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Normally Quiet Council Race In LA Turns Ugly

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The neighborhoods that sprawl northeast from downtown Los Angeles are vexed by vanishing jobs, gang mayhem and clotted traffic, but the candidates running for the area's City Council seat have made the race about something else.

The campaign has been framed by a series of ugly allegations that reached a low point when the incumbent fired a campaign aide who sent an e-mail threatening to "put a political bullet" into the forehead of the challenger. The wording appeared to allude intentionally or not to the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last month.

And that's not all. The race has featured scattershot allegations about ethical flaws, a misused police badge, investigations and what amounts to a secret enemies list.

"I didn't think it would get this bad," said challenger Rudy Martinez, who was shaken by the bullet imagery because his brother was shot and killed in 1987.

Southern California has its share of scorched-earth politics, but the race in the ethnically mixed 14th District has taken on a bitter, anything-goes edge that has limited talk about the city's budget crisis and a long list of urban ills. The race is also noteworthy because a competitive Council race involving an incumbent is rare in Los Angeles, where it's easier and cheaper for potential challengers to wait for term limits to create an open seat.

"This campaign was never about the issues but character assassination on both sides," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

The candidates were once golfing buddies who vacationed together in Las Vegas, and Martinez's mother worked in the office of Councilman Jose Huizar, the incumbent. Huizar had a sushi roll named after him at Martinez's restaurant, a gesture of friendship that's now a memory.

Martinez said their friendship soured a couple of years ago after Huizar pressured him to raise money for a campaign. Martinez, a restaurateur and minor TV celebrity - he starred in the cable series "Flip This House" - says his candidacy has nothing to do with settling a score with Huizar.

In mail arriving at voters' homes, Huizar charges that Martinez "lied" to investigators looking into allegations that he improperly held a city police badge while he volunteered for the Los Angeles Police Department. According to a police report provided by Huizar's campaign, Martinez "refused to cooperate" with investigators and abruptly resigned. According to the report, he claimed he was given the badge by the LAPD to make replicas.

Martinez says he's being smeared but also apologized because the badge number belonged to an officer who died in the line of duty in 1979. "I had no idea the badge belonged to a fallen officer," he says.

Martinez's advertising accuses Huizar of using a taxpayer "slush fund" to finance a "luxurious lifestyle," and alleges federal investigators are looking into the councilman's activities, a claim Huizar's campaign calls a ruse orchestrated by the challenger.

"This whole thing stems from Martinez making a charge" to the FBI in an effort to fabricate a controversy, says consultant Parke Skelton, who is advising Huizar.

The March 8 election is expected to attract only a sprinkle of voters - turnout could be in the single digits. The tone of the nonpartisan race could prompt many to stay away.

Huizar has pushed to clean up the city's gritty Broadway strip, in downtown, and his ads promote his support for police and schools. But Huizar has been criticized for neglecting some neighborhoods in the district - a Los Angeles Times endorsement for Martinez called the incumbent "aloof and out of touch."

And he was embarrassed when the Times disclosed that he assigned his City Hall staff to prepare lists that graded civic leaders numerically on their level of support for him. The lists included politicians, school principals, church pastors and police officers.

He told the newspaper he suspended the practice two or three years ago.

Huizar disputes that he's out of touch, and also has advantages, including endorsements from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and powerful public employee unions, including police and firefighters, which could be a decisive advantage in a low-turnout race.

Michael Nogueira, who runs a party rental business in the district and sits on a neighborhood council, supports Huizar. He credits him, for among other things, helping finance a July 4th celebration with fireworks.

What does he think about Martinez?

"You have to work and climb up the ladder," he says.

The candidates recently pledged to a cease-fire, but the campaigns disagree over what the terms of the truce will be.

Martinez says voters are looking for someone new.

"People are fed up in this district," Martinez says. "We need serious change and here I am."