LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCILMAN Jose Huizar made a major name for himself at City Hall this year, in large part by joining Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s push to take over L.A.’s public schools. Standing at the mayor’s side, the affable Princeton graduate told anyone who would listen that L.A. Unified is an educational basket case, a place that will not thrive without the strong hand of city government.
Huizar seemed like a guy who would know. After all, he’d seen the district from the inside, spending four years on the school board before joining the council in December 2005. Yet there were lingering doubts too: How could Huizar blast an institution that had been his political home without also taking some of the blame for its shortcomings? And if things were that bad at L.A. Unified, why should anyone expect Huizar, who spent two years as school-board president, to do a better job at City Hall?
Then something poetic happened in Huizar’s Eastside council District 14, which stretches from the hilltop homes of Mount Washington to the desperate squalor of Skid Row. One of Huizar’s aides, Alvin Parra, abruptly quit his job, announcing 90 minutes before the November 11 candidate-filing deadline that he would challenge his boss in the March 6 election.
In short, the 38-year-old Parra pulled a Huizar. Just as Huizar had been talking smack about a school bureaucracy where he had been top dog — serving as the powerful school-board president — Parra began pulling back the curtain on Huizar’s many missteps during his first year in office. Parra, who handled the calls from council District 14 residents on everything from cracked roads to dumped furniture, dinged Huizar for doing a lousy job on what is known in City Hall as “constituent service.”
Now, turning on one’s boss might look shifty under normal circumstances. But in the Villaraigosa era, with candidates routinely caving to pressure from the powers that be to drop their campaigns, Parra has miraculously come off as a profile in courage. That’s especially true now that Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez and City Hall insider Felipe Fuentes — each worried about the blowback from challenging veteran pol Richard Alarcón — abandoned their own bids for City Council.
Parra, a three-time candidate with suitcases full of political baggage, has been telling anyone who will listen that eight other Huizar employees have also left their jobs in the past year, making it nearly impossible for the staff to serve people living and working in Huizar’s district. Parra said Huizar was less interested in this thankless but omnipresent side of city business — painting out graffiti, cleaning up blight and visiting homicide scenes — and more engaged in traveling to Japan with the mayor.
In fact, Parra argued that Huizar has been as effective at City Hall as he was at L.A. Unified — which is to say, not at all.
“He behaved the same way when he was in the school board,” said the soft-spoken Parra. “He was condescending to the constituents. He did not want to spend a lot of time with them. He works hard when it comes to media events, but he doesn’t roll up his sleeves when it comes to the policy work. He loved the schmoozing and the power lunches. That, he worked hard for.”
So now voters in the 14th District face another ugly election, the third in four years in a district known for ugly elections. District 14 was the original seat of Latino clout — in 1985 elevating to office the Machiavellian Richard Alatorre, the first Latino on the council in 23 years, and serving as a citywide springboard for power players such as Villaraigosa. The district has seen so much upheaval that if Parra wins, he’ll be the district’s fifth councilman in eight years. That scenario is seen as the longest of long shots, since Huizar, like Villaraigosa, is highly skilled in fund-raising, grabbing media attention and getting elected.
The election could actually make a difference in the 14th, which serves as a hub of L.A.’s emerging immigrant middle class. The district ranges from the tony cafés of Eagle Rock to the working families of El Sereno. Blight and lack of economic investment are constant worries. And while homicides are down 20 percent in the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division, which takes in Boyle Heights, robberies are up 20 percent, with 459 so far this year.
Alatorre, a veteran pol who represented the district until 1999, understood clearly that nuts-and-bolts services are the key to political survival. His successor, Councilman Nick Pacheco, attended to residents’ needs but on a broader scale was politically inept, losing to Villaraigosa. Villaraigosa promised to serve a full four years and then reneged, spending much of his two years as councilman running for mayor and leaving the district in the lurch yet again. Huizar is now polishing off Villaraigosa’s unfinished term.
Parra, a longtime El Sereno resident, promised to refocus the council office on crime and constituent service. Huizar, on the other hand, labeled Parra as a hothead who let the district down. “We demoted him because we recognized that he wasn’t responsive to constituents,” Huizar said. “He was making his own major decisions in the field without running them through the proper authority — well, without running them by me, let’s put it that way.”
Yet even Huizar’s allies say the councilman’s first year has been rocky. Within months, he demoted his chief of staff and replaced him with Joe Avila, a veteran City Hall policy analyst best known for his scrutiny of the Department of Water and Power. Avila, a newbie in the district, quickly committed a faux pas, telling a crowd of volunteers in Glassell Park that he was thrilled to be in Eagle Rock. But Helene Schpak, a Huizar supporter who lives in Glassell Park, said the councilman is trying to turn things around.
“I was up-front with him about the fact that we didn’t think that his staff was quite up to snuff,” Schpak said. “I was there with a friend, and we were as polite as we could be about it, but we were also direct. And he said he was working on it.”
Huizar isn’t taking any chances. After Parra’s surprise entry into the race, Huizar quickly shifted into fund-raising mode, vacuuming up as much cash as possible from development interests that appear before the council’s powerful planning panel, on which Huizar is vice chairman. Huizar has already scheduled one mid-December fund-raiser with bare-knuckled land-use lobbyist Ben Reznik playing host. The event is the second $500-per-ticket fund-raiser held by Huizar at Reznik’s office this year.
Huizar has already voted in favor of one Reznik client, who is at odds with the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance over a hillside home project. Reznik also represents Geoff Palmer, the bottom-feeding apartment builder who has refused to follow the city’s affordable-housing rules — and whose cases frequently go before Huizar’s committee.
Huizar stumbled once in a high-profile way when he carried Villaraigosa’s water on an unpopular Skid Row homeless legal settlement that would have allowed the city to legalize overnight homeless encampments in one tiny section of downtown. Councilwoman Jan Perry persuaded her colleagues to reject the settlement, telling them that they would never put up with such encampments in their own districts.
But Parra has his own problems. He hasn’t overcome a reputation as someone naive in the way of politics — which may explain his boneheaded effort to get Eli Broad to fund his wife’s 2002 school-board bid. Furthermore, even those who backed Huizar’s opponent last time aren’t ready for another change. After all, they’re still tracking the comings and goings of Huizar’s aides.
“Oh my God, practically half of his staff left,” said Rosa Rivas, who lives in the neighborhood known as Garvanza. “I don’t know if they were fired or what happened to them. So here we go, another change. And maybe that’s why projects are not finished.”
Rivas said that Huizar is finally showing up at community events, now that he has a challenger. And other longtime activists describe Parra’s candidacy as a well-timed political gift. Just as Huizar was starting to get lazy, they say, he has been forced to prove himself again. That means that even if Parra’s campaign craters, Huizar will have no choice but to be responsive — at least for now.
“He’s going to be handing out favors like lollipops,” said one community activist.