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Family and history envelop Felipe Hueso and Nick Inzunza Sr., bearers of two of the most prominent last names in San Diego politics.
Their names both will appear on the ballot in the City Council race to represent District 8, San Diego’s southernmost neighborhoods. It’s the fifth straight District 8 election a Hueso or Inzunza will run in. It’s the first time either a Hueso or Inzunza will lose.
Both Felipe and Nick Sr. reject the juiciest storylines. It’s not about a rivalry, they say, or a political dynasty. They like and respect each other and their relatives.
But after a scandal involving an Inzunza helped put current City Council President Ben Hueso in office, the Inzunzas believe it’s time for one of them to assume office again. And the Huesos aren’t ready to give it up.
“We helped put him in,” Nick Sr. said of Ben Hueso. “He was our guy. We got him his first job for the city. We did all kinds of stuff. He should have endorsed me. But that’s how politics is.”
A Political History
The race to replace Ben Hueso, who is running for state Assembly, has attracted seven candidates. Five of them must rely on more than their names. David Alvarez, a staffer for Democratic state Sen. Denise Ducheny, has secured prominent endorsements, like the local Democratic Party, and raised the most money. Alvarez has a campaign war chest of more than $33,000 — some eight times larger than either Felipe or Nick Sr.’s. Another candidate, B.D. Howard, has knocked on more constituent doors than anyone else.
Those efforts will have to overcome the significant name recognition both Felipe and Nick Sr. enjoy. The Huesos and Inzunzas have a long political history. Larry Remer, a longtime consultant for the Inzunzas, said of his clients, “This is a family where politics is their religion.”
The Inzunzas’ influence goes beyond District 8 to other South Bay communities like National City. Inzunzas have been in local political office since the 1960s, and 40 years later the family was flush with political power. In the early 2000s, Nick Sr.’s nephew Ralph was District 8’s councilman. Another nephew, Nick Jr., was National City’s mayor.
In 2005, it came crashing down. Ralph resigned after his conviction on federal corruption charges in the city’s Strippergate scandal. That same year, Nick Jr. was planning for a state Assembly race but decided not to run after the Union-Tribune detailed shoddy upkeep at properties he owned.
Ralph’s resignation cleared the way for Ben Hueso, who had worked for the city and had been a failed San Diego Unified school board candidate. By that point, Felipe had experienced a couple of failed races, too, including a school board election in the 1980s where he decided to run as “Phil” Hueso, a name change he now says he regrets.
Though the family didn’t have the Inzunzas’ political success prior to Ben’s election, the Huesos have deep roots in Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, said Rachael Ortiz, a community advocate and supporter of the Huesos.
“It’s not only because they’ve been around for a while,” Ortiz said. “They grew up here on Julian Avenue. They grew up in the barrio.”
Web of Connections
A look at the history between the families reveals a complex web of connections. Interaction between them was inevitable. Several went to the same Catholic high school.
The Huesos contributed to Ralph’s campaign and legal defense fund. But in a newspaper interview during his City Council campaign, Ben hedged his relationship with Ralph. After Ben was elected, he kept some of Ralph’s staffers.
The Union-Tribune investigation connected the Huesos to Nick Jr.’s real estate problems. Members of the Hueso family owned property with Nick Jr., the paper said, and Hueso’s sister managed some of Nick Jr.’s troubled properties.
Some were surprised to see both a Hueso and Inzunza name on the ballot this year. Ortiz said she was still scratching her head over why both decided to run.
“I thought they were allies,” she said.
Nick Sr. said he was surprised as well. He said his election to the South Bay Union School Board, where he still serves, showed there’s no stigma attached to the family name. Nick Sr. said Ralph didn’t do anything wrong. Also, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court might affect Ralph’s conviction.
Nick Sr. declared for the race before Felipe did. He contended that his family was told that Ben Hueso was going to endorse him in the council race, though he declined to say who told him.
“If he wanted to, we could have kept everyone together,” Nick Sr. said. “Everything would have been hunky dory.”
Asked why he believed Ben didn’t endorse him, Nick Sr. replied, “I think he thinks I’m a hot potato and it wouldn’t look right for him to.”
(Ben did not reply to a request for comment, but a staffer for Felipe said the assertion that Ben planned to endorse Nick Sr. didn’t make sense. Ben had agreed to endorse one of his staffers before he bowed out of the race.)
Uncle Nick vs. The Lawyer
Nick Sr. and Felipe are a generation apart and it shows. Nick Sr., 67, is retired, wears two hearing aids and is nicknamed “Uncle Nick” to distinguish himself. He peppers his conversation with references to 1950s NBA star Bob Cousy and the Lone Ranger. He drives a pale yellow 1966 Ford Mustang, which he bought brand new when he was 24 years old. He calls himself “a Chicano dinosaur.”
Felipe, 51, has to take time off from his solo law practice to campaign. On Monday afternoon, Felipe campaigned in a San Ysidro neighborhood and jogged between voters’ houses.
On the trail, reminders of Hueso’s name are many even if he doesn’t always want that to dominate.
“I do try to clarify that I’m not Ben,” Felipe said with a laugh, as he passed his yard sign with the letters of his last name dwarfing his first. “I try to tell people that I’m better looking and better qualified than he is.”
The Hueso name has benefits in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. An elderly gentleman wearing a black cowboy hat complained to Felipe in Spanish about graffiti on his property. Felipe got the name of the right staffer in his brother’s office and said he would address the issue.
Those types of connections make it difficult for other candidates, like Alvarez, to break through. His fundraising success, Alvarez said, made him “barely on par now” with the other candidates.
Candidates and political consultants believe no one will win outright in June’s primary election. That means the contest between the Huesos and Inzunzas could end in two months, or continue one-on-one in November.