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Emanuel Pleitez makes a long shot run for mayor

The 30-year-old faces long odds and better-financed opponents, but his youth, ethnicity and outsider status could make him attractive to some voters.

February 12, 2013|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Emanuel Pleitez runs from house to house in a South Los Angeles neighborhood with campaign field director Alberto Avalos. The 30-year-old former tech executive is campaigning for mayor.
Emanuel Pleitez runs from house to house in a South Los Angeles neighborhood… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Emanuel Pleitez is loping down a South Los Angeles side street of bungalows, propelling his 6-foot, 3-inch frame toward a registered voter his campaign advance team has discovered is home. Aides, including one carrying a camera to document his long shot run for mayor, try to keep up.

Once he finds the voter waiting in the front yard, he greets him exuberantly in Spanish, answers some questions, hands him a flier and moves on.

Pleitez is a 30-year-old former tech executive in a hurry, who seems to believe no vote-harvesting opportunity can be passed by. He chats up Latina mothers selling snacks outside an elementary campus. He intercepts teens walking home from high school. "You want to go to college?" Pleitez asks, before offering to help them apply to Stanford, where he earned a degree on scholarship.

When he spots an African American woman parking her car, he raps on the driver's side window. Ruby Graham is startled at the sight of Pleitez and his entourage. But after a moment she rolls her window down and listens to his pitch, smiling when he says he was born just a few blocks away.

Facing daunting odds against better-known and well-financed candidates in the March 5 primary, Pleitez holds a unique place in a tight and fluid campaign to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. With the only Spanish surname on the ballot, and his success in elevating himself into recent television and radio debates, he could affect the outcome simply by drawing a respectable share of the growing Latino vote. Latinos made up 25% of the vote in Villaraigosa's 2005 election, up from 10% in 1993, when Richard Riordan was elected mayor, exit polls showed.

His scramble to connect with voters in lower-income neighborhoods like South Los Angeles, the Eastside and the east San Fernando Valley is partly a reflection of the challenge Pleitez faces building name recognition. "I'm the only candidate that is going to some of these neighborhoods," Pleitez said.

Political scientist Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said Pleitez's surname could be a plus, but not necessarily a significant one in the absence of such other advantages as a large campaign war chest.

"The voters who show up for a mayoral election are people who are paying a little bit more attention to politics" and already are familiar with the better-known candidates, he said.

Pleitez's campaign team is long on enthusiasm and short on local political experience and connections. Pleitez says that's kind of the point. He's offering something different, seeking to engage constituencies that usually stay away from the polls and live in the city's most "underserved" neighborhoods.

He acknowledges that several politicos he came to know while working as an aide to Villaraigosa, and during an unsuccessful run for Congress when he was just 26, advised him against entering the mayor's race.

"They said I have no shot, that I'm crazy," Pleitez recalled with no apparent rancor.

He's struggled to raise money and draw media attention, particularly in the first few months after getting into the mayoral contest in July. Scores of earnest young political activists drawn to his campaign complained loudly when he was excluded from the first televised debate.

That changed last month, when Pleitez collected enough contributions to qualify for public campaign funding, and debate sponsors began including him with the four main candidates: Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, city Controller Wendy Greuel and former radio talk show host Kevin James.

By then, Pleitez had quit his job with the data firm Spokeo, and he and his wife, Rebecca, moved into his mother's El Sereno home so they could devote all their time to the campaign.

"It's a momentum game," Pleitez said in an interview at his storefront headquarters in Boyle Heights, shortly after he got his first citywide exposure in a televised debate at UCLA. Gilliam, a panelist at that debate, said Pleitez has some other things in his favor, an appealing personal story, ethnic diversity, dedicated staff and volunteers and, like James, an outsider status that could appeal to disenchanted voters. However, Gilliam said, "He's very young and very green."

"It was certainly my impression at the debate that he is very inexperienced at campaigning," Gilliam said. Though he admires Pleitez's interest in neighborhoods that don't get much attention, Gilliam said it is nearly impossible to pull off a successful campaign in a city the size of Los Angeles without something more: backing from labor or another interest group, enough money to advertise heavily or help from the Democratic Party or a local political machine.

Pleitez has none of those and insists he doesn't need them. He is counting on people like Jeremy Mazur, who joined his campaign as a photographer but also helps with the driving and event organizing. Mazur, 27, is an ex-Marine who said he was disillusioned with politics before meeting Pleitez.

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