Sprinting from porch to porch in working-class neighborhoods has become routine for Los Angeles mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez, although gangbangers and young Latino mothers may be wondering what the hell is going on. In hardscrabble South Central, you don't see many 6-foot-3, 220-pound Latino men in office attire running along the block, knocking at doors and asking people for a moment to chat. Something very peculiar is happening.
“I wish I could go out more often,” says Pleitez, 30. “This is the most fun part — talking with the voters.”
An unlikely product of L.A.'s barrios and woeful LAUSD schools, born to an illegal immigrant who crossed the border five months before he was born, Pleitez is also a Stanford grad tapped at 26 to work for Paul Volcker, chairman of the federal Economic Recovery Advisory Board* — and, until he quit to run for mayor, Pleitez was the high-flying chief strategy officer for leading people–search engine and social network–aggregator Spokeo.com.
Pleitez (pronounced “play-tez”) greets curious residents in English or fluent Spanish — “Buenos tardes, me llamo Emanuel Pleitez y me estoy postulando para servirle como su siguiente alcalde de Los Angeles” — as he briskly walks up Trinity Street near East Adams Boulevard, where a nearby whorehouse has mothers up in arms, the park is in disarray, and many streets are controlled by the Ghetto Boys, Street Saints or Primera Flats gangs.
Having visited 40,000 voters and made 200,000 phone calls by mid-February, Pleitez is by far the youngest serious candidate for L.A. mayor in memory (Robert Yeakel, 38, came in second in 1957). His brainy, idealistic Teach for America–esque campaign workers are even younger — in fact, two top Pleitez staffers, John Hill and Michael Serna, deferred their Teach for America jobs to campaign for him. As they swarm Trinity Street to knock on doors, Pleitez zeroes in on a skinny 18-year-old with black, spiky hair sitting on a stoop with friends at Walker Temple AME Church. He's probably not a gangbanger, Pleitez thinks, but could easily fall that way.
“How are you doing, brother?” Pleitez asks. The kid, in a football jersey with short sleeves rolled up, doesn't even peer up at Pleitez, who looks for all the world like a geeky, bespectacled white guy — not a street-savvy Latino who knows the Eastside better than the cops.
Pleitez says he's running for mayor and asks the kid if he wants to vote. The kid, shaking his head, just wants the big man out of his face. “Why not?” Pleitez asks.
“It's all the same,” the kid blurts out. “It's all the same,” Pleitez repeats with a kind of heartbreak, studying the kid's eyes.
Here goes Pleitez again, trying to save the world. If his devout Catholic mother, Isabel Bravo, had been present, she probably would have crossed herself and said a quick prayer. “He doesn't stop and think about doing things — because he wants to 'intervene,' ” Bravo says. Pleitez was a brawny kid who lettered in football, track, volleyball and basketball and tried to act as peacemaker between his nongangster friends and El Sereno's gun-wielding gangs. “I told him, 'Emanuel, they could come in the night and shoot at the house. Don't do that.' ”
Pleitez hands the kid a campaign pamphlet. “Here's my name and phone number. Call me if you ever need something.” The kid reluctantly takes it.
“He's hardened by this neighborhood,” Pleitez explains later. “Someone needs to intervene in that life.”
On a grander scale, that's exactly what Pleitez, a political mutt with views from socially liberal to fiscally conservative, hopes to do with Los Angeles — intervene. He likes former Mayor Richard Riordan's idea of requiring the vast roll of 45,360 city workers to take greater responsibility for their pensions, wants to find a way to shift $1 billion into economic development zones and, like Antonio Villaraigosa, would jump directly into the education wars, targeting the dropout rate.
Using data-mining and other high-tech tricks he learned at Spokeo — for $3.95 per month, it peddles the home-purchase histories, emails and family trees of millions of people — Pleitez and his team of 150 are canvassing pockets of “high-propensity” minority voters in Boyle Heights, Watts, the East Valley and other neglected areas. He believes he will win many Latinos, who could comprise 21 percent to 26 percent of the March 5 vote — the same voters sought by mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti.
If you buy into Pleitez's upbeat math, he squeaks into a May 21 runoff against mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel. Veteran politicos say that's impossible — Pleitez can't afford the media buys required to drill his unknown name into voters' minds. “He's never run for city office,” says an unworried Bill Carrick, Garcetti's strategist. “He doesn't have enough money, and the other candidates got a head start.”
Yet Pleitez's bravado, his extensive ground campaign in working-class L.A., and his up-from-nothing personal story make him a man to watch. His most likely immediate role: as a spoiler who hurts Garcetti, who is of Jewish-Italian-Mexican descent and has lived a life of privilege.
“I like Emanuel a lot,” Garcetti tells L.A. Weekly. “He's a good guy.”
But Pleitez, who calls Garcetti's dramatically different upbringing in Encino “charmed” — his father is former district attorney Gil Garcetti — says Garcetti “touts his Hollywood renaissance, which, quite frankly, has pushed thousands of families out of those areas. To me, it's not something to be proud of.”
Both Greuel and Garcetti chose the middle-class San Fernando Valley for their campaign headquarters. Pleitez set up his HQ in 94 percent Latino Boyle Heights, in an old meat market. His 30-person, full-time staff is a tight family — former strangers who live in two houses (one for men, one for women) on a shabby South L.A. street. Pleitez pays them only room and board plus a tiny stipend. Yet after he placed online ads at college career centers and on Facebook, more than 200 applications flowed in from Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Mexico — even North Korea, El Salvador and Spain. To stretch campaign dollars, the candidate and his wife, Rebecca, a women's health advocate, moved from their downtown L.A. apartment to his mom's in El Sereno, where she graciously insisted on sleeping on her own couch.
Such unexpected wrinkles speak to Pleitez's impatience with how the over-40 crowd runs Los Angeles — and spends its money. His campaign is an object lesson taught by the young to a middle-aged political generation accustomed to big staffs, extensive perks and massive, ongoing municipal deficits.
City Hall overspends by $24,600 per hour, a $216 million deficit. Hill, Pleitez's communications director, sees “a complete lack of basic, financial understanding,” citing Greuel's “unbelievable” vow to hire more cops as city infrastructure decays. A near-fixation on costly police hiring by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council for the past 12 years has contributed to a 60-year backlog of unfixed streets.
Still, with Pleitez lacking name ID or money, says political analyst Jamie Regalado, “You could factor him into third or fourth place. But the top two is really stretching it.”
Pleitez isn't ready to hear that. He saw boyhood friends slain by the gangs in his El Sereno neighborhood, yet members of the gangs themselves urged the studious boy to get out. And Pleitez did.
Now, with L.A. facing potential bankruptcy and Greuel and Garcetti repeatedly sidestepping pointed debate questions about how to cut City Hall costs or raise taxes, Pleitez says, “I feel the urgency to address these problems. … This city has so much potential.”
The morning after Pleitez and his staff celebrated his performance at a televised debate at UCLA's Royce Hall, Pleitez sits in his mom's cramped house near Sierra Park Elementary School in El Sereno, watching Despierta America on Univision. Little religious trinkets and statues sit on ledges above him. “I don't want to lose my Spanish,” says Pleitez, who's in no danger of doing so.
He begins to retell a childhood memory, of his neighbors selling drugs from a nearby apartment — but hears a sudden rattling noise outside his mom's metal screen door. He stops midsentence, jumps up and takes a hard look outside.
No one is there. “Sorry,” he says with a smile. “You gotta be ready. You never know if someone is taking something. You always gotta be ready.”
Pleitez settles back into the couch.
He resembles character actor John Turturro, who co-starred in such Coen brothers movies as The Big Lebowski. Pleitez's build is thicker, but the Coen brothers probably could make a satisfying drama out of Pleitez's life. And the candidate has quirks, which the Coen brothers' characters are known for — for one thing, he's a horrible backseat driver (“You need to get in the right lane. Hold on, hold on. Actually, just stay”), although his “body man,” Michael Serna, 22, calmly handles it with no fuss.
In the early 1980s, Isabel Bravo crossed the Mexican border, pregnant, to join her brother in South L.A. Pleitez's absentee, El Salvadoran father arrived roughly a year after Pleitez was born, and Isabel became pregnant with their daughter, Saray. Then he moved to Canada and out of their lives.
At 18, Pleitez found his dad in Montreal. “It was very unemotional,” Pleitez recalls. “I felt like people make decisions for whatever reasons.” His dad was afraid of deportation in L.A. and had rejected war-torn El Salvador. He told Pleitez that Montreal was safe for Salvadorans but he'd always meant to return to L.A. He never did.
Isabel — called “Mama Bravo” by Pleitez's team — moved to El Sereno, where friends she met through All Saints Catholic Church offered back rooms or garages in which the small family lived. By 9, Pleitez had moved at least 10 times around South L.A. and El Sereno. “I learned that other people are really caring,” he remembers. “I learned from my mom to never complain.”
Bravo, a cafeteria worker at Woodrow Wilson High School, who supplements her income by selling candy and soda outside her home after school, gets emotional about those years of deep poverty. She says they were so poor she couldn't qualify for Section 8 housing, which requires a modest rent be paid. Tears well up as the handsome, gray-haired woman recalls, “The most important thing for me was to get together and have something to eat.” Speaking English and Spanish as daughter-in-law Rebecca interprets, she says of her son, “I never had money to buy [toys], and he never asked me. … He was always happy.”
But in the late 1980s and early '90s, El Sereno spiraled into the gang wars that gripped L.A., the bloodiest time in city history. Scared, good kids joined the gangs for protection — and many were shot dead for walking through rival turf. Isabel never feared that Emanuel would join. Instead, she worried that he was too good a kid. “He didn't think what was going to happen to him,” she says, remembering his bids to calm down the action on their street. “I tried to tell him, but he said, 'Mom, if I'm going to die doing good, that's OK.' ”
One day, Pleitez was playing Nintendo with his friend Arthur when gunshots rang out. Outside, they saw his friend's brother lying on the sidewalk — alive but riddled with bullets. “It was one of the first things I experienced” in El Sereno, Pleitez says. “It's funny, all of my vivid memories are shootings.”
Pleitez's neighbors, the Montenegros, lost two sons to gang violence. Many acquaintances and friends were murdered. His best friend in middle school, David Guerrero, was shot dead in 2004, even as he was trying to rebuild his life. Pleitez got the news while at Stanford.
Daniel Chaidez, 35, a neighbor who was involved with a gang for a few years, first met Pleitez while practicing basketball at the outdoor courts at Sierra Park Elementary. Chaidez didn't want the gang life — and he was dead sure it wasn't for Pleitez. As Chaidez, who got away from gang involvement long ago, tells it: “We told him to keep out of trouble — 'Rather than hit the streets, do your homework.' We considered ourselves his older brothers. Gangs didn't fit his persona.”
That intervention by street-tough peers, coaches and teachers worked. “It happened to me on several occasions,” Pleitez says. “That's why you need more people to stand up and look someone in the eyes and say something positive.”
Pleitez became senior class president at Woodrow Wilson High School, where he was named All-League Team MVP for basketball and volleyball and Most Inspirational Player and All-League Football Player. He won academic scholarships to pay for college, and chose Stanford.
Fascinated by politics as a university student in 2002, Pleitez, then 19, approached 31-year-old Eric Garcetti, newly elected to L.A. City Council District 13. “I had high hopes for him” 11 years ago, says Pleitez, who wanted a mentor.
Instead, Pleitez struck up a relationship with Villaraigosa, a rising Latino star who represented L.A. City Council District 14, which covers El Sereno. In 2003, Pleitez took off the fall quarter of his sophomore year, moved home and worked full-time in Villaraigosa's field office. Pleitez sometimes got calls in the middle of night from his boss, telling him they had to drive to a murder site — to console a family.
“Now, looking at it from a public-service perspective, there was value in Antonio being there,” Pleitez says. “It showed that these neighborhoods would not be forgotten and someone was paying attention. But it was always very sad.”
Pleitez says that as a councilman, Villaraigosa was “better than all the other council members when it came to 'constituent service.' ” But there were fundamental choices made by Villaraigosa that he didn't want to replicate: Villaraigosa “didn't have as much business acumen,” Pleitez says, taking his policy cues mostly from labor-union bosses. “If you just come from the political world only,” he says of Villaraigosa's union-organizer career before elective office, “you ask, 'Who supports a project, and who doesn't?' rather than 'What's the best solution?' ”
Then in 2005, during Villaraigosa's bitterly fought and ultimately successful effort to wrest the mayor's seat from incumbent Mayor James Hahn, Pleitez, 22, was in the catbird seat — a special assistant who drove the hyperactive Villaraigosa around. “He'd sometimes emphatically pound his hand on the dash if I missed a turn or shortcut he knew about,” he recalls. But he's coy about what he saw and heard, as he worked seven days a week — sometimes late into the night — driving Villaraigosa, who sat in the passenger seat and talked incessantly on his cellphone.
“Getting to hear all the conversations with top donors and top labor leaders and how he negotiated with them was invaluable,” Pleitez says. “I saw him at his highest moments and his lowest.”
One of Pleitez's campaign promises — which his young staffers support — is to wade into the political mess that is the L.A. city worker pension deal. Pleitez thinks Richard Riordan's idea — to make current city workers pay more toward their pensions and make new city hires enroll in a 401(k)-style savings system — is “moving in the right direction.” The city government unions emphatically oppose it.
Pleitez also strongly backs the controversial California Parent Trigger law, which allows parents to take over persistently bad public schools through petition — and hire a new staff or turn the school into a charter. Parent Trigger is gaining traction in some of California's poorest communities.
With his urban studies degree from Stanford in 2006, Pleitez became an analyst at Goldman Sachs, which skims the cream from Ivy League schools, and soon was hired away as a special assistant in the U.S. Treasury, working on President Barack Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board under Volcker. “I was blessed to be coming from nothing and engaging with one of the most renowned economists in the world, and the president,” Pleitez says. “It was mind-boggling. At the same time, I knew many of my friends back home would … never get there. I also felt I had to shine, because I felt I represented a lot of people — people from poor backgrounds, and minorities.”
Amidst the recession, Pleitez landed a plum job at McKinsey & Company in Washington, the prestigious, global management-consulting firm. He joined boards and nonprofits, including Hispanic Heritage Foundation and the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund, and worked as a development assistant for the United Farm Workers Foundation.
His body man, Serna, a USC grad who met Pleitez while interning at Treasury, says, “Other than my dad, he was the first Latino I looked up to.” Serna's Harvard-grad brother Richie, 24, left a well-paying gig at consultant firm Booz & Company to campaign full-time for Pleitez.
Trying to explain Pleitez's attraction to the young, John Piotrowski, 26, a Wisconsin native who worked with Pleitez at McKinsey & Company, and now is his director of policy, says, “He pushed me to think about things more.”
In 2009, Pleitez ran for office at age 26 in a special election for California Congressional District 32, challenging establishment candidates Judy Chu and Gil Cedillo. The unknown Pleitez came out of nowhere but won 13 percent in the primary to Chu's 32 percent and Cedillo's 23.
Then he met his wife, Rebecca, a Latina from Whittier, on a blind date in Washington, where Rebecca was a fellow for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard. They were married in El Sereno a year later. “We hit it off instantly,” says Rebecca, 28. “He asked right away how many kids I wanted. That's why I thought he was very intense. But we really got along.”
Uninspired by the mayoral field shaping up for 2013, Pleitez began to contemplate a run. “We need people to step up and do something and not step back when someone tells you how difficult it is,” Rebecca says.
But Pleitez had landed the ultimate high-tech job — chief strategy officer at Pasadena-based Spokeo, the social network aggregator/search engine. He was pulling in a low-six-figure salary and owned an equity stake in the company, which meant that if Spokeo went public, Pleitez could get a very big check.
He gave it all up to run for mayor. “My mentors thought I was an idiot because I was an executive and had all the upsides in the world,” Pleitez says. “It was crazy. … But none of this stuff I have done has been for money.”
Not everyone finds his thinking sound. “I admire his spunk,” says veteran Democratic strategist Garry South, who is not involved in the 2013 mayoral campaigns, “but your numbers need to add up. You need to know what you're doing. Running a kiddie campaign just doesn't do it.”
Far from being wealthy like Riordan, who spent $6 million from his personal fortune on his mayoral campaign, and not backed by rich L.A. public-employee unions, as are Greuel and Garcetti, Pleitez still owed $10,000 from his 2009 congressional run.
Without the cash to buy costly, $40,000-and-up “likely voter” contact lists, as do almost all leading mayoral candidates, Pleitez has used his Spokeo data-mining knowledge to find those voters' names, addresses and contact numbers himself. He went directly to state, county and city databases and bought the raw information — for $2,000 — then had his college-grad crowd crunch the numbers to devise their own, secret, high-propensity voter lists.
“I worked at a data company. I know how to do this,” Pleitez says, describing his team as “much more tech-savvy and social media–savvy” than those of his mayoral rivals.
But the clincher was getting the Serna brothers, Piotrowski and their young colleagues to take a chance on him. Their payment would be a lowly $400 monthly stipend and free room and board in a gangbanger neighborhood in South Los Angeles.
It's Friday night — “Beer Night” at the Pleitez campaign's sleeping quarters in South L.A. Several young guys are standing in a circle outside the “back house” in which 12 male campaign staffers live. Booger the cat, a mascot who appears to be pregnant, is skulking around. Piotrowski and John Hill, Pleitez's 22-year-old communications director, who just finished at Harvard, are laughing. The young women staffers, for the most part, are hanging out in the front house.
Piotrowski, an easy-talking University of Virginia graduate who triple-majored in economics, history and math, found what they have dubbed “the house” last July. The two structures are on one lot, and both are furnished with mattresses, light stands and couches bought cheaply and quickly on Craigslist.
Normally, everyone is phone canvassing at campaign HQ in Boyle Heights or knocking on doors in Pico-Union, Watts, Lincoln Heights, Arlington Heights, Silver Lake, the east San Fernando Valley or Echo Park — but not on the Westside. Pleitez aims to win a chunk of the Latino vote, and there aren't enough rich pockets of “likely voter” Latinos in Westside haunts like West L.A., Brentwood or the Fairfax District.
The campaign staffers, known as “fellows,” have spent time in some very heavy neighborhoods. “We've never had any problems with violence,” Piotrowski says, “but that was always my biggest fear.”
Besides friends and friends of friends, the fellows include scores of young people attracted by the online ads Pleitez ran — to a mass response. Pleitez's director of human services, Lupe Chavez, 24, who works with Rebecca Pleitez's younger sister, Laura Medina, to keep recruiting volunteers and fellows, says the response still surprises him: “How they found the fellowship is always a bit of a question.”
Chavez, a UC Santa Barbara graduate whose parents emigrated from Mexico, says fellows willing to get on the plane the next day often got the job. Hill, a champion high school debater who studied East Asian international relations at Harvard, was one of them. “Emanuel said he's really here for all communities, and for some reason I believed him,” Hill says. “He seemed sincere.”
Others on the team include Iraq vet and former U.S. Marine Jeremy Mazur, 27; Erin Fair, 28, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union; Anita Dharapuram, 43, an executive director at a nonprofit; Matt Plaks, 21, a student at Harvard; and Jocelyn Sida, 23, who is heading to Stanford Law School.
Pleitez believes you should be able to win a major political office by paying smart, hard-charging 20-somethings to carry out a strong, grassroots campaign on the ground and by phone, not by hiring pricey strategists. “We're focused on contacting voters,” Pleitez says, “not on overhead and high-paid consultants.”
That idea is likely to bite Pleitez come March 5. “There are things you have to know that you can't get through natural smarts or osmosis,” strategist South says. “Running a mayoral campaign for the second-largest city in the country is not a do-it-yourself operation.” He says a high-profile, paid advertising campaign is a must, but Pleitez can't afford to buy radio time or put his name on paid slate mailers. “You can't do a ground operation alone,” South says. “It doesn't work.”
Pleitez did buy the services of NationBuilder, a software program that promises to help grassroots activists and politicians organize community-based campaigns with the precision seen in Obama's presidential campaigns. Founded by Jim Gilliam, Joe Green and Jesse Haff in Los Angeles, NationBuilder helps build a supporter database, set follow-up contacts with those supporters, create lists of VIPs and track the outreach results of campaign organizers. Garcetti bought NationBuilder for his run for mayor, as did many City Council candidates and LAUSD school board candidates.
At each day's end, Pleitez's fellows feed voter names, addresses and phone numbers into NationBuilder so the candidate and his top staff can see their progress in contacting residents of South L.A. and the Eastside. His team has achieved something impressive for a “kiddie campaign,” knocking on more than 40,000 doors and making 200,000 calls to likely and high-propensity, mostly Latino and black voters.
Says Piotrowski, “It helped us to get up to speed quickly. NationBuilder is very fashionable now for campaigns to try.”
Like Kevin James, the moderate gay Republican attorney and radio host who is running a dark-horse campaign for mayor — and, according to many in the heavily Democratic audiences around town, has won several debates — Pleitez is captivated by the mathematical fact that just 25 percent of the vote is needed in a five-way primary to win a spot in the two-person May 21 runoff for Los Angeles mayor.
Longtime political analyst Jaime Regalado says, “It's all possible, but it's highly unlikely. Something big needs to happen, like a huge scandal involving one of the top two candidates” — Greuel or Garcetti. Still, Regalado finds it “exciting that someone that young is running for the second largest city in the country. … It's a good example for other young people — that they can run a campaign and not be part of the political establishment.”
Pleitez takes the wheel of a blue 1996 Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan and lets loose. He's not reckless, but he likes to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, which some say mimics his political ambitions. Maybe win a Los Angeles City Council seat first, then aim for higher office? Nah, let's run straight-out for mayor.
On a recent morning, he drives down the faded streets of El Sereno, pointing out where a friend was murdered or where someone sold homemade tacos to make ends meet — or where he and his buddies had fun running up a grassy hill, careful not to go too high because that's where the gangbangers hung out.
“Whenever you were confronted,” Pleitez recalls, “you had to say, 'I don't bang.' You had to say like that, 'I don't bang.' With assertiveness.”
On one major thoroughfare, the mostly Latino residents are walking to the store or standing and waiting for the bus to arrive. “There are a bunch of folks going through tough times,” he says, “and they feel no one is paying attention to them. Growing up in El Sereno made me fearless. … I feel fearless and I feel a responsibility.”
Correction: The original story incorrectly identified Paul Volcker as Treasury Secretary. Volcker was chairman of the federal Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Reilly T. Bates contributed to this story.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.