explain why Chavez sent voters a 56-page softbound biography of herself, or why Buelna sent district residents cards for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. De León handed out free ceramic mugs with his name on them, prompting snide commentary from critics over whether they contained lead. With those tricks already tried, candidates are now becoming more outspoken on each other’s shortcomings, from Chavez’s promise to fight a Republican president to questions over de León’s ties to the district.

De León, an organizer with the California Teachers Association, portrayed himself on the campaign trail as someone with roots in Los Angeles’ low-income communities, and indeed, voting records obtained by the L.A. Weekly identify him as an eight-year resident of the working-class neighborhoods in and around the 45th Assembly District. The 39-year-old de León was registered to vote at four different locations during that period, including one apartment that he shared with high-profile patron Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez near MacArthur Park, and another where he apparently slept on the couch of a political aide. Buelna and Popp both questioned whether de León considered the district his home or more of a way station.

“While he was changing registrations, I was building roots in the community,” said Buelna, who lives in Mount Washington.

De León changed his registration in May 2003 from Highland Park to the Asbury Apartments, a place he rented with Núñez, a childhood friend who won a seat in the state Assembly the previous year. Four months later, Núñez and de León were served by the Asbury with an unlawful-detainer lawsuit, the first step in an eviction process. The case was almost immediately dropped, however, and de León registered to vote one year later at an apartment in Angeleno Heights, listing his home as 914 W. Kensington Road for nearly seven months.

The tenant at that address, Iris Miranda, said she offered to let de León “crash on the couch” in her apartment while he was working in another part of the state and searching for an apartment. Miranda — an aide to state Senator Gil Cedillo, who has enthusiastically endorsed de León — said de León was living part of the time in the Central Valley but came down for two to three days at a time to share the apartment with her family of four. “He would come at different times,” she said. “It was not just simply a weekend thing.”

Miranda’s former landlord, Kevin Kuzma, said he never saw de León, even though he lives in the apartment above Miranda, and had never heard of him. De León found an apartment on nearby Bellevue Avenue, registering to vote there in April 2005.

“It sounds to me like he was living up north and trying to create a record of residency in the district, or in and around the district,” said Popp, who moved to Lincoln Heights in September after living for four years in Glassell Park, just outside the district. “So I think Kevin should just face up to the fact that he has spent the last four years up north, that he moved here to run. And frankly, if he was just knowledgeable about the community’s issues, that wouldn’t be a horrible thing. But he isn’t.”

De León disputed Popp’s allegation, saying he worked for the California Teachers Association out of its Los Angeles office, including the period when he shared an apartment with Núñez. “I can get you eyewitnesses — 2505 Wilshire. I was a permanent resident there. I paid half the rent, the whole bit. In fact, he had left to go get another loft, and I was the sole person living in the place.”

De León said his progressive values and understanding of poverty make him a good fit for the district. Still, other aspects of de León’s public record raise questions. Stopped in September by the Los Angeles Police Department for driving on a suspended license, de León listed his address as San Jose — not far from Burlingame, where the CTA is based.

As an ally of Núñez, de León has become an electoral target of Sacramento political consultant Richie Ross, who has fielded a handful of candidates against those aligned with the Assembly speaker. De León, in turn, said 13 of Ross’s candidates — including Chavez — orchestrated a legal challenge to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, not to pose a substantive objection but to have an education issue to run on two months before the election.

Chavez placed the March 28 lawsuit — which is technically an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief — on several of her mailers as a symbol of her opposition to a Republican president. Each of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit are candidates in the June 6 Democratic primary — including state Assembly hopefuls Kelly Hayes-Raitt, Mike Davis, Curren Price and Chavez.

“If you have all of her political consultant’s clients signed on to that brief, it raises eyebrows,” de León said. “Is this a genuine amicus brief? Or is it a political ploy?”

Popp shared de León’s dim view of the Ross-directed lawsuit against Bush, saying Chavez used it to create a last-minute record of accomplishment. “[Chavez] did not sue the president. Somebody else sued the president, and 13 candidates all represented by the same consultant signed what is basically a letter of support of that lawsuit,” she said. “I actually have filed lawsuits to bring resources to our community and save existing resources.”

Gutierrez defended the legal filing, saying in an e-mail: “Christine’s lawsuit against Bush is something she believes in and chose to pursue.” But one political commentator, the OC Blog, summed up the Ross lawsuit another way, calling it “No Client Left Behind.”

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