DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - José Huizar is not a scary dude. If you were to run into him on the street or a bakery and started talking about the events of the day, and didn’t know that he is the 14th District representative on the Los Angeles City Council, you’d find him genial and eager. If for some reason you were asked after such a meeting to compare him to an animal, you might pick a friendly Labrador puppy. Not because he slobbers, runs into tables, knocks over his food dish or chases tennis balls (I don’t think he does any of those too often), but rather because, in a non-political context, he’s a nice guy with a big grin and bounds of positive energy.
If you encounter Huizar in a political campaign, however, he’s one of the more frightening figures in Los Angeles. I realize this might sound odd given the recent bout of dark press concerning an admitted extramarital affair and a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him and the city by a former top staffer (more on that later), but when it comes to his own elections, the guy has a better winning percentage than this year’s Seattle Seahawks. Somehow, Huizar is 5-0, with three resounding victories in City Council races after two successful runs for the LAUSD Board.
Some people are just good at unexpected things. I happen to be a master at Whack-a-Mole, winning seven stuffed animals in my last eight attempts (I swear it’s true). Friendly puppy Huizar is a killer on the campaign trail.
For further proof of his prowess, consider the financial disclosure statements that candidates in upcoming elections filed last week with the City Ethics Commission. Voters go to the polls in March 2015, and the seven even-numbered council seats are up for grabs. Not counting Huizar, a total of 10 people reported fundraising figures through Dec. 31. The biggest score in the group came from Carolyn Ramsay, the chief of staff to Fourth District Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is running for her termed-out boss’ seat. She pulled in an impressive $109,000. No one else raised more than $71,000.
Huizar, meanwhile, scooped up an astounding $321,859 (the other 10 candidates raised about $384,000 combined). It’s all the more startling given that the only person who has filed paperwork to run against Huizar is Alex San Martin, who according to his website is a reservations agent for Starline Tours, which makes him about as frightening as a daffodil. So far, San Martin has raised exactly 0 dollars and 0 cents.
You can also compare Huizar to council incumbents. Only two of the other four figures running for re-election have reported raising money, according to the Ethics Commission’s website. Still-new Sixth District rep Nury Martinez pulled in $60,000 and Council President Herb Wesson, perhaps the most adept pol in the city, has gathered a meager $9,200, which pretty much indicates he’s not trying.
So what’s going on with Huizar?
Challenging the Machine
Interestingly, Huizar’s huge war chest may stem directly from his personal troubles, and the pressure those troubles created.
By tradition, Huizar should have nothing to worry about. He’s a nine-year officeholder gunning for a final four-year term. He showcased his skills in the two most recent elections, garnering more than 64% of the vote each time (his big 2011 victory came despite an opponent spending $200,000 of his own money). Huizar is precisely the type of candidate that people in Los Angeles don’t challenge because, like The Matrix, he is one with the machine.
Then came Francine Godoy. Last October Godoy, who started as a receptionist in Huizar’s office and quickly rose to become deputy chief of staff, sued Huizar and the city, claiming the councilman engaged in a “campaign of sexual harassment and retaliation.” Huizar was forced to publicly acknowledge an affair, which he asserted was consensual.
Huizar’s behavior and circumstances ignited speculation that he would be vulnerable in the 2015 election. One could easily envision a flurry of mailers blaring newspaper headlines about the lawsuit and affair and asking, “Doesn’t Los Angeles deserve better than José Huizar?” Immediately you started to hear whispers about potential candidates.
Although no one of note has yet to step up to challenge Huizar, for months City Hall and the political class have been chattering about a possible candidacy by Ana Guerrero, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s chief of staff. Neither Guerrero nor Team Garcetti have given any public indication that she’ll enter the race or is even pondering it, but if you run down the invisible checklist of positives, she has many of them: a connection to a popular mayor; the ability (through that mayor) to raise gobs of money; a long history in city government; a basket of bunny rabbits she lets anyone play with; being a viable Latina candidate in a district that includes Boyle Heights (one of those isn’t true).
What makes things even more prickly is that Huizar is one of the few council members who last year backed City Controller Wendy Greuel in her failed mayoral bid. While Huizar was tight with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he now lacks an ally in Spring Street’s most important office.
Those circumstances might have made some candidates keep a low profile, hoping things would blow over. Instead, Huizar pulled a Marshawn Lynch and went into Beast Mode (one column, two Seahawks references!). Intriguingly, Wesson was part of the play.
Godoy filed her bombshell lawsuit five days before a long-scheduled Huizar fundraiser in Downtown. Wesson then got himself on the invitation as a “special guest.” That night, he went on stage in front of a big crowd at the Spring Street club Exchange L.A. and proudly proclaimed that “Mr. Huizar is like my brother, my best friend on the council.”
The money started rolling in, and $322,000 later, Huizar may just have enough to scare Guerrero or any other big-name contender from entering. Money of course doesn’t guarantee victory, and Los Angeles has seen plenty of well-financed candidates drop a race. That said, Huizar’s first stage financial report is the political equivalent of a rattlesnake shaking its tail: It’s a warning that any competitor is entering hostile territory and might get bit (not literally).
For what it’s worth, the money is coming from all over. Eli Broad gave the maximum amount allowed of $700, as did Wendy Greuel and former Mayor Richard Riordan. Huizar has been backed extensively by Downtown attorneys, developers and landowners — he got $2,800 from four members of the Delijani family, which controls four Broadway theaters — and the tips must have been good at the restaurant Wabi Sabi, because a waiter named Franky Chan donated $700.
It isn’t only individuals. The Central City Association Political Action Committee gave $700. I don’t know if Huizar drinks Budweiser or likes Clydesdales, but he got $700 from Anheuser Busch. He also secured the same amount from Boo Boo Inc., which I mention solely because its name is, well, Boo Boo Inc.
The election is more than a year away, and it remains uncertain if further repercussions will come from the Godoy affair and lawsuit. In politics things can dribble slowly and then suddenly erupt. About the only definite is that plenty of people are watching from the sidelines, waiting for something to happen, or perhaps for nothing to happen.
Is Huizar wounded in a political context? Sure, but the bigger question is, how much? He still boasts high name recognition and the power of incumbency, which are very important come election day. Given the aggressive fundraising push and his ties to Wesson, he’s clearly primed for a fight if he is unable to scare off competitors. Things could get interesting.