José Huízar walks into the hall at Resurrection Church and steps up to the head table, late as he is for his presentation before the local seniors club. It’s a forgiving crowd, as seniors walk up to greet him, some in Spanish, with handshakes and hugs.
It’s a typical campaign stop these days for the Councilman seeking reelection, but this one is special ”“his mother, Isidra, is in the audience.
Hometown hero may be a way to describe the man who has held the Council District 14 seat since 2005 and is running for a third and last possible term.
The frontrunner in a five-person race with campaign contributions that are four times bigger than his closest competitor, Huizar boasts of having the support of some 200 community leaders throughout his district.
“I think that what we’ve done is form great partnerships with the leaders to get things done,” he told Boyle Heights Beat after a recent campaign stop at Hazard Park.
Huízar said he is running his campaign focusing on his record of bringing improvements to the communities he’s represented, both as councilman and as member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.
He said his biggest challenges in providing those services in older neighborhoods like Boyle Heights has been a lack of targeted city funds. He’s found alternative sources, he says, such as using some of his discretionary monies to fund a $1.5 million Clean Communities Initiative, that has included some targeted sidewalk repairs, graffiti removal and trash pick up. He also claimed he brought over $2 billion in economic development to Boyle Heights in the last four years.
The “favorite son” status gives him an edge over his biggest competitor in the race, former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. In spite of her name recognition, Huizar said she was hardly ever seen in the district before she began campaigning for the seat.
And while he said he respected Molina’s early role as a pioneering Latina in politics, he felt that she lost touch with the needs of the communities she represented. Huízar said he had been particularly disappointed with Molina’s vote to extend a controversial program known as 287(g), which allowed Sheriff officers to screen inmates for immigration backgrounds and have them processed for deportation.
“I don’t see how she could have voted for that,” said Huizar, who often cites his own background when he advocates for immigrants’ rights.
Huízar, 46, boasts of being the first Mexican-born individual to serve on the City Council. He was only three years old when his family uprooted from their rancho in the state of Zacatecas and moved to Los Angeles, where they settled in Boyle Heights.
“When I arrived to this country as a young immigrant my family needed a lot of help,” he recalled. “It was local teachers, nonprofits, neighbors who helped my family do better for ourselves.” That, he said, inspired him to want to give back to his neighborhood.
He attended local schools before going to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. He went on to get a Masters Degree from Princeton and a law degree from UCLA. In 2001 he was asked by then-Mayor Richard Riordan to run for the school board. He served as board president until 2005, when he was asked by then Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa to run for the CD14 he was vacating to run for mayor. He won a special election that year and won reelection in 2007 and 2011.
While he admits he faces his biggest reelection challenge, he says he welcomes the scrutiny that comes with the democratic process.
Already Molina has alluded to recent personal scandals in a mailer filed with the City Ethics Commissions in which she promises “no more scandalous legal costs.”
The city paid $185,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a man whose car was hit by Huizar’s city-owned vehicle and $200,000 in legal fees related to a sexual harassment suit brought by a former employee. The suit was settled without additional costs to the city, but Huízar admitted to having an extramarital affair with the woman and reportedly paid the settlement from his own pocket.
Asked about his future in elected office beyond the city council, Huízar said he would have to consult with his wife Richelle Ríos before making that decision.
He said that living with his wife and four young children in Boyle Heights keep him grounded. “When I walk out to do my shopping, when I take my kids to the park, it reminds me of the work that needs to be done.”