MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA went to Hollywood last week to welcome the newest member of Team Villaraigosa, a candidate seeking one of the comfiest pieces of political furniture available to liberal Democrats in Sacramento — the seat being vacated by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg.

As if to oblige the mayor, union organizer Kevin de León showed up at Selma Avenue Elementary School in a charcoal-gray suit nearly identical to one worn by the politician next to him, City Councilman José Huizar — another rising political star who won an election last year with the mayor’s blessing.

“They’re both wearing the same exact suits. Can you believe this? The same exact suits,” joked Villaraigosa, moments after schoolchildren had chanted “De-Le-On! De-Le-On!” “You’re part of the team,” he added.

One day earlier, another progressive Democrat learned the hard way that she won’t be joining Team Villaraigosa. Tenants’-rights activist Elena Popp, who is also running for Goldberg’s seat in the June 6 primary, received a call from Villaraigosa deputy chief of staff Jimmy Blackman telling her that the mayor would back de León.

Popp, 47, thought she might lose the mayor’s endorsement, since she publicly opposed his plan for taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District. But by the time Popp hung up, she concluded that the deciding factor — and perhaps the most important team member of all — was Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a childhood friend of de León’s who made the campaign a top priority.

“Jimmy Blackman specifically told me that Fabian Nuñez asked the mayor for three endorsements, and made it clear that there was an A-list and a C-list,” Popp said. “The only one on the A-list was Kevin de León, and if the mayor was going to make one decision, it was going to be Kevin.”

Nuñez and the mayor have been casting long shadows over the five-way race for the Democratic nomination in the 45th Assembly District, which includes Echo Park, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights, and which served as a political launching pad for Villaraigosa, who won the seat in 1994 after working for United Teachers Los Angeles. De León’s opponents say Sacramento power brokers — industry groups, unions and other lawmakers — have been aggressively currying Nuñez’s favor by pouring money and endorsements into de León’s State Assembly bid.

With Goldberg finishing her third and final term, a quintet of Democrats have descended from across the state to run for the seat. Nuñez favors de León, a resident of Angeleno Heights who spent seven years working for the San Jose–based California Teachers Association. Goldberg endorsed Popp, a Lincoln Heights resident who is openly lesbian. And Sacramento political consultant Richie Ross, who has a stable of candidates running against the Nuñez camp, fielded Christine Chavez, granddaughter of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

Rounding out the field is college instructor Gabriel Buelna, a resident of Mount Washington who spent three years heading Proyecto Pastoral at the Dolores Mission, and Oscar Gutierrez, who ran against Goldberg as a Republican two years ago but has since re-registered as a Democrat. Because the district is overwhelmingly registered Democrat, the primary winner is a shoo-in for November.

Four of the five candidates are left-of-center Democrats with a background in organizing. De León is on leave from the CTA, where he worked on its campaign to defeat the governor’s four ballot measures in November. Chavez spent eight years as political director for the UFW, campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis and, more recently, for Villaraigosa. Popp spent 13 years with the Legal Aid Foundation before joining the Eviction Defense Network, working on behalf of tenants being evicted from Lincoln Place in Venice.

Each of the leading candidates favors increased spending in the classroom and a plan for creating a universal health-care system statewide. The major issue on which the candidates differ is the one linked to Villaraigosa — a mayoral takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

De León, whose bosses at the CTA oppose mayoral control, has refused to take a position on Villaraigosa’s plan, saying for weeks that he is still researching it. On the day he received Villaraigosa’s endorsement, de León said he still lacked a copy of the plan, which was unveiled weeks earlier at the mayor’s State of the City speech and appeared on the front pages of three daily newspapers.

Even as he avoided Villaraigosa’s signature issue, de León disputed the allegation that friendship won him the mayor’s backing. “I have a great relationship with the mayor that goes back to 1994,” he said. “We come from the same family. He comes from UTLA. I come from CTA. We’re going to work in concert, as coalition builders, to improve our public schools.”

Chavez also had no position on the Villaraigosa plan, even as she issued a statement saying she is “committed to helping him in his historic effort to reform Los Angeles schools.” Popp opposes mayoral control, saying she does not see how it will improve public schools. Buelna offered the most complex response, saying he supports the concept of an elected school board but believes that it should mirror the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which offers four seats for the mayor of Los Angeles.

With four weeks left in the campaign, de León’s contributions now exceed $500,000, a war chest that includes several donations from his colleagues at the CTA and a number of contributions from Villaraigosa supporters, including $6,600 from businessman Richard Meruelo — the largest individual donor to Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral bid. By comparison, Chavez, Popp and Buelna had each raised less than half that amount.

De León’s enormous financial advantage has already allowed him to produce a glossy eight-page brochure introducing him to voters, followed by a more compact, 12-page mailer spelling out his philosophy on public schools — and offering no mention of mayoral control. However, the financial mismatch did not discourage Buelna, who argued that de León has spent too little time in the district to leave an impression on voters.

“In terms of Sacramento, they think they’ve bought the election,” Buelna said. “But in terms of voters, this is not a done deal.”

Buelna, 33, argued that he is much more acquainted with the district than the other candidates. Popp, in turn, portrayed herself as a champion of impoverished families, saying she forced slumlords to address substandard housing and filed a lawsuit that resulted in the preservation of 1.5 million units of affordable housing.

Chavez, 34, is trading heavily on her ties to United Farm Workers, arguing that her work as an organizer sets her apart from the other candidates. A resident of City Terrace, Chavez said she will use her skills to bring together disparate communities from Historic Filipinotown to Hollywood. “Coming out of an organization like UFW, we’ll be able to build a coalition with all the different groups in this community,” she said.

DESPITE HER TIES TO THE UFW, Chavez refused to discuss the spate of news articles that have criticized her organization as failing to adhere to the principles of her grandfather. Asked about Villaraigosa’s decision to endorse de León, Chavez referred a reporter to a written statement her campaign issued days earlier.

“Unfortunately, before I entered the race Mayor Villaraigosa had made a commitment to Speaker Fabian Nuñez to support Fabian’s friend from high school,” said the statement.

Popp did not go so quietly, saying she attended an endorsement interview at City Hall, where the mayor told her that she was the most qualified but that he felt a loyalty to Nuñez. A similar message was delivered weeks later by Maria Elena Durazo, the interim head of the County Federation of Labor, Popp said.

“What you should do is look at our qualifications,” she said. “And if, at the end of the analysis, you think that I am more qualified, and yet Kevin got the endorsement of his childhood friend and other folks associated with his childhood friend, then what is that, if not a boys’ network?”

Asked whether he had placed friendship over qualifications, Villaraigosa provided a two-word answer: “Absolutely not.”

Nuñez gave a lengthier, yet similar, response: “I certainly respect every other candidate in the race. The 45th always produces good candidates,” he said. “But Kevin, in my view, is the best qualified.”

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