Mario Chavez at his Boye Heights home, which is also his campaign office. Photo by Antonio Mejias
Sitting in his living room in the house near Evergreen and Wabash where he has lived most of his life, Mario Chávez can see his reason for running for city council right across the street.
He points to an orange plastic cone sitting over a piece of buckled sidewalk, waiting for repair.
“I’ve seen my city’s infrastructure crumble before my eyes,” he said during an interview this week. “We really haven’t seen any forward moving improvements in our city. And there’s never any money to fix this part of town.”
With the perspective of a lifelong resident of his working class neighborhood, Chávez said he proposes innovative ideas to fix the 14th district’s most basic problems.
Take sidewalk repair: “Just as we were able to find ways to fund Measure R for the metro, I find it ridiculous that we can’t figure out how to generate the revenue [to fix sidewalks]. All we need is $3 billion.”
And street parking, a constant woe in high-density communities like Boyle Heights: “A common sense solution, mark stalls and everyone who parks outside the marks gets a parking ticket. You don’t think the city is going to be down with that?”
At 37, Chávez is the youngest candidate running for the CD14 seat. He is also the least funded, with less than $12,000 in campaign contributions. He runs his campaign out of the living room of the duplex his Mexican immigrant parents bought around the time he was born and which he now co-owns.
Born in nearby County Hospital, he went mostly to local schools growing up. At Roosevelt High School he fell 20 credits short of graduating as part of the class of 1995.
He took a number of odd jobs after leaving school, but at the urging of an older sister, he decided to pursue an education at East Los Angeles College and Pasadena City College, where he said courses in sociology and history began to give him an understanding of the social issues affecting the working poor.
Work with local nonprofits led him to being recruited by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for which he worked 10 years, first as an organizer and eventually as a political director.
His first union job took him to a local in Santa Barbara County for a little over 2 years ”“the only time in his life he has lived outside of Boyle Heights”“ but decided to return home to be closer to his elderly parents.
He found a dream job with the local that represented the well-organized and very active janitorial workers and finished his union stint with the much larger home health care workers local.
He later became Director of Community Relations and Outreach at the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, where part of his job was working with community clinics at five city high schools.
To run for the council seat, he resigned from that job and to his seat on the city’s Affordable Housing Commission, to which he was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013.
Although he’s never held elected office, he said his work as political director has more than prepared him for the job of councilmember.
“I understand how the game works,” he said. “I understand the levels of power and how politics work at city council. I think I have a clear sense of what’s going on in city government.”
When he first entered the race, he knew he was up against a powerful incumbent with deep pockets and the support of many special interest groups, including the very unions for which he worked. When former county supervisor Gloria Molina entered the race, he said it validated his concern that Councilman José Huizar was inattentive to his constituency.
Expecting a low turnout at the March 3 primary, he said a contentious battle between Huízar and Molina may actually work to his advantage.
His aim with his door-to-door campaign is to get 6,500 votes that he said would get him into the runoff.
“Every vote that [Molina] takes from [Huízar], that’s basically a vote for us,” he calculated. “We’re having about a 80% success rate when we knock on doors. All you have to say is, ‘what have you seen changing in the neighborhood in the last 33 years? That’s how long [Molina] has been in office. What have you seen change in the last 10 years? That’s how long Huízar’s been in office.’”