Twenty-two years ago, Felipe Hueso was cited for jogging with his dogs off their leash. When he showed up in court, the charge had suddenly changed to injuring an officer while resisting arrest. Surprised and stunned, Hueso represented himself in a jury trial—and won.
“They thought I was just another Mexican-American dude from Logan Heights who would just roll over on the charges,” Hueso said.
Angry about his treatment, Hueso looked around and noticed that there were no Latinos in positions of power. So he filed to run for San Diego City Council. He had trouble raising money, and he says he received death threats for being a Latino running in a district that had been represented by African-Americans for years, so he dropped out.
Now, Hueso is back. With the decision by his younger brother, City Council President Ben Hueso, to run for state Assembly, Hueso has decided to run for the District 8 seat his brother is vacating. A lifelong Barrio Logan resident and a workers' compensation attorney, Hueso has deep roots in the community. He has extensive contacts among the statewide Democrats from lobbying he's done, and he can expect fund-raising and campaign help from his brother, who likely won't face strong opposition in his Assembly race.
When CityBeat met Hueso at the Victorian house that holds his law practice, he was sitting at a long table in a Hawaiian shirt and slacks. He is mustachioed and somewhat portly, energetic and talkative. His bookshelves reveal a mind that ranges widely over many subjects, including history, law, politics and biology (he is a regular visitor to Anza-Borrego State Park and can identify numerous plant and animal species). A portrait of his grandfather, Pablo Baron, hangs near the long wooden conference table he uses as a desk, and CityBeat's interest in it inspired a short lecture on Mexican history, the Cristero War between Mexican secularists and Catholics, and how his grandfather had to spend two years hiding from federales in the mountains of Chiapas. Hueso works alongside his wife, Terrasina, and the atmosphere is relaxed. The whole place shuts down from noon to 1 p.m. every day for lunch.
The Huesos of Logan Heights in the 1960s were poor but respected throughout the blue-collar community. Both parents worked hard, and it fell to the oldest children to help out. Felipe, the eldest of nine brothers and one sister, pitched in with extra money at age 10 by selling copies of The San Diego Union on the street. Old men doing the same job drove him off the busiest corners, so he had to hustle to make a few dollars every week. As soon as he turned 11, he took a paper route. He organized the younger children into sub-routes, each responsible for a few houses or blocks, and then he paid them out of his salary. At his parochial high school, he ran for student body vice president (his slogan: “Vote for Hueso—it won't cost a peso!”) and attended UCLA both for his bachelor's and law degrees.
“I was one of a very few Mexicans at UCLA in the 1970s,” he said. “And it was really hard. So I became one of these guys—I'd wear a Mexican hat and huaraches. I really made sure everyone knew where I was from.”
After graduating from UCLA law school, he returned to San Diego, where he struggled to pass the California Bar exam.
He spent his early career as a highly trained paralegal and was often entrusted to bring in business from his numerous friends and acquaintances in the neighborhood.
After his aborted campaign for office in 1987, Hueso went to work for Lionel Orderica, a defense attorney. Hueso believed he was to be paid a bonus for bringing in extra work, but Orderica didn't recall agreeing to that, so Hueso went to work for Henry Michael Ramirez, and he took his clients with him. In 1990, he finally passed the bar, and he started his own firm.
But neither Orderica nor Ramirez were keen on having clients stolen from them, and the three lawyers spent the next couple of years resolving lawsuits and counter lawsuits. An arbitrator found that the clients Hueso took would have followed him anyway, since they were his friends and contacts. But he fined Hueso $8,000 because he “falsely encouraged his clients to file eight groundless and specious complaints with the state bar” against Ramirez.
Even through all that, Hueso still had some kind of financial relationship with Ramirez that he wasn't able to clearly explain to CityBeat. Hueso says the pact meant he was still paying Ramirez fees for certain kinds of business. He says this relationship made it appear he was making more money than he was, which was how he got behind on his taxes.
And, boy, did he get behind on his taxes. Court records show that he had to repay the IRS $102,396 and $14,500 to the California State Franchise Board, both of which placed liens on his property. Hueso was having other financial trouble at the time, and he racked up substantial credit-card and car-payment debts. On July 25, 1996, he was granted Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. He filed divorce papers with his wife, though they never followed through (Hueso now says the move was an attempt to protect her from the bankruptcy). Money was so tight that he wasn't able to pay his bankruptcy attorney, who eventually had to file a claim against him.
But for Hueso, the bankruptcy laws worked as intended, creating the time and space to repay the debts. Chapter 13 protection—as opposed to the more severe Chapter 7—meant he was able to keep his house, so long as he devised a five-year repayment plan for his creditors. In 2001, he emerged from bankruptcy. In 2002, both the federal and state tax agencies removed their liens.
The years after 1996 have been far better for Hueso. In addition to paying off his debts, he became active in the California Applicants' Attorneys Association (CAAA), a professional organization for workers' compensation attorneys. He co-chairs the Latino committee and he has become influential within the group's ranks.
One of his colleagues, Stan Levine, praised Hueso as an outgoing person who likes to talk to strangers at the next table and befriend people he meets. He also spoke repeatedly of Hueso's “innovative solutions to problems.”
Levine recalls a meeting of the CAAA in 2006 in which the organization was in crisis.
“That meeting was a drag-out fight over leadership of this group,” Levine said. “There was a lot of yelling and screaming. It was a big conference room, with the middle open and rows of chairs. And Felipe stood up and threw a chair 20 feet into the room—he really flung it. It stopped people from yelling. It's not a normal thing, but it worked.”
Levine emphasized that Hueso wasn't throwing the chair in anger but, rather, as a device to defuse the situation. He said some people laughed but everyone quieted down and listened. Hueso made a short speech reminding everyone that they were on the same team and to start talking to each other like adults. Levine says the group was able to progress from there.
in 1998, Hueso founded of InterAmerican College, an institution of higher education aimed at helping immigrants who'd learned skills in their home countries—like nurses and electricians—get certified in their professions in the United States. This month, the college received certification from the Wester Association of Schools and Colleges, and a major donor has emerged to provide the college with long-term funding.
“Now the college has this major investor, and my law practice is good, and my children are going to college,” Hueso said. “I'm ready for the next thing.”
In March, Ben Hueso, 10 years Felipe's junior, filed to run for state Assembly. Ben announced that he would support Alonso Gonzalez, his deputy chief of staff, to replace him on the council. But in June, Ben and Felipe got to talking at the Huesos' monthly family get-togethers.
“I said, ‘Alonso's great, but he's so young. He doesn't have the experience or the background,'” Felipe told CityBeat. “I said, ‘Maybe I should run.' Ben said to me, ‘You want to run, so run.'”
Ben spoke to Gonzalez and told him he had to support his brother, and thus was a City Council campaign born.
Hueso said he wants to help the city solve its financial problems and make it a more energy-efficient and sustainable enterprise. He wants to improve education and make the streets safer. But for Hueso, the workers compensation attorney, the responsibilities of power aren't so much policy-oriented as people-oriented.
“What really gets me going,” he said, “is you have some poor worker who's just been permanently injured, and some business, some big corporation, doesn't want to pay like they're supposed to. It's about helping those people who maybe don't speak English, and they don't know their rights, and finding a way to make them whole.”