Attendees at Méndez High School CD 14Forum. Photo by Pablo de la Hoya for Boyle Heights Beat.

With reporting by Jazmín Anguiano, Daniela Franco, Valentina Guevara-Hernández, Izcalli Hernández, Samantha Soto González and Brianna Pichardo

Kevin de León brought a food vendor to hand out free hot dogs near the entrance.

Mónica García made a loud entrance, speaking to followers “live” on her social media.

John Jiménez repeatedly accused elected officials of corruption and complained about not being invited.

Cyndi Otteson and Raquel Zamora were friendly towards each other as they fought back attacks on their political inexperience.

The three women and two men who will appear on the March 3 ballot as candidates for the Los Angeles City Council District 14 seat showed up promptly to a forum Saturday afternoon at Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School, where they addressed issues of specific concerns to Boyle Heights. All five hope to replace CD14 Councilmember José Huízar when he is termed out of office in June.

Beats of cumbias and corridos greeted a mixed crowd of Boyle Heights residents and activists, campaign volunteers and workers and at least one elected official, as they packed into the 250-seat school auditorium. Campaign chants echoed from outside the auditorium, as workers and volunteers wore and handed out t-shirts with their candidates’ names.

Once the candidates were in their seats on stage, the moderator began with one simple instruction: “no booing”. That one was mostly followed, but a direction to reserve cheers and applause to the end, not that much.

The forum opened with a speech from Méndez Student Body President Kyle Jones, who expressed his gratitude to the candidates and people in attendance. He explained that the Méndez Leadership Team organized the event and that the forum questions –to be asked by Méndez Senior Anaís Hernández– were suggested and developed by the student body. 

The candidates’ performance

De León’s political experience was on full display throughout the event. The former Assemblyman and State Senator spoke primarily in Spanish in his opening speech, as he introduced himself as a homegrown candidate looking to improve the district environmentally and socially. De León often used Spanish, when recalling anecdotes about growing up as the son of immigrants. [Spanish-language interpretation was provided throughout the forum.]

A clear frontrunner –both in fundraising and endorsements– De León had a solid outing, proposing thorough plans to combat issues such as air pollution, affordable housing, and homelessness. He established future policies that would make community college free for all students and public transportation free for all youth under the age of 25. 

García, a current board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District, used her insight into the dynamics of the local education system as a means of validating her campaign. She explained her role in improving the state of LAUSD schools in terms of performance on standardized testing and graduation rate and implied she could have a similar effect when working to ameliorate conditions in CD-14 if elected.

Jiménez, a potential dark horse candidate, was particularly loud as he called out several big-name candidates and politicians –including former area councilman and mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The 78-year-old former resident of Boyle Heights used his age and experience as an activist and organizer to strengthen his argument for deserving the Council seat.

Other than making claims about rampant corruption and conflicts of interest in LA politics, Jiménez failed to provide substance to his plans for the future. Regardless, his often brass comments elicited cheers and applause from people in the crowd –some of whom admitted they had never heard of him before.

At one point he said he had to threaten the forum’s organizers with a lawsuit, so that he could be included, and implied that media coverage has been unfair to him. A spokesperson for the Méndez Leadership Team declined to comment on Jimenez’s allegation, but Zamora may have been referencing him later in the forum when she asked rhetorically: “Who has time for pettiness?”

Zamora, a lifelong Boyle Heights resident, performed well and was able to skillfully respond to the questions in the forum. A social worker and counselor in LAUSD with close ties to the district, Zamora had a clear hometown advantage, with a large turnout of supporters in the auditorium representing her campaign with t-shirts and signs.

Zamora offered extensive methods for addressing the homelessness crisis, using her knowledge as a social worker to target the mental health of homeless citizens to properly aid them in receiving much-needed resources and services. She also underlined her concern to cultivate the passions and expand the educational opportunities of the younger generation.

Otteson had a quiet yet powerful appearance, doing her best to offer meaningful plans of action to solve current problems addressed in the forum. She highlighted her career as a businesswoman working for large Fortune 500 companies, implying she could hold her own in the economic intricacies of managing a city budget. This helped compensate for one of the glaring issues that surround her campaign: lack of experience in office.

She countered her clean money and grass-roots campaign give voters an alternative to more familiar faces in the race for the City Council seat. Otteson also claimed to have personal stakes in the welfare of the district, explaining she is a mother living in CD-14 with children going to a school in the district. 

Reaction from the audience

“I came here to check out what the candidates had to say,” said Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, who represents Boyle Heights in the state legislature. “I’m really impressed with the student leadership, the way they put this together and the way they handled it and moderated it.”

Santiago, an early supporter of De León, said he lives not far from Méndez and wanted to listen to what the candidates had to say about the neighborhood.

“Quite frankly, I’m impressed with all the candidates,” he said. “They’ve all done a very good job of articulating their passion for how to improve the community, and ultimately the voters are going to have to make a decision.”

Raquel Román, who directs the Guadalupe Homeless Project in Boyle Heights, said that although she has already made up her mind about the race, she wanted to “hear about the issues in the community. I support Raquel Zamora, so I was just really seeing who comes out from the community today.”

“I thought it was a good candidates’ forum,” said another longtime Boyle Heights resident and activist, Carlos Montes. “I think that the audience should have had a chance maybe to ask a couple of questions [but] I got some good insight out of it, how the candidates view the major problems in Boyle Heights, the pollution, the homelessness, the high cost of rent.”

Montes, an organizer with Centro CSO, said that while he sympathized with Zamora, the forum helped him solidify his support of De León.

“I think he can take care of business, he can pass some laws and ordinances to improve living conditions, not only in Boyle Heights but the whole 14th district,” Montes said. “The other candidates are good folks, but I don’t think they have the experience.”

One thing the forum did not do, Montes said, was change his opinion of one particular candidate.

“I definitely do not want Mónica García, because she’s pushed too much privatization, charter schools in Boyle Heights.” he said.

Eloísa Galindo, an activist with Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización, a group of parents of LAUSD students who oppose charter schools, shared that sentiment.

“I would ask García how is it that she’s supporting parents, because she spoke about graduation [rates] and about schools… but she has clearly boasted about hiring [LAUSD] Superintendent Austin [Beutner], and the superintendent makes $350,000 a year and the schools are poorer. This is becoming a problem in schools that [share campuses with charters].

“It seemed to me that [García] is telling many lies, when in reality she is not supporting parents, she doesn’t listen to us,” Galindo said. “We’ve gone to her office with signatures and she doesn’t want to listen to us. But she does have access to the rich, to the charter association, she emails them but does not listen to us. You saw that she just went by and didn’t even say hello.”

Interviewed after the forum, García brushed off criticism that she is tied to charter schools.

“We don’t force anyone to go to charter schools,” García said. “Schools have to show parents that their kid can be safe, supported and successful. Méndez doesn’t have an enrollment shortage, Roosevelt Magnet doesn’t have an enrollment shortage, Bravo doesn’t have an enrollment shortage, right? Parents are looking for the place.”

“I support all systems that are going to help us to get more graduations,” García insisted. “Charter schools are one solution, but I’ve supported pilot schools, community schools, small schools, themed schools, magnet schools like Boyle Heights STEM… my job was to make sure that every family, including poor families, had choices. Often at LA Unified that was not the case.”

De León had the most visible presence in the auditorium, with a large number of paid campaign workers and volunteers –including the ones handing out the hot dogs before the forum.

“We’ve been out here canvassing for Kevin de León for the past few weekends,” said Yamilex Rustrián, one of several volunteers from labor union SEIU USWW wearing a bright purple t-shirt. “Our local has endorsed Kevin and we’re very proud to be here today and being able to keep supporting him in any way possible.”

But perhaps the candidate who gained the most from the forum was Jiménez, previously unknown to many of the people in the audience.

“This was my first debate and I really liked that man who spoke,” said Galindo. “I don’t remember his name, but he spoke directly about issues, said ‘I’m with the community.” I liked that. I liked what he said. He’s right about Villaraigosa, I liked that he spoke the truth.”

This post was edited on Feb. 13 to add name of student who asked questions at forum.

This post was edited on Feb. 17 to correct name of candidate Cyndi Otteson.

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Isaac Romero is a senior at the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School.

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