Shaking hands during a debate last month at Southwestern College, District 8 City Council candidates Luis Acle and Ben Hueso vowed not to let their campaigns get mired in dirt and grime, which has, for decades, tarnished large portions of their district, stretching south from Golden Hill to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Acle is president of the San Diego Unified School District board and Hueso is a business owner and former employee of the city's Community and Economic Development Department. In the shadow of potential ethical violations by Congressman Bob Filner and state Assemblyman Juan Vargas (longtime representatives covering much of the same area), the candidates have trudged ahead in their assumed roles-Acle as a fiscally conservative Republican and Hueso as a family-man Democrat working to revitalize his underserved community.
However, with less than a week left before the Jan. 10 runoff election, the race has taken a predictably malevolent turn. Rival campaign mailers are characterizing it as a showdown between a politically motivated tax evader (Acle) and a handpicked political minion (Hueso), the latter with ties to National City Mayor and alleged slumlord Nick Inzunza and his brother, Ralph Inzunza, the prison-bound former City Council representative whose seat the candidates hope to fill.
The choice between the two may leave some voters clamping their noses and voting for the candidate they feel is the lesser of two evils.
Recent investigative reporting by the San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered a laundry list of unsavory conditions at rental properties owned by Nick Inzunza in and around Logan Heights, including rats, cockroaches, broken toilets and a lack of hot water. According to the U-T, when the mostly low-income residents complained, many were asked to vacate the premises. Those who refused were slapped with unlawful-detainer suits and forcibly evicted.
Some of Inzunza's properties are managed by Ben Hueso's sister, Virginia Hueso Gomez. County records show that Virginia, Ben and other members of the Hueso family also own copious rental units in the Logan Heights and Barrio Logan area. CityBeat recently visited a majority of the properties, including several with peeling paint, trash-strew lawns, graffiti and broken appliances rusting on the premises. Documents filed in San Diego Superior Court list more than 10 unlawful-detainer cases filed by Hueso family members in the past six years, as well as a host of other litigation the family has been involved in, including breach of contract and malpractice (against Ben's brother, attorney Felipe Hueso).
Ben Hueso holds one-third interest in 14 rental units at 2577 L St. and at 2456 Market St., along with brothers Jose Antonio Hueso and Alfredo Hueso.
Outwardly, the properties appear to be well maintained with a few minor exceptions. A broken window in the common-area stairwell of the Market Street units discovered on Dec. 22 remained shattered after more than a week. The property is currently under the Mills Act, which qualifies the owners of historic buildings for property-tax relief if they pledge to rehabilitate and maintain the historical and architectural character of their properties for a 10-year period.
At the L Street property, one tenant, who asked that their name not be used, said a toilet and a sewer-line clean-out adjacent to their unit has been backing up for two years, the same amount of time they have been complaining to the Huesos about the problem.
Interviewed last week at the two-story Logan Heights home he shares with wife Laura and their four young children (a conspicuously posh structure in comparison to the other homes on Harrison Avenue), Hueso said the problem was with the city.
"It's not that we don't respond to it," Hueso said. "It's the city's responsibility because it's backed up on the street. I have that problem with my house here, and I've been going through it for two years with the city to get them to repair the connection to the sewer."
Hueso said the historic property on Market Street was in a horrible state of disrepair when he and his brothers purchased it in the mid-1990s.
"I wouldn't send a rat to live there," Hueso said. "You had drug dealing that was taking place out of there, prostitution. When we bought it, the whole street was completely blighted.... When we bought L Street, [it was] the same situation."
Hueso said he moved from Golden Hill to 1976 Harrison Ave. about three years ago. He also uses a portion of the home as a campaign office. In recent campaign disclosure reports, the address is listed as the address for several paid staff working on Hueso's campaign, including one former Inzunza City Council employee.
An article published in the San Diego Reader in May of 2003 noted that the Inner City Business Association, of which Hueso is founder and executive director, paid Nick Inzunza close to $15,000 in federal grant money in a year's time for consulting services that included an item invoiced as "attending the grand opening of an affordable housing project in the Barrio" for three hours.
Hueso downplayed the significance of his ties to the Inzunza family and their real-estate holdings, calling articles about him in the Union-Tribune part of a Republican agenda.
"Every time [the U-T] prints my name, they say Ben Hueso has ties to the Inzunzas," Hueso said. "Every time I ask them, "Where's my ties? Where's the smoking gun?"
Hueso conceded that his sister manages "some" properties for Nick Inzunza.
"My sister manages properties for a lot of people," Hueso said. "Even if my sister was, like, buddies with Nick Inzunza, does that make me his buddy? And, OK, let's say if I was his buddy, does that make me guilty of being a slumlord?
"I spoke to my sister, and I mentioned some of those incidences where there were disputes, and she said she had no knowledge [of them] because they happened prior to her coming on board," Hueso said. "Management is a two-tiered system. She can't do anything without approval from the property owners."
However, Virginia Hueso likely has ample control over the condition of rental units listed in the county assessor's office as belonging to a trust in her name. During a visit to several of Virginia Hueso's properties last month, CityBeat found mattresses, mops, cleaning solvents, old appliances and other items cluttering the exterior of the properties. The most egregious eyesores were found at units located at 1626 Island Ave. and 2617 Commercial St..
In 1998, the Inzunza family purchased a property on East 16th Street in National City with Ben's brother, Angel Hueso. Angel quitclaimed his interest to the Inzunzas in a matter of weeks.
Asked about the transaction, Ben Hueso said, "There's 1,000 or 2,000 unconventional ways to buy property and they're all legal.... Honestly, I don't know what transpired.... My brother and Nick Inzunza are not friends. I mean, you can ask people. They don't get along."
Some other people Angel appears to have a hard time getting along with include Ben's former opponent in the race, Remy Bermúdez, as well as Union-Tribune reporter Martin Stolz, who has been covering Hueso's candidacy. Both filed statements with the San Diego Police, accusing Angel of assaulting them at Golden Hall on election night. According to court documents, Angel and several unnamed entities are currently being sued for pulling out of an agreement to sell an apartment complex at 643 Stork St. to San Diego County resident Donald L. Fisher, at an apparently agreed upon price of $950,000. A manager at the complex, who refused to open her screen door to comment, said Angel saw to her residents' needs, though graffiti and trash accenting the property seemed to belie any serious upkeep.
In 1999, both the city and state filed suit against Angel (doing business as the "Regal Hotel") for municipal-code violations at a rental unit he owned at 1477-1489 Market St., including 47 arrests of residents between September of 1997 to June of '98. Of those, 26 individuals were taken into custody for "either the use, possession or sales of rock cocaine," according to court documents.
Ben Hueso said some of the rental disputes at Inzunza-owned properties managed by his sister might have been related to the same issue.
"When you have tenants that are drug-dealing on your property, you're responsible for their activities," he said. "Unfortunately, the eviction process is never friendly. You try to evict somebody that is dealing drugs, they're the ones that are hardest to evict, because you have to say... what evidence you have that they're dealing drugs."
Hueso said his mother inherited several of the family's rental properties from his father Jesus, after his death in 1996.
"My father, he worked with the Neighborhood House [Association] as the director for a lot of years... and he bought property," Hueso said. "Let's just put it this way, he wasn't the best property manager, and a lot of the things that he was guilty of was not collecting rent and letting people get off on paying the rent. In turn, he didn't really provide the best property management.... My mom knows nothing about property management, so my brother took over management, and he's been rehabbing the properties."
The eighth child in a family of nine, Ben is the founder of the Central Commercial District Revitalization Corp., which took in more than $1.6 million in property taxes to clean up the streets of Logan Heights and the surrounding area, where the Hueso and Inzunza families live and own property. As someone touting his own efforts to revivify the very community where his family's properties languish, Hueso did acknowledge that voters might hold him accountable for his siblings' property-management style.
"Nobody in my family's above the law," Hueso said. "If somebody comes to me and says, "Your brother has all these code-compliance [complaints],' well, he better fix them and he better comply with the law-and when I'm a council member, my brother, my sister, my mother are not going to get special consideration on my behalf."
Hueso maintained that his biggest obstacle in the campaign has been the Union-Tribune, who he criticized for endorsing Acle based on what he feels is his opponent's kowtowing to Mayor Jerry Sanders' reform agenda.
"The 10 proposals on the mayor's agenda are consistent with the Republican Party," Hueso said, noting a questionnaire Sanders sent to all four City Council candidates potentially seeking his endorsement. "The Union-Tribune said, "We like Acle because he'll support the mayor's agenda.... Well, why hasn't the mayor endorsed Acle if he's the best candidate?
"I'm not going to put blindfolds on and say, "OK, whatever the mayor wants.'
(Sanders told CityBeat he didn't endorse Acle because he didn't return the mayor's questionnaire. He added that he considers Hueso a labor candidate and, therefore, unworthy of an endorsement.)
"The Union-Tribune, the Republican Party-they're all one-in-the same," Hueso continued. "The Union-Tribune refers to me as part of a political dynasty. The Union-Tribune is the biggest political dynasty that I know in the city.... They continue to refer to me as [having] ties to Inzunza. That may even help me in this district, honestly, to get votes.
"How can you be involved in your community and not know your elected officials?"
Hueso pointed to a mailer sent out in the primary by Acle supporters, which claimed he had received a contract from the city, due in part to his ties to Ralph Inzunza.
"I don't have a contract with the city, and, honestly, I've never received any personal benefit from Inzunza," Hueso said. "What the Union-Tribune is trying to hide is that my opponent has a restraining order issued against him from a former employee... because he was abusive, he threatened to blow up an office and he threatened to beat up his workmates. The Union-Tribune has that information.... They just absolutely won't print it."
Questioned about the matter by CityBeat, Acle said he recalled the case as that of a "disgruntled employee" occurring sometime in the 1980s. "There was no restraining order," Acle said. "I fired a secretary in an office that I had. She basically made an artificial case that there were some threats, [and] the matter was adjudicated."
If anyone should be accused of being a slumlord, Hueso said, it's his opponent, who he alleged has more than 20 unlawful-detainer cases of his own on record at San Diego Superior Court.
"He evicted people for complaining," Hueso alleged. "He was sued for having roaches and holes [in the ceiling].
"No truth to that," Acle shot back. "I think that at one point my ex-wife used to handle some properties that we had. She probably brought some actions against people she was evicting. I was never in charge of managing any properties. When I eventually became the responsible party for the properties, all the properties were put in the hands of a property-management firm."
Court records show that Acle's ex-wife, Cynthia Tam, managed a 16-unit apartment complex Acle owned between 1992 and 1996. The court denied a lawsuit filed by Tam to transfer custodianship of their daughters' interest in the property to her name in June of 2003. Acle said he has since sold the property and today owns only a home in South Bay and the Golden Hill residence where he currently resides.
Though he admits to owing the IRS almost $41,000 in back taxes, in addition to more than $7,500 in penalties imposed for providing the government with inaccurate information, Acle denied his opponent's assertion that he was dodging his civic duty as a taxpayer.
"The IRS audited my return and we had a difference of opinion with respect to what the outcome should be," Acle said.
The so-called "difference of opinion," Acle said, was due to receipts he submitted to the IRS for staff, utilities and other expenses at an office he ran in Mexico City-part of his U.S.-based development-consulting firm. The government did not recognize his expenditures south of the border, Acle said.
"The receipts were all in Spanish," he said. "They have no way of figuring out whether or not a document is legitimate."
During the 2004 school board race, parent and activist Kathy Lopez initially lent her support to former educator Pilar Arballo, an outspoken critic of former superintendent Alan Bersin's Blueprint for Student Success reform program. Hueso supported Bersin's plan, so after Arballo was eliminated in the primary, Lopez worked to help elect Acle. While canvassing neighborhoods, Lopez said she heard her share of grumblings about the Hueso family.
"I talked to people in the planning department, people that worked with him directly," Lopez said. "I even talked to one of his cousins, who's the principal over there at Perkins [Elementary] and I can't remember one person who said one positive thing about the Huesos."
"Acle wasn't a great alternative," she said, "but he was a better alternative than Hueso."
Lopez and former District 8 candidate Bermúdez are now urging District 8 residents to vote "none of the above" on Jan. 10. They have established a website to get the message out, www.votenoneoftheabove.info.
Lopez said her lukewarm support of Acle also has soured, in part because of what she views as his opportunistic departure from the school board.
"He did fulfill the promises he made during the campaign. He said he was going to get Bersin out; he said he was going to get a new superintendent in. He's done that. He said he was going to dismantle the blueprint. He did that." But, she said, "here it is seven months later and he's walking out on our children. I mean, what is that about?" Lopez questioned. "I mean, if he wins, that's going to be another $3 million for a special election to fill that seat on the school board."
Acle countered: "We had a fire a couple of years ago in the school district, and we have pretty much contained that fire. As I look around, I see that there's a much bigger fire [at City Hall] that, in fact, threatens to reignite the fire that we controlled."
One block down from USA Cab, a business the Hueso family owns on Imperial Avenue, Gus Jiminez, the owner of Mi Cocina Imperial restaurant, said he doesn't have much faith in either candidate.
"Pretty much everybody goes and comes and it's still the same," Jiminez said. "Things change, but not exactly to the extent that you want them to change. In other words, [rather than] to put 100 percent of their effort on this side of town, they prefer to do it somewhere else."