Raging bull: Unlikely mayoral candidate Tony ‘The Tiger’ Lopez enters the ring

But the ex-champ really a contender?

photo by Evan Duran

Tony “The Tiger” Lopez isn’t accustomed to losing.

Compact and cobalt-eyed, the 53-year-old south Sacramento native hung up the gloves in 1999, capping a professional boxing career with a win percentage of 85 and three world titles. He then built a second career as a celebrity bail bondsman, and claims he hasn’t let a client skip out on him in 15 years.

But apparently there isn’t enough juice in signing autographs and chasing bail-jumpers.

In December, Lopez entered a different kind of ring. Announcing his candidacy for mayor of Sacramento, the bid instantly made him two things he hasn’t been in a while: an amateur and an underdog.

Though, not in his mind.

“Politics isn’t hard. It’s fricking easy,” he boasts. “If you have half a brain, you can solve half the problems.”

Here’s how Lopez would solve his half:

If elected, he says he will audit the city’s spending, crowdsource the development of the riverfront and charge homeless people rent in exchange for affordable housing. And, though it’s a county issue, he’d also like to see the downtown jail start a chain gang like the one in Maricopa County, Ariz.

“You shouldn’t want to go to jail,” he says to the nervous laughter of his campaign manager. “I say make them work.”

That’s Lopez, whose unfiltered thoughts batter the air like rushed combinations. He’s a palooka philosopher taking his barroom brainstorms to the political stage. But is he a contender?

In any other year, no.

“If everyone runs a conventional campaign in a conventional year, then Lopez likely would not have much of an impact,” says conservative political consultant Tab Berg, who isn’t affiliated with the campaign. “But Lopez is not a conventional candidate, and these are not conventional times.”

We’ll say. 2016 is the year of the celebrity apprentice as national frontrunner. And this is Sacramento, which has made a habit of electing ex-athletes.

Lopez is running to replace one and join two others on the Sacramento City Council, but he hasn’t made it easy on himself. He has yet to report any campaign contributions or political endorsements, and he’s the lone Republican in a race dominated by big-name Democrats Darrell Steinberg and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.

So why isn’t this tiger sweating?

“I don’t give a shit about Steinberg, I don’t give a shit about her [Ashby],” Lopez says in true, prebout, smash-mouth fashion. “I’m on my own mission.”

Running on empty

Lopez says he’s been thinking of running for office for a few years, but it’s difficult to pin down his exact reasons. The hyperactive candidate flits from talking about auditing elder-care facilities to pimping out the riverfront with hotels like a Monopoly game board.

“We want to do shit that attracts people from all over,” he says. “That’s how you make the city money.”

As for his plan to end homelessness, Lopez makes it sound like a cinch. He says he wants to rent out “very retro—not ghetto, not dumpish—but very retro” affordable housing to people experiencing homelessness for $100 a month, money he says they would otherwise spend on drugs or alcohol. Homeless residents would have to be on a citywide register for at least a year before they could access these services, so as not to attract struggling people from outside the city. Lopez says he wouldn’t charge military veterans or those with mental illnesses, but everyone else would pay and be put to work.

“Watch, if I give you free, how much value is that to you? Nothing, it’s free. Doesn’t cost you shit,” he reasons. “And that’s their attitude, because I talk to the homeless. … I talk to so many homeless people you could not shake a stick at. Been doing it for years.”

Two homeless service providers declined to comment on the Lopez plan (“I simply cannot,” said one), but most of his ideas are like this—confident sketches that may play well over clinked beers, but sound half-baked in the sober light of day.

And Lopez doesn’t necessarily dispute this. He considers himself a big-picture guy who isn’t interested in the minutiae of policy. He says he failed his first bail bonds licensing exam because he tired of answering “boring questions.”

“Here’s what I’m bringing, dude, I’m bringing the foundation,” he says. “Doesn’t mean there’s a building on it, but I’m bringing the foundation. Maybe your building is better than mine. If your building is better than mine, fuck, dude, we’ll use yours.”

That kind of Teflon-minded swagger might not be a weakness this political season. Donald Trump’s surprising ascent has proven there’s a “yuge” market for crass bluster. And Sacramento is no stranger to electing sports celebrities to political office. Just ask former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (bodybuilding), departing Mayor Kevin Johnson (basketball) and council members Allen Warren (baseball) and Rick Jennings (football).

So why not an ex-champ?

“The advantages that we have surgically is that Tony also has iconic status in the community,” says campaign manager Chris Collins, especially, he contends, among Latinos and white, male baby boomers. It’s the former category that Collins thinks could swing this race.

“The unknown in this is Hispanics. And I can tell you right now that the other two candidates are freaking out about it,” says Collins, a former morning radio personality. “I’m not saying they’re automatic. If they were, the race would be over, he’d win.”

According to a report by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change’s California Civic Engagement Project, Latino voter turnout in the Sacramento region has been declining in recent years, even as the Latino population has grown. Only 20 percent of eligible Latino voters participated in the 2014 general election, the report says.

Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio doesn’t expect that to change this primary. And even if it did, the assumption that Latinos would support Lopez because of his last name is unproven. But Berg believes the math exists for Lopez to force a runoff, though he says it’s a long shot.

“Even if he does everything right, has the resources to mount a strong effort, with favorable circumstances and the wind at his back, it would be difficult to win—but he may well influence the race and could even determine the outcome,” Berg writes in an email.

Berg says it partially depends on which frontrunner Lopez targets—Steinberg, the left-leaning state politician, or Ashby, the moderate suburban representative.

The Lopez campaign has come out swinging against both. Collins, a Democrat, says Steinberg should be held to account for the multiple corruption scandals in the state senate during his final term as president. And the campaign plans on using a recent uptick in crime rates to hit Ashby, who has the support of public safety unions.

“The other two better be prepared to spend their war chest,” Collins says.

‘You want to know how real I am?’

In making his case that Lopez is this race’s real crime-and-punishment authority, Collins points out a man with a ponytail and goatee, who has been waiting in the lobby for about 40 minutes.

“You have somebody who’s sitting here who Tony is working with as a client,” Collins says. “He helps people. He’s more helpful than the other two [candidates] are.”

The man pokes his head into the room. “No, I’m here to sign for the mayoral thing,” he corrects, then turns to Lopez. “I went to school with you.”

Meet Mark Horr, the quintessential Lopez supporter.

An environmental compliance officer with the county’s Waste Management and Recycling Department, Horr’s work shirt literally features a blue collar. He grew up in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools as Lopez, around the same time. To him, that stuff matters.

“That’s why I’m here,” he explains. “He’s from the same place I am. You can’t deny that.”

This is the demographic that Collins believes is his guy’s for the taking: white, male baby boomers who can relate to Lopez’s humble roots and admire his path to athletic glory.

“Now, to the average person, you or I, might look at it and say, ’Yeah, boxing, that’s great,’” Collins says. “But within the communities that like boxing, it’s a big deal. And that’s a lot of white males, as you know, who are now in this voting age, 55 to 75.”

Horr isn’t quite there age-wise, but he is supporting a “Tony The Tiger” administration. He offers to volunteer for the campaign and invites Lopez to attend—and speak at—an annual gathering of people who attended Hiram W. Johnson and Sacramento high schools during the ’70s and ’80s. “It’s off the hook,” he says.

After some more boosterism, the two share a big laugh over Horr’s last name. “I don’t know if you’ll remember it,” he tells Lopez. “H-O-R-R, and that’s exactly the way it’s pronounced.”

Lopez claps his hands giddily. “Awesome!” he says.

“Yeah,” Horr grins, “you don’t forget that one.”

It’s easy to see the tiger’s appeal in a moment like this. He’s the approachable celebrity, the guy you’d want to—and can—have that beer with.

“You want to know how real I am? … Shit, call me, motherfucker, I’m everywhere,” Lopez says at one point. “I can be in Lavender Heights, I can be downtown, I can be at the mall. If it’s fun, I’m there.”

Fun—it’s Lopez’s ultimate campaign promise. And he’s made it to himself.