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Risky Business

Rudy Martinez's latest all-in venture is a run for Huizar's seat

"Not everybody is going to eat sushi every day," laughs Rudy Martinez, candidate for Council in LA's most resolutely middle-class district, Council District 14.

It's the kind of reality-based understanding that Martinez applies to business life as a successful enterpreneur, a television personality, an owner of Eagle Rock's favorite sushi restaurant, Mia, and for the first time in his life as a candidate for office.

"I'm running because I've seen how difficult it is to do business in the city. I talk to everyone, and I see their frustration with the city."

Best-known as the top of a team that bought, fixed, and sold properties on the Arts & Entertainment show Flip This House, Martinez also has made his way in the world as a successful restaurant developer, becoming a partner at the late-eighties phenomenon Cha Cha Cha and its sister restaurant Cafe Mambo--two high-profile restaurants that also helped bring a sense of identity to blighted strips south and west of LA City College. He now owns two restaurants in the Council District he hopes to represent, even while he continues to buy and sell homes and apartment buildings around the city.

Martinez, raised on Valentine Street in Echo Park, likes to compete, but he stresses how he likes to promote relationships--among others as well as his own--even more. "You can't eat sushi every day," means you help grow businesses other than your own. He's also running the kind of campaign that reflects the run-and-gun, relationship-building style of his entrepreneurial life. He brought in in longtime downtowner Jerry Sullivan, who built the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen from the ground up, to do some political and media consulting. He's broken into six figures in fundraising. And Martinez's mother, Juanita, fronts his office. "She taught me that nothing in life would be given to me."

"All my success in life has been taking chances, taking risks. To do that successfully, you need good relationships. People open other restaurants on this street [Eagle Rock Boulevard], on Colorado, and I don't look at them as competition. I go out and try to get everyone together. You have to grow together."

He knows all parts of the district, and has opinions on all parts. On downtown, he thinks the city should be setting its priorities differently.

"People are always talking about 'bringing Broadway back.' What do they want to bring it back from? I think it's great now."

How about the glut of new residential buildings?

"LA Live can't do it alone," he says of bringing people downtown to work and to play and even to live--especially to the Historic Corridor, the thin landing strip in CD 14. "There has to be a mix of efforts."

Martinez doesn't much fancy the Broadway Trolley project. He thinks it was a better idea a few years back, in a different economic climate. "I think it was a great idea four years ago. But things change. You have to rethink, and I think no."

He calls Boyle Heights, Huizar's stronghold, a "dumping ground" of failed city projects and promises.

"The City has dumped on it. Residents tell me that what we say there does matter," Martinez insists. "There's diversity in Boyle Heights. I go there and people know the issues, street by street. Boy, do they know their issues. The give and take is powerful, they understand politics. The city has let it down."

El Sereno?

"El Sereno lost a great opportunity in this recent economic boom. People go shopping, they go out and they go to Alhambra. There are quality of life issues, lots of quality issues. Locals needs to compromise, to work together better. You can have York Boulevard on Huntington Drive."

Martinez not only opened the hot sushi spot Mia--named for his daughter--on Eagle Rock Boulevard in recent years, he also opened a restaurant--named for his son--on York Boulevard, where there has been transformation. He says that York has become more of a destination as a result of entrepreneurial activity on the street.

He has also seen the worst consequences of quality of life problems. His brother was murdered coming out of a restaurant on a tough strip of Sunset Boulevard many years ago. But he thinks security in the city has also evolved.

When asked who is doing it right in the city, he points to the Police Department.

"The city is safer and better. They've evolved as they've involved the community. That's what happens when people work together. Now, they even understand the needs of business better."

His opponent, Councilmember Jose Huizar, has long been one of the city's strongest advocates of affordable housing projects. But Martinez worries that affordable housing often comes too close to public housing. "Public housing is generational," Martinez says. "I think when we fixated on public housing, we lost a generation, then another generation was stuck."

"I like Jose. I think he's a good guy. He's a good dad. But I think he's lost his way. Politicians in general lose touch."

He also thinks his childhood community in Echo Park stands as an example of how communities can transition.

"The middle class that was there wasn't pushed out," he says. "The new residents have created jobs for the kids of the oldtime residents."

It's also created some problems, hasn't it?

"Give me a problem, I'll find a solution," he says.