Christina Correia is one of those people who's not supposed to exist in Los Angeles. She's hyper-engaged in local affairs, passionate about the fate of her community, and a real pain in the neck when she wants her street paved.
Correia lives at the top of Hillsdale Drive in Monterey Hills, near El Sereno, and for years she has been growing fed up with her city councilman, Jose Huizar. Every time she sees a new check-cashing business or shabby billboard, she gets a little more aggravated.
"As far as I'm concerned, Revolution Street in Tijuana looks better than Huntington Drive," she says. "Why can't we have a movie theater? Why can't we have a Coffee Bean?"
Last summer, she was among the first to urge L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina to run against Huizar. Molina, 66, is a generation older than Huizar, who is 46. She served in the California legislature and then the L.A. City Council in the 1980s. After a 23-year run on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, she was termed out, and looking to spend more time quilting, a passion of hers. But in September, she made a surprise announcement that she would challenge Huizar.
Molina had never been impressed with Huizar. She kept hearing complaints that he couldn't handle simple things such as cleaning an alley or fixing a sidewalk. And when they interacted, she found him to be poorly informed.
"It got to be a little annoying," she says. "People have been talking to me about it for a long time. Now that I've been walking door-to-door, it's more severe than I thought. The requests these people are making are so basic."
The battle in the 14th Council District is a rare heavyweight bout in L.A. politics. The candidates could not be more evenly matched. A poll in December showed Huizar and Molina tied at 37 percent. It's possible that neither will win a majority in the March 3 primary — there are three lesser-known candidates on the ballot — in which case they would face one another again in a May 19 runoff.
Molina is a pioneering figure in Eastside politics. She was the first Latina in the Assembly, on the L.A. City Council and on the Board of Supervisors. No more than 5 feet tall, she is a formidable presence, known for her thorough grasp of policy, her sharp tongue and her fierce independence.
Huizar belongs to the Joshua generation of L.A. Latino leaders, which built on the advances of those who came before. He's more polished than Molina, and more collaborative. The son of a farm worker, he was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and grew up in Boyle Heights. He attended UC Berkeley and Princeton University before getting a law degree at UCLA.
At 32, he was elected to the LAUSD Board of Education. When Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor four years later, Huizar won the special election to fill his council seat. Huizar was close to Villaraigosa, and once was talked of as a possible future mayor.
The intervening decade has dulled some of his golden-boy sheen. His reputation suffered due to an affair with his deputy chief of staff. She filed a sexual harassment suit against him, resulting in a confidential settlement. And in 2012, he rear-ended a car. In a settlement, taxpayers ended up paying $185,000 for the other driver's medical care.
But Huizar remains formidable. His district stretches from Eagle Rock to downtown and includes gentrifying Highland Park and El Sereno. Many constituents credit him with improving their communities, and they see no reason to toss him out.
"It's undeniable, the work I've done," Huizar says. "Ms. Molina may have miscalculated the support I have in the district."
Huizar's supporters point to such things as a $1 million cleanup of a lake in Boyle Heights, 19 acres of open space preserved in El Sereno and a historic preservation zone in Highland Park. "First Street has improved a lot," says Tony Zapata of Boyle Heights. "I've been here 34 years and, compared to what it was, it's really coming up."
Huizar's supporters say he is accessible and responsive when problems arise.
"He values our input," says Ray Rios, president of the Hillside Village Property Owners Association. "He runs projects through us and many other groups. I would say he's listened to us."
Because Huizar is the incumbent, the election is a referendum on his tenure. Campaign contributors, including both business and labor groups, seem satisfied — he has received $1 million–plus in contributions and independent expenditures, dwarfing the $150,000 Molina has raised.
But some are disenchanted, and they form the core of Molina's supporters. John Nese, owner of Galco Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park, is mad that Huizar turned a traffic lane on York Boulevard into a bike lane, which he says causes congestion.
"Immediately after, you could feel a drop in business," Nese says. "They did not consult the businesses at all."
Another Molina supporter, Giovanna Rebagliati, said Huizar did a poor job handling her complaints about warehouse raves held near her downtown home.
"They would go until 7 a.m., and they were still selling alcohol," she says. A Huizar aide came out to investigate but didn't follow up. "He said, 'I will get back to you, I will get back to you,' and they never did."
Huizar says his office strives to return every call, but that Molina "has to hang her hat on something. ... I'll win hands down if that's her only issue." As for the bike lanes, he says he did what most people wanted.
Huizar has an easier argument to make. He can point to the revitalization of commercial corridors, declining crime rates and the downtown renaissance. Molina has to argue that the improvements aren't good enough — that development is haphazard and poorly planned.
At one debate, she said the community is "not clean," noting that dirty furniture is left on the streets and businesses sell refrigerators on the sidewalks.
In mailers, Molina also has attacked Huizar over his affair.
"I don't know all the details, nor do I wish to know any of the details, but at the end of the day, legal fees were paid," Molina says. "This is not responsible leadership."
Huizar says that while the affair clearly is an issue for some voters, many are inclined to treat it as a personal matter.
"I should have never put myself or this office in a situation like that," he says. "I'm working it out with my wife. People respect that, more often than not."
Indeed, many of his supporters don't seem to care much.
"I'm not his wife, so I'm not gonna judge him for what he does," says Vera Del Pozo of Boyle Heights. "You start throwing stones, you're not going to have enough stones around."
In debates, Huizar also has gone on the attack, claiming Molina failed to solicit community input about a controversial parking garage proposed for Mariachi Plaza.
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"She doesn't take community input," Huizar says. "So I'm shocked she would accuse me of not getting community input on the bike lanes."
Over the years, Huizar says, he'd gotten used to being scolded by Molina — something he says was a common experience for elected officials.
"That's her approach," he says. "We are preached to. We are told what we should do. It's not a two-way conversation."
Now that they are debating on equal footing, he says, "This is a very different role for her. She doesn't like when I question her facts and her views. She's not used to that."