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Los Angeles | Patt Morrison

'84 Olympics Boxing Medalist Now Fights for a Council Seat

February 25, 2003|Patt Morrison

He is earnest and polite and modest. His hair is carefully trimmed, and his necktie is immaculately knotted. He listens meekly when the abuelitas, the old ladies, bend his ear with their complaints.

Ask about his mother, and his eyes grow a little moist. Closing in on 40 years old, he drinks hot chocolate when everyone else is having coffee.

So what is a nice boy like Paul Gonzales doing in politics? And in the deep end of the pool, too, a candidate in the costliest, edgiest race in town, for the 14th City Council District?

I ask him this as we sit at a table at El Sol, a bright little Eastside restaurant between two freeways, and he gives the kind of answer that puts lumps in the throats of high school civics teachers: "I'm going to make the people realize they can empower themselves ... to make sure when I get to City Hall, the community feels they've got one of their own there. And isn't that what democracy is all about, being able to reach for the stars?"

What Paul Gonzales brings to the election is a different thing from what he brings to his neighborhood on the city's Eastside.

His electoral experience is pretty much a big goose egg. He hasn't ever heard the phrase "free media" -- campaign-speak for press coverage; it drives his volunteer staff nutty that he won't let the TV news cameras in when he reads to old people, or when he puts on the gloves when he works with the gangbanging boys over at the Hollenbeck Youth Center and lets them land a punch for the bragging rights of having laid a glove on an Olympic champion.

He has raised maybe $15,000 -- doughnut money to most campaigns -- but he mails back campaign contributions that don't seem on the up and up. He is genuinely puzzled at why someone tore down scores of his posters and stapled them illegally to bus benches. When the MTA threatened his campaign with $5,000 a month advertising fees per bench because of it, he and his team were out until 2 a.m. one day last week, driving all over the district, pulling the signs off the benches. His fingers are still perforated from staple stabs.

But there is that other thing, the one he brings to the neighborhood, glowing like the horizon sun -- the Olympic gold medal for boxing that he won in 1984, right here in L.A. Paul Gonzales, the pride of East L.A., the son of Boyle Heights, the kid out of the projects. There's a mural of him, big as Godzilla, on the wall of the Victor Clothing Co. on Broadway. He is a favorite son in a neighborhood where sons too often go to prison, and sons die young.

He was almost one of those himself, a peewee gangbanger whose cousin once picked the shotgun pellets out of his scalp with tweezers after a drive-by.

And then a granite-fisted cop named Al Stankie invites the kid to the police station's gym to go a few rounds in the ring. The kid agrees, warily, and crawls in through a broken window so his pals won't see him consorting with cops and finger him for a snitch. By the time he comes out, he is still a fighter, but one with a future.

He was a light flyweight in the Olympics, and now in politics, he is too -- matched against a pair of heavyweights, council member Nick Pacheco and former Assembly Speaker and mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

A Highland Park newspaper ran a photo composite showing them as the stars of the film "The Three Amigos," Gonzales promising to "fight, fight, fight for you!!" But while the other two have been respectful of Gonzales, it's clear they regard each other as the main event.

That's nothing to Gonzales; "I've been an underdog all my life. This is familiar territory."

Pacheco, at a candidate forum in Highland Park one night last week, said he'd focus on legislative records, "mine at the council level, Mr. Villaraigosa at the state level, Paul -- I'm sorry, Paul, you don't have a legislative record yet, but you'll get one," he said, patting Gonzales on the shoulder.

Gonzales shook his head at the audience and sighed; "They keep doing it."

Gonzales would say the job of a council member is not about the "how" first, but about the heart.

"I don't have all the answers, but I'm just going to be honest with people." He knows people feel left out, and when he speaks about their common concerns -- why can't people feel safe going out at night, why do people have to leave the neighborhood to find malls and movies, why can't kids find after-school jobs to keep them on the straight and narrow -- the crowd nods.

OK, but then what? That's when the job gets hard, and that's when he admits he's not a politician, but says that when he gets to the council, then he'll get the experience -- like sports, it's something you learn by doing it.

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