Issue of child sexual abuse emerges in L.A. Council District 6 race

By Catherine Saillant

The closing days of a quiet race to choose Los Angeles City Hall's only female elected official have erupted in an unusual clash over which candidate is likely to be more attuned to issues of child sexual abuse.

The late-breaking controversy — which included one candidate telling her story of being abused as a child — has added a wild card to Tuesday's special election to fill the eastern San Fernando Valley 6th District seat vacated by Tony Cardenas, who was elected to Congress.

The volley of charges and countercharges escalated when Cindy Montañez, a former state legislator and Department of Water and Power executive, sent out mailers accusing her opponent of failing to protect students from sexual predator-teachers as a Los Angeles school board member.

The target of the political attack, Nury Martinez, responded in an emotional interview with The Times by alleging that someone in her Van Nuys neighborhood repeatedly touched her inappropriately when she was a girl of 3 or 4. Martinez said she was hurt by her opponent's attacks.

The timing of Martinez's decision to go public with her story, in the final week of the campaign, left some election analysts scratching their heads over the potential effects on the race. Dan Schnur, director of USC's Unruh Institute of Politics, said the exchange may not sway many voters unless Montañez knew about Martinez's past and sent out the mailers anyway. No such evidence has come to light.

"Voters would be very angry at Cindy Montañez if she knew about this painful episode in Martinez's life," Schnur said. "But it seems that this was simply a policy-based criticism that happened to align with a personal matter."

Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, said some voters could view the timing of Martinez's discussion of childhood abuse as a Hail Mary tactic late in the race. In the May primary, Montañez led Martinez by 19 percentage points and has since far outpaced her rival in fundraising. "It can't help but look like a response, and a very late response, to apparent headway that her opponent is making in these allegations," he said.

Montañez contends she is simply stating facts. She says Martinez was on the school board in 2012 when multiple cases of alleged sexual abuse of students by teachers became public. Montañez defends her mailers that highlight the cases, saying they were a response to earlier attacks made by outside groups supporting Martinez's campaign that criticized her work at the DWP. "She went negative," Montañez said. "We had to respond."

Martinez said the assertion that she failed to do enough to protect students "is an absolute lie."

"She is completely taking advantage of these victims for political purposes, and that's not OK," Martinez said.

Until recent days, the race had been a relatively low-key contest between two Latinas with similar backgrounds who are vying to become the only woman holding elected office in the nation's second largest city. Former Councilwoman Jan Perry and former City Controller Wendy Greuel were the last remaining female officeholders at City Hall before leaving their positions July 1.

Both of the council candidates say City Hall needs more female elected officials, but neither sees that as a defining issue in the race. "We need to do more to recruit women and make them viable candidates," Martinez said. "That should happen in every election."

The heavily Latino 6th District includes Van Nuys, Arleta and Pacoima. Montañez, 39, and Martinez, 40, onetime political allies, both were raised by immigrant parents in the eastern San Fernando Valley and speak fluent Spanish. Both served on the San Fernando City Council at different times, before moving to Los Angeles. Both campaigns have been largely grass-roots, with the candidates knocking on doors, meeting in living rooms with small groups and sending out mailers.

Montañez has raised twice as much campaign cash as Martinez for Tuesday's runoff election and is backed by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Sierra Club and several public-employee unions. Martinez is endorsed by Cardenas, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a handful of business groups and unions.

Both candidates have focused on cleaning up and revitalizing the district. Montañez said that the area has been "neglected" for 10 years and that she will bring new vigor to improving the ailing Van Nuys Boulevard business corridor. Martinez said she too would revitalize Van Nuys Boulevard and help neighborhoods deal with increasing graffiti, vandalism and crime.

Martinez, a Sun Valley resident, says she helped keep budget cuts out of the classroom during her time on the school board. On the San Fernando council, she helped build an aquatic center, she said. And as head of the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, she oversaw the cleanup and redevelopment of polluted properties.

Montañez, who lives in Van Nuys, describes herself as a "nerd" who likes to drill deep into policy. That aptitude benefited DWP ratepayers, Montañez said, when she helped negotiate a pact that gives the utility more time to comply with costly pollution regulations.

(To read original article, visit this Los Angeles Times link)

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