The March 5th Los Angeles city election pits two very different candidates against each other in the race for Council District 1, which stretches diagonally from Northeast L.A. to the Pico-Union neighborhood. One is a detail-oriented city staffer who knows the district from 12 years of hands-on contact, the other a longtime Sacramento lawmaker who promises to wield his political know-how to get things done.
Given the choice to showcase their interaction with voters in any neighborhood in the sprawling First District, both candidates chose the Pico-Union area. Not just the same neighborhood, but the same streets.
On separate days, former State Senator Gil Cedillo, 58, and First Council District Chief of Staff Jose Gardea, 44, walked by the same barking dogs, rattled the same fence gates and fielded complaints of cars zooming through the same side streets.
This neighborhood – among the oldest and poorest in the city – is dense with immigrants from Mexico and Central America, so registered voters are few and they mostly prefer Spanish.
Gardea grew up speaking Spanish at home and English in school within a few miles of the Pico-Union area. When voters greet him at their front door or gate, he tells voters he's there "en carne y hueso." Translation: "in the flesh."
His message: "I am the community candidate that has the endorsement of our current councilman and hundreds of community leaders. I was born and raised in the neighborhoods of this district and have never left and if you allow me to serve, I will serve the full 12 years on city council."
As the top staffer to Councilman Ed Reyes, who is being termed out of office, Gardea accepts praise for what's been accomplished under his boss. Gardea has even published an online map claiming credit for 129 different improvements in the district. At the same time, he deflects complaints about what's not been done.
"Hay mucho que hacer," he says often to residents. Translation: "There's much left to do."
Cedillo describes himself as "an All-American boy" who grew up in Boyle Heights, played football and ran track in high school and attended UCLA. He learned Spanish 15 years ago after his election to the state legislature in 1998.
He likes to remind people of the laws he authored to give young undocumented immigrants access to schools and scholarships via the state's Dream Act. About a half-million of those young immigrants will be able to get state drivers' licenses. He often mentions his as-yet unsuccessful struggle to issue drivers licenses to all undocumented Californians, introducing the legislation so consistently that he was nicknamed "One Bill Gil."
Guadalupe Vasquez Gonzalez stopped Cedillo on the street to thank him for that effort. Another man called out from his pickup truck: "Licencias! Licensias!" Cedillo stopped at a burrito shop on Pico Boulevard and chatted about the legislation with the cooks.
Cedillo says his work on behalf of immigrant residents is one thing that sets him apart from Gardea.
About half the first district's voters are Latino, about 15 percent are Asian. Of about 40,000 registered voters, maybe 14,000 will go to the polls. Walking precincts in a neighborhood like Pico-Union is less about changing minds and more about connecting with supporters and urging them to vote.
This corner of the district is flat, with grid streets, but the First District's geography has rugged hillsides and busy commercial districts. The Los Angeles River runs through it, as does the Arroyo Seco.
Jon Regardie lives in the district and covers it as executive editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News. He says voters in the district's diverse neighborhoods must choose between Cedillo, the political player and Gardea, a master of details.
"Gil Cedillo will get up and answer a question by talking about who he knows and which endorsements he has and how he will tap his relationships with state individuals to make things happen," Regardie said. "On the other hand, when you ask Jose Gardea those same questions, he'll respond with a more localized and even wonky aspect."
The difference shows in the ways they respond to residents of Pico-Union complaining about cars cutting too quickly through the neighborhood.
Gardea told a resident to circulate a petition, and if he gets a majority to sign, he'll get his speed bumps.
Cedillo said he'd take the same problem to staffers and tell them to make it happen. But what if some of the neighbors don't want speed bumps?
"Well, if they don't want a speed bump, we have to figure out what is the resolution," Cedillo said. "No one wants people racing up and down the street when they have kids ... they want their street treated like a neighborhood street, not like a freeway."
The candidates differ also on the state Legislature killing off redevelopment agencies in California last year.
Gardea calls it: "The single most tragic public policy decision in the last twenty years."
The decision put in limbo proposals for affordable housing and economic development projects in Pico-Union, Westlake, MacArthur Park and Chinatown. But Gardea does not directly blame Cedillo: "I lay it at the door of every state legislator and the governor."
Cedillo does, however, blame L.A . city politicians, including Gardea's boss, Councilman Ed Reyes, for the demise of the Community Redevelopment Agency, saying CRAs refused to negotiate giving redevelopment dollars to fund state services for the poor.
"When you have to weigh that ... the state's dollars were being taken for economic development that turns out to be empty lots – property that's being paid for that produces nothing under the CRA and under the failed leadership of Ed Reyes – we can't afford that," Cedillo said.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Jerry Brown and a host of state legislators have endorsed Cedillo, as have many others among L.A.'s Latino and labor establishment – nurses, firefighters, teachers, electricians and public employees.
Gardea is endorsed by Reyes, mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, Congresswoman Judy Chu and a few other council members and state legislators. He's also got endorsements from utility, food and communication workers' unions.
Cedillo has raised $230,000 for his run, Gardea about $60,000 more. Cedillo has spent more heavily in the primary, so Gardea has more cash on hand, but Cedillo has more support from independent committees – mostly labor-oriented – that are spending on his behalf.
A third name is on the ballot, perennial candidate Jesse Rosas. His campaign isn't well-funded, but his presence on the ballot, along with write-in candidate William Morrison, might keep Cedillo or Gardea from winning outright in the primary. If that happens, these two candidates can be expected to battle door-to-door until the general election in May.