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Contenders in an Eastside Brawl

November 10, 2002|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Voting for the City Council seat representing Los Angeles' Eastside is still four months away, but I already know who the favored candidate should be: former boxer Paul Gonzales. The campaign in the 14th District is shaping up as a real brawl, and nobody in the field has won as many fights as Gonzales.

Granted, there are candidates in the 14th District -- which sprawls from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock -- who are better known in political circles than Gonzales, whose Olympic gold medal was one of the great stories of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

Last week, one of the city's political heavyweights, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, announced that he wants to represent the district where he grew up. He enters the ring with the formidable aura of a candidate who, in 2001, was nearly elected the city's first Latino mayor in a century. His mayoral campaign earned him broad citywide support. But, much as it may surprise the many Angelenos who know Villaraigosa but don't know the Eastside, his campaign will be no coronation.

Another serious contender is Alvin Parra, a well-regarded aide to L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina who has run for the council before. Molina lives in the 14th District and could wield a lot of clout on Parra's behalf if she decides to get involved.

Then there is the small matter of incumbent Councilman Nick Pacheco, who has represented the district for four years. Pacheco has suffered by comparison to his predecessor, Richard Alatorre, who remained popular on his home turf even when he was embroiled in citywide scandals that eventually forced him into early retirement. But Pacheco still has the advantages of incumbency. He has also shown a willingness to use rough campaign tactics in the past -- one reason political analysts expect the campaign to get nasty.

There has never been any love lost between Villaraigosa and Pacheco, who was one of the few Latino officials to back James K. Hahn against Villaraigosa.

In fact, one of the sleazier incidents of the mayoral campaign involved a nonprofit group controlled by Pacheco. That agency used its telephone banks to place automated calls to voters in which a woman impersonating Molina attacked Villaraigosa for purportedly supporting legislation that favored rapists and child molesters.

The incident so angered Molina, who was a Villaraigosa supporter, that she asked Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to investigate. The D.A.'s office decided not to prosecute anyone involved, but Cooley's report pointedly stated that the individuals responsible should be taken to task in "the court of public opinion."

Mindful of that possibility, Pacheco claimed credit for prodding the agency staffer who knew about the attack calls to cooperate with the district attorney.

But none of this means the 14th District race has to get as dirty as everyone fears. First, any candidates who play rough could wind up losing as much voter support as they gain. Simply ponder the low voter turnout in last week's statewide election, where so many California voters were put off by Gov. Gray Davis' attacks on Republican Bill Simon that they simply didn't vote for either man.

Another reason the 14th District race may stay upbeat is the presence of a popular nonpolitical candidate like Gonzales. He brings the neophyte's sunny idealism to what could otherwise be a twilight struggle among veteran political warhorses.

Since retiring from professional boxing, Gonzales has worked as an actor and motivational speaker, and he spends time coaching young people at Hollenbeck Youth Center, the police-sponsored gym and community center where he first learned to box.

"I respect all of my opponents," Gonzales said. "That's why I'm glad Antonio got into the race and why I told Nick I would be running." Politically naive? Perhaps. But former boxers can make good referees, reminding other contestants to refrain from low blows.

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