The air in the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts crackled with electricity Tuesday night as incumbent Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar prepared to debate first-time candidate — and reputed long-time, but now former friend — Rudy Martinez.
Latecomers jostled for standing space against the walls as every seat was filled in what promised to be a real donnybrook. Martinez supporters shoved leaflets in their neighbors’ hands, decrying, for example, that Huizar had failed to deal with graffiti at the Police Museum on York Boulevard in a timely manner while stacks of Huizar yard signs could be seen in the back of the room.
An old hand in the row behind us said it was the dirtiest campaign she had seen since Antonio Villaraigosa challenged Nick Pacheco for this same CD-14 City Council seat nearly a decade ago. “But that’s how politics goes in Northeast LA,” she said.
A roomful of people — approaching 200 folks in all — paying rapt attention? Camera crews and reporters from the three network affiliates, the LA Times, and several local papers in attendance? Watchful political operatives scanning the crowd for telltale signs? A whole row of bloggers and photographers along one side scribbling and filming and giving each other knowing looks? The candidates’ families in anxious attendance? Debating for a city council seat on a lovely, brisk evening when a thousand distractions beckoned from other corners of the city?
What could be better for democracy?
And in a district where voter turnout in off-cycle elections like the one that will take place on March 8th has dipped to 8 percent, it was good for democracy, even if it didn’t turn out to be the knock-down, drag-out brawl some in the crowd had come to witness.
A Political Bullet
If it had been intentional, the crowd-building draw could not have been more effective. In what reportedly has been a rancorous campaign on both sides, the ugliest blow came late last week, when Huizar’s campaign staffer, Michael Trujillo, circulated an email message that suggested a “political bullet” be put between Martinez’s eyes.
In another season, that would have been an exceedingly dumb move, no matter how inexperienced the campaign staffer. But now, weeks after the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shooting, that horrible gaffe was the biggest “kick me” sign imaginable. Huizar promptly fired the consultant, but many came to the debate to hear about fallout from the incident.
The air quickly went out of the room, however, when Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council President Michael Larsen got the two candidates to take a pledge of civility, which both candidates seemed relieved to honor. Indeed, Huizar took his first opportunity at the podium to extend an apology to his opponent, his opponent’s mother, and to the community, acknowledging that such attacks had no place in the campaign and expressing what the crowd seemed to accept as heartfelt regret.
Then the two men settled down to a game of political croquet. Polite in the extreme, never stepping on each other’s toes or interrupting or objecting, with nary an angry glance or hot word exchanged between them, each man answered the questions posed in turn with the earnest gravity of high school debate club members. You half expected them to retire to the veranda for a cold glass of lemonade afterwards.
And if croquet had a scorecard like boxing, Jose Huizar won every round — a unanimous decision, if not a technical knockout.
What Makes Rudy Run?
Rudy Martinez came across as an affable man, a dedicated family man, the kind of guy you’d like to know. He’s the host of the A&E TV show “Flip This House,” and you can see how he’d be good in front of the camera. He’s a restaurateur, owner of Mia Sushi in Eagle Rock and Marty’s Bar in Highland Park, and you can see him in that role, too, welcoming customers with a firm handshake and a big smile, dealing with the wait staff with patience and tact, hobnobbing with his fellow business owners, reassuring his bankers that he’s running a going concern.
But as a political candidate, he’s not ready for prime time — at least to judge from this single performance. He hadn’t done his homework and he didn’t present a coherent plan. He offered only two real assets: he’s “rooted in Eagle Rock,” meaning he lives in that part of the Council District 14 and Huizar, his wife, and their four children do not. Second, he’s a businessman — as he worked in every response during the 90-minute debate — and he’ll make Northeast Los Angeles more business-friendly, cleaning up the streets, chasing away the streetcorner vendors, closing down noisome massage parlors.
But how you would go about revitalizing the city, Martinez generally didn’t know the ins and outs of government to indicate that he could actually get something done. For instance, both candidates want to curtail the proliferation of medical marijuana headshops and massage parlors that have flooded into the district. Huizar discussed his efforts to work with the City Attorney Carmen Trutanich on closing down illegal headshops and was working with the State Assembly to give local communities control over massage parlor licenses. Martinez could only say that he would do something about it, though you couldn’t quite imagine what that would be. In fairness, Huizar is the sitting councilman and deals with these issues day in and day out, while Martinez has his businesses to run.
But why would Martinez want to run against a firmly established incumbent, investing a rumored $175,000 of his own money into the campaign? Perhaps he’s not running to win this time, but next time. Huizar no doubt has his eyes on other offices, so Martinez may be taking the opportunity to learn the ropes. He’s getting lots of practice in running a campaign, conducting debates like the one Tuesday night, recruiting and organizing volunteers, and walking precincts. He’s already doing a good job with the yesterday’s approach of stuffing district mailboxes with brightly colored campaign mailers. His most recent mailer nicely darkens and roughens Huizar’s skin to make him look like a thuggish candidate for a “Godfather” poster, so Martinez evidently is a quick learner.
Huizar Came Prepared
Of course, Huizar has run in and won several campaigns — for LA’s Unified School Board and twice for his current Council seat — so he already knows those ropes. He talked of focusing on public safety, working on projects to improve major cross streets Colorado Boulevard and York Boulevard more attractive to business, improving education, and improving the community services his office provides to district residents.
On how he would deal with the City’s $350 million budget deficit, however, he was as short on specifics as was his opponent. He did indicate that he would work to get the DASH buses back into his community — smaller buses that serve local neighborhoods — and he discussed how he was working with Occidental College in his district to get it more involved in the surrounding neighborhoods and in collaborating on the development of the Southwest Museum.
Huizar has evidently prepared himself for a life in politics and you sense he has a passion for it. With an advanced degree in urban planning, experience as a land use attorney who then took a dramatic pay cut to become president of LA’s school board, and then several terms on the City Council, you leave the debate thinking that he knows what he’s doing, is doing it well in difficult times, and is looking for bigger challenges down the road.
Editor, LA Progressive