Emanuel Pleitez believes he's the man who can fix Los Angeles' most pressing problems. But first he'll have to overcome long odds to win the city's mayoral race next year.
The 30-year-old Pleitez is in a crowded field of candidates vying to lead the nation's second largest city, including established political figures such as City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry, and City Controller Wendy Greuel. A recent poll shows Pleitez receiving only two percent support against his better-known candidates. The candidates will go before voters for the first time in a non-partisan primary on March 5.
But Pleitez, the son of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, believes that he can use his experience growing up in the El Sereno neighborhood of East Los Angeles to energize disadvantaged communities and put together a winning coalition.
"I'm doing this because there are a bunch of folks in L.A. who are disaffected, disappointed, and frankly unimpressed with the candidates they have," he said in an interview with ABC/Univision. "That's not a spoiler, that's the person who should be considered the best mayor."
Pleitez isn't new to the political scene. He ran in a 2009 congressional special election to replace then-Rep. Hilda Solis (D), who was selected to serve as Secretary of Labor. But he lost the Democratic nomination to Judy Chu. Before that, Pleitez worked on Obama's transition team. After his failed bid for Congress, he served in the administration's Economic Recovery Advisory Board headed by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker.
He also worked at big-name financial institutions and management consulting firms such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and Company, which he left this year to serve as an executive at L.A.-based tech firm Spokeo. But he always returns to his roots -- his mother was pregnant with him when she immigrated to the U.S. and he became the first member of his family to graduate from college, getting a degree from Stanford. Pleitez tries to present both his humble origins and his star-studded résumé as positives.
"It's not like I'm coming out of nowhere," says Pleitez. "I've got more relevant experience to actually understand solutions, but more importantly, know what it's like to struggle and actually understand these problems firsthand."
The problems that Los Angeles faces are staggering. The city government faces rapidly-ballooning pension costs for city employees, contributing $1.2 billion per year to pension plans, up from $220 million a decade ago, according to reports.
Pleitez and others fear that the growing costs could eventually harm the city's ability to provide other essential services. But so far public officials and organized labor have failed to come to an agreement on a reform plan.
Los Angeles also faces an 10.2 percent unemployment rate and a 61 percent high school graduation rate that falls 15 percentage points below the state average, according to state government data. Even though he once served as an aide to Los Angeles' current mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Pleitez doesn't shy away from pointing out where he believes his former boss fell short.
"Forget about 'jobs, jobs, jobs.' Jobs exist. Our workforce is not trained. We have a huge skills mismatch in America and L.A. leads in that. The next mayor needs to be an education mayor," he said, meaning that they should focus on revamping the public school systems' curriculum and teaching practices.
"A lot of folks talk about how Antonio Villaraigosa was an education mayor. He spent his first three years of political capital on governance, on who takes over the school district," he added. "Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. But if you don't learn from that you're going to make the same mistakes."
Pleitez, who bills himself as a "progressive," says he wants to boost the graduation rate to at least 65 percent or higher, "and then obviously, I want to get to the top of the pack."
But Pleitez has experienced some trouble breaking through. Earlier this month, he failed to meet fundraising benchmarks to participate in a televised candidates debate. But a group of young supporters protested the event, chatting "Let Pleitez debate!," L.A. Weekly reported. Pleitez tells ABC/Univision he has been invited to at least half a dozen future candidate forums and debates.
Though the number seem stacked against him, Pleitez insists his campaign's use of technology and social media, as well as door-to-door contacts, will help him turn out enough of his voters to win on Election Day, especially from neighborhoods in East and South L.A. that have traditionally been neglected by other political campaigns. It's akin to a scaled-down version of President Obama's successful voter outreach strategy.
"My message sticks, it's a question of whether I get in front of the right voters," he said. " I'm completely confident that we're going to rise in the polls, especially in the next month or so. I don't care where I am now, I care where I am on March 5."