At left, Councilman Jose Huizar with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
The nastiest race in the March 8 Los Angeles election boils down to one question, and it has nothing to do with the budget crisis, tax hikes or who is the better candidate.
Even those who have closely watched the negative campaign between City Councilman Jose Huizar and his opponent, businessman Rudy Martinez, want to know: What made two friends become such mortal enemies?
Martinez and Huizar have spent three months attacking each other in an Eastside district that takes in Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Eagle Rock, bringing up inquiries by the LAPD, the Los Angeles County district attorney and the FBI as they attempt to demolish each other's reputations.
The campaign's bilious tone has caused even some die-hard Huizar supporters to recoil.
"I think it's shamefully dirty," said Wendi Riser, a resident of the Hermon district who plans to vote for the councilman. "They're fighting it out like junior high boys with nice suits on."
Yet it wasn't always this way.
Four years ago, Huizar felt close enough to Martinez that he staged his swearing-in ceremony at Marty's, a lounge bar Martinez owns in Highland Park. Before that, he asked Martinez to find tenants for his hillside rental house in El Sereno. And before that, he relied on Martinez to refinance his Boyle Heights home.
Martinez, for his part, once named a sushi roll at his Eagle Rock restaurant after Huizar. His mother worked in Huizar's office for four years. And Martinez received no fewer than four ornate certificates of recognition from Huizar, including one in August 2008 for helping raise money for the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness.
Six months later, Martinez began assembling a campaign to unseat Huizar.
Democratic Party consultant Bill Carrick said he cannot remember a race in Los Angeles in which two people went from social get-togethers to scorched-earth campaigning. But he was not surprised that a fight between two friends had become so nasty.
"The closer that two candidates are … the more they'll know how to get under each other's skin," he said.
Huizar, 42, repeatedly refused to discuss his past experiences with Martinez. Those questions, Huizar said, are "political" and therefore should be handled by his campaign consultant, Parke Skelton.
"I talked to Jose," Skelton said in one e-mail to The Times. "He really does not remember how he met Rudy Martinez."
Martinez, 44, said the split occurred when he concluded that the councilman called him only when he needed something.
He said Huizar stuck him four years ago with an outstanding bill for more than $9,000 in repairs at the councilman's rental house. He said Huizar did not repay him for a $3,000 personal loan that he gave in 2007, days before the councilman went on a city-sponsored trip to Japan. But the final straw, he said, occurred in late 2008, after Huizar called him to ask for help in paying off a $9,300 fine from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
Despite those three experiences, Martinez insisted that he was running because he was frustrated with the quality of city services, not because of any personal animus toward Huizar.
"Me running for office has nothing to do with our friendship ending," said Martinez, who has appeared on the cable television program "Flip This House."
Skelton, who described the two men as onetime friends but not "best buds," said Martinez and Huizar simply drifted apart. But he strongly disputed Martinez's telling of events.
He said there was no $3,000 loan. He said it was Martinez who offered his bar for the swearing-in; Huizar did not request it. And he said the repair bill, which was mostly paid by Huizar's wife on Jan. 20, had been the subject of a lengthy disagreement over the final amount.
Neither candidate is letting up in the campaign's final weeks. Huizar has alleged that illegal marijuana businesses are bankrolling Martinez's campaign. Martinez has said that Huizar disparaged a prominent Eagle Rock businessman in a campaign mailer by erroneously calling him the owner of an illegal pot shop.
The contest coincides with one of the biggest financial crises in the history of City Hall, where layoffs and furloughs are a constant threat. But neither Huizar nor Martinez has offered any suggestions on what to cut.
Instead, Huizar is running on his record of tending to neighborhood matters, celebrating the arrival of new parkland in El Sereno, new bicycle racks in Highland Park, and a new police station and light rail line in Boyle Heights. And he is portraying Martinez as someone who will favor business interests over the needs of residents.
Martinez, in turn, has made job creation a major campaign message, saying that more should be done to help keep businesses open. He is contending that the district still lacks quality services. And he is arguing that Huizar's office has been in a consistent state of disarray, with 56 employees resigning since 2006, according to the city's personnel department.
"I don't think I had that in all of the years that I was on the council," said former councilman Richard Alatorre, who refused to say how he would vote — but is known to be fond of Martinez's mother, who worked for him in the 1990s.
Skelton called the departure rate among Huizar's staff typical for City Council offices — and argued that council aides have a tough job.
"People tend to stay with it for a year or two and then move on," he said.
One political aide who quit Huizar's office is George Gonzalez, who handled media for the councilman until 2008 and now does the same for Martinez. Another is the candidate's mother, Juanita Martinez, who left Huizar's office in June after spending three months on a medical leave.
"There was too much stress there," she said.