Jose Huizar is a likable guy. So is Rudy Martinez. They just don't like each other.
It wasn't always like this. After he was elected in 2005, Huizar, the City Council representative for Los Angeles' 14th Council District, hired Martinez's mother, Juanita, as a senior citizens liaison. And over at Mia, Martinez's sushi restaurant in Eagle Rock, the eel-and-avocado roll was dubbed the Huizar.
But that was before — before Martinez, star of cable TV's remodeling show Flip This House, decided to run against his onetime friend for the right to represent 247,000 residents in a district that runs from Eagle Rock south to Olympic Boulevard and to the edge of unincorporated East Los Angeles. Before a developer dissed Huizar by ponying up a downtown billboard and adorning it with Martinez, the smiling challenger, thereby donating $24,000 in ad space. And before the eel-and-avocado roll went back to being called the eel-and-avocado roll.
Today, Martinez says the friendship — the two worked out together and spent some vacation time together — fell apart because Huizar was a taker, not a giver. Huizar says no, Martinez was always merely “an acquaintance.” But embarrassing — to Huizar — photos showing them all huggy emerged on the blog thecitymaven.com. Then, even more embarrassing reporting by David Zahniser at the Los Angeles Times revealed that Huizar kept detailed frenemies lists ranking L.A. people and groups with a negative or positive number, based on Huizar's view of their political pull and support for him.
On the lists (which Martinez obtained and supplied to the Times, thanks to an insider tip from his mom, Juanita, who had typed them up as Huizar's aide), Huizar gave his former friend Martinez top ratings while assigning negative ratings to many community figures.
The stakes are high in the March 8 Los Angeles City Council election, when Huizar and Martinez go against each other for the District 14 seat.
Each council seat is worth $178,789 in yearly salary, plus subsidized health care, plus taxpayer-provided cars, gas and $90,000 a year to hand out as they please. If a council member remains in office for 12 years, the Weekly estimates, a Los Angeles City Council seat is worth $3 million.
Huizar and Martinez campaign like every vote counts, because it literally does. There are 93,145 registered voters in District 14. But in 2007, when Huizar beat underfunded former Huizar aide Alvin Parra 6,353 votes to 2,532, just 9,255 people — less than 10 percent of voters — cast ballots.
With such a thin herd of active voters, a candidate needs only a few thousand votes to garner 50 percent plus 1 and win the seat. Huizar and Martinez will hyperfocus on home addresses and neighborhoods where these known voters live.
Today, Martinez is working El Sereno, the working-class neighborhood bordering Cesar Chavez Avenue where Huizar lives. He says it's a critical battleground because Huizar isn't so popular here. At a Craftsman clapboard house on Rosemead Avenue, a rooster preens in the yard while Martinez tries to convince homeowner Leticia Saavedra to give him her vote.
It doesn't take much.
Huizar, she says, is out for himself and doesn't care that Saavedra's street is badly in need of speed bumps. She offers to post a “Martinez for City Council” sign on her lawn and promises that two other adults in her home will vote for Martinez, too.
“You bring the coffee and donuts and I'll get the neighbors together and you can talk to them,” she adds.
“It's a deal,” says Martinez, beaming.
At La Chispa de Oro restaurant on Cesar Chavez, Martinez listens to restaurant owner Melchior Moreno do what lots of Eastsiders do: complain about Huizar.
Huizar's list of enemies and friends is not a surprise to Moreno, who says Huizar just wants the fat, steady paycheck. “I went to a meeting once where the city showed what they wanted to do along our street. The pictures looked real nice,” Moreno says. “I've been here 11 years and the street looks the same to me. The city says crime is down, but we see crime every day. There are still a lot of shootings. The corner down the street still has trash everywhere. The only time I see outreach from [Huizar's] office is during an election. Well, we need change and I haven't seen any changes with Jose.”
Martinez's life is about change, he says. In his personal bio — seven raw, single-spaced pages about growing up in poverty with abuse all around him — Martinez recounts how his alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to work three jobs. Martinez was so embarrassed by his family's overgrown yard, he says, he tried to trim it with scissors and a saw.
He gravitated toward a kindly neighbor who taught him home repair, then turned what he learned into a home-remodeling business, which led to Martinez's TV contract and local buzz, which has in turn led some to suggest that Martinez might be the first City Hall outsider to oust an incumbent since Ruth Galanter pushed out Pat Russell in 1987.
But don't count out Huizar.
He's got a compelling success story, too: Born in Mexico, growing up poor in Boyle Heights, learning to play pretty decent baseball at his Catholic school, attending Princeton University.
Huizar got money to reinforce the Fourth and Lorena Street bridge, which overshadows the home where his mother still lives. He says he chooses to live on the Eastside because “I believe in it. I see what happens every day.”
He takes credit for steering $1.5 billion in improvements to parks, schools, roads, bridges — even sidewalks with built-in soft running paths — and insists the $11 million rehab of First Street now taking shape will one day help.
At Hollenbeck Park, Huizar stops to show off a new skate plaza.
“How's the skate park?” he asks a group of 12 boys doing tricks.
“This place sucks. There aren't any transitions. It needs a half-pipe,” says one. But another says, “Thanks for the park. We don't have to skate in the streets.”
Huizar is playing things more aloof than Martinez. Over a pastrami sandwich at Oinksters, Huizar says he won't campaign door-to-door.
Why bother, when few voters live behind most doors? He'll rely on direct mail to the precious active voters, and speeches to friendly audiences invited to civic club meetings.
Huizar insists a private poll gives him a 67 percent approval rating, but admits his popularity suffered when a deal he was brokering to merge the badly decaying Southwest Museum and the glitzy Gene Autry Center fell apart. Critics say Huizar mishandled it, scuttling a chance for Highland Park and Mount Washington to become a cultural hub with a revived Southwestern Museum at its core. Huizar and his supporters say the Autry people made too many demands.
“My opponent hasn't been involved and doesn't know what's going on in District 14,” Huizar says. “Throughout the district during a desperate economic slump, projects have been completed. Where has Rudy Martinez been?”
Martinez touts his efforts to renew communities by buying and renovating old homes. He recently purchased a foreclosed hillside stucco home where five families lived in tiny rooms in the back, the area rife with gang activity.
Two of his workers who show up to knock down illegal walls and bring the house up to code are in their teens. “I want to teach kids like these how to do this kind of work and get them away from gangs,” Martinez says. “We're going to change this neighborhood by renovating this house. When one gets renovated, then there will be another, then another.”
Martinez says it takes getting people involved. In a part of L.A. where fewer than one in 10 of those eligible to vote bothered to do so in 2007, the guy who is best at that may come out the winner.
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