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In southeast L.A. County, the Chacons are political power players

Hector Chacon and his family are admired and feared. They are go-to campaign gurus with checkered pasts whom candidates hire when they want to break into politics — or bat down a challenge from an upstart.

February 25, 2012|By Hector Becerra and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

By 1996, Hector had helped his half-brother, Hugo Argumedo, win a seat on the Commerce City Council. Candidates from around the region began hiring the siblings, who were quickly building a reputation for their tough tactics and winning ways.

The Chacons are reluctant these days to share campaign secrets. "My sister doesn't like to divulge strategy," Hector Chacon explained. "She says, 'If you go to Colonel Sanders, he doesn't give you the recipe to KFC.'"

But it's clear a big part of "the science" involves identifying the residents most likely to vote and making sure they do.

Leticia calls it a "math game." She uses public records to determine which residents have registered to vote or requested absentee ballots and focuses campaign efforts on those households. Then, on election day, if a poll check shows they haven't cast a ballot, she sends volunteers to persuade them to come out to vote.

Among their tactics are straightforward appeals to the heartstrings, such as featuring a candidate's mother in a mailer to win the hearts of voters. During one especially close race, Hector drove a yellow truck with a loudspeaker through the streets of Commerce, urging residents to go to the polls.

But they can also play hardball. A committee Hector Chacon advised once flooded Cathedral City with mailers linking the incumbent mayor to a city employee charged with fraud. The mayor, Kathleen DeRosa, remembers that with anger: The pieces were "very well done graphically and incredibly mean-spirited," she said. (She won reelection anyway.)

That wasn't an isolated case. Records show the family's own committees have paid thousands of dollars to a printer once convicted of producing fraudulent campaign hit pieces in South Gate. Hector Chacon acknowledged hiring the printer — a "political assassin," he said — but says these days the family eschews negative campaign tactics.

The Chacons have also relied at times on Victory Outreach, a church that ministers to former gang members. The family uses church volunteers as ground troops to answer phones, pass out campaign literature and help with get-out-the-vote efforts. Family committees have paid more than $10,000 in campaign funds to the church since 2003, records show.

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The Chacons' political juggernaut fell apart in 2003 during a dispute over a Commerce council race.

Most of the family supported Tina Baca Del Rio, who'd become involved in city politics as a volunteer, and Argumedo helped manage her campaign.

But Hector decided to run the campaign of Nancy Ramos, a former City Hall staffer. He was eyeing a seat in the state Assembly. Ramos said Hector believed her close ties to labor unions might help him in his bid.

The race was ugly. The half-brothers, Argumedo and Hector, nearly came to blows at one point, the candidates recalled.

David Negrete, a campaign consultant who worked with Hector, said he got "scary" anonymous messages on his cellphone and told the Sheriff's Department about them. "Hector said, 'Just let it go. Don't be a sissy,'" Negrete recalled with a laugh. "These guys grew up in Ramona Gardens…. They didn't sweat the little things."

After Ramos won the race, it took more than a year to mend the family ties. The siblings reunited in 2006 when Hector's older brother, Art, decided to run for the board of the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

Some were surprised. Art Chacon was a controversial figure in the community who had been shot three separate times when he was younger (earning him the nickname "Gato," a cat with nine lives). As Leticia put it: "Art has a good heart" — but also a tendency to lash out if pushed into a corner.

In his bid for the water board, Art Chacon described himself as the president of a company called Chacon Water Advisory. Critics say he invented the company for his resume, and The Times could not verify that it was an active business before the election.

When Art won the race, Hector Chacon regarded it as a major achievement: Three brothers had managed to rise from a childhood in the projects to hold elected office.

The Chacon family's reputation continued to grow.

In 2009, Rachel Canchola, a veteran LAPD sergeant, asked Hector Chacon to run her race for one of several open seats on the Pico Rivera school board. His advice, she recalled: Keep his involvement quiet so the opposition wouldn't take her too seriously.

"I did everything he asked me to do," Canchola said. "Not only did I win, but I got the most votes."

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As the Chacon brand grew, the family faced greater political and financial scrutiny. In 2003, Hector Chacon's consulting company was suspended from doing business for failing to pay taxes. (He called it a misunderstanding.)

Argumedo's campaign missed several financial reporting deadlines, leading to a $9,000 fine from the California Fair Political Practices Commission in 2009.

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