Villaraigosa rally

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sings along with some mariachis at the campaign kickoff rally in his field office in Boyle Heights. Villaraigosa opened his office less than four weeks before the March 3 primary election. (Stefano Paltera / For The Times / February 7, 2009)

An Eastside street corner was alive with mariachis, folklórico dancers and a pumped-up Antonio Villaraigosa on Saturday afternoon as the Los Angeles mayor kicked off his reelection campaign -- and skipped an invitation to face off with a group of his mostly unknown challengers across town.

As hundreds of supporters cheered Villaraigosa with "Sí se puede!" -- yes we can -- the candidates running against him pelted the mayor with allegations of corruption and tawdry ties to the city's powerful labor unions, winning sporadic applause from 80 people at Holman United Methodist Church in the Jefferson Park neighborhood.

The dueling events typified a mayoral race that has been largely nonexistent, without the campaign ad wars and raucous debates of past elections, and with the first-term mayor feeling no need to debate or even acknowledge the underfunded, long-shot candidates running against him.

"I have a great deal of respect for anybody who's willing to put it on the line and run for office, and I certainly respect that fact that these candidates are doing that," Villaraigosa said after the rally. "But I'm going to talk to voters, I'm going to talk to the people about our record and, importantly, what we intend to do in the next four years."

Villaraigosa spent months campaigning hard during his first runs for mayor, two bitterly fought contests against the likes of former Mayor James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and former Councilman Joel Wachs. Villaraigosa lost to Hahn in 2001, then beat him in 2005.

This time around, though, he didn't even open his campaign office until Saturday, with the March 3 primary election less than four weeks away.

Villaraigosa's most notable challenger is business attorney and real estate broker Walter Moore, who has never held an elected office and placed fifth in the 2005 mayor's race. Villaraigosa had raised $2.7 million in campaign funds by mid-January. His challengers: $215,343, almost all of it by Moore.

Seven of the nine candidates trying to unseat the first-term mayor attended Saturday's candidates' forum sponsored by the National Assn. for Equal Justice in America, among them a socialist, a meat packer and the blogging City Hall gadfly David "Zuma Dogg" Saltsburg.

Saltsburg spoke out against "fraud, waste and abuse."

"The city is under attack from corrupt politicians," he said. "I don't like the way the city is being run."

Moore drew applause when he said Los Angeles "used to be a good place to live. Now it's . . . run-down, with two classes: the crony class and the taxpayer class." Moore, who had raised $202,548 and has qualified for $43,000 in city matching funds, has been the most outspoken critic of the mayor for refusing to debate. Candidates who receive matching funds must participate in at least one debate -- but Villaraigosa opted not to accept matching funds.

The candidates didn't agree on much, but they railed against Measure B, the Villaraigosa-backed $3-billion solar energy proposal on the March 3 city ballot. Candidate David Hernandez said the measure would give the mayor and City Council direct influence over Department of Water and Power rates. Others said it would give a monopoly to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents DWP employees.

The youngest candidate, Carlos Alvarez, 22, called for creating thousands of union jobs at a minimum pay of $15 an hour. Craig X. Rubin, a pastor, suggested the city build a desalination plant and abide by the Ten Commandments.

Across town in Boyle Heights, city and state elected officials gushed about Villaraigosa's record as mayor, crediting him with a 23% drop in violent crime since he took office and for fighting to improve the city's public schools and the environment.

"It is great to see our mayor be a leader here on the Eastside, in the city, in the state and throughout the nation," Monica Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, shouted to a crowd packed inside Villaraigosa's Eastside campaign office.

Villaraigosa fired up the crowd with a 20-minute speech, talking about growing up in East L.A. and receiving some of the biggest cheers when he talked about his ongoing push to improve the public schools.

He began, however, with an apology -- a reference to the highly publicized affair that broke up his marriage, though he did not mention it directly.

"I'm sorry about the mistakes that have been made," Villaraigosa said. "But one thing about me, I've always stayed focused on this job. I've always stayed focused on the central purpose of public service."

phil.willon@latimes.com

martha.groves@latimes.com