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Over the course of 25 years in L.A. politics, Richard Alatorre's name has become synonymous with backroom political deals. So perhaps it is fitting that the early jockeying to succeed the controversial Eastside city councilman involved an awkward attempt at nothing short of a backroom deal.
The candidate who arguably has the best chance to unseat Alatorre next year has already been asked by an old-guard Eastside Latino political operative to step aside in favor of a "chosen one."
Observers say the attempt to arrange Alatorre's succession represents another turn in the long-running drama that has defined politics on the Eastside for more than a decade - the feud between Alatorre and County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
The candidate asked to defer: Alvin Parra, the idealistic, 30-year-old county bureaucrat who threw a political scare into Alatorre in the 1995 City Council election by winning 42 percent of the district's heavily Latino vote despite being outspent more than 10-to-1 by the powerful incumbent.
The arm-twisting operative: Henry Lozano, the crusty congressional aide - formerly to retired Representative Edward Roybal, now to Representative Xavier Becerra - who just happens to be in the middle of a bitter child-custody battle with Richard and Angie Alatorre, whose late sister bore Lozano's daughter out of wedlock.
The so-called "chosen one": Charter Commission member Nick Pacheco, whom Lozano and a few other self-styled power brokers have been shamelessly promoting as the Alatorre successor-in-waiting. Pacheco enjoyed Molina's endorsement in his run for the commission, and he worked on her campaigns before that.
So is Molina quietly trying to orchestrate a kingmaking coup de grace and savor the ultimate satisfaction, 16 years after Alatorre reneged on a promise to back her bid to replace Art Torres in the state Assembly - a betrayal that spawned the enduring Eastside rift?
Molina could not be reached for comment, but her aide Miguel Santana says no: "Gloria doesn't want to contribute to what's going on against Councilman Alatorre. She's offended that what's going on is in any way attributed to her."
In any event, the question is academic. Parra refuses to bow out, says he'll challenge Alatorre in next spring's City Council election and already sounds like a candidate ready to take on the incumbent and spit out any other challenger in the same breath.
"Politics and leadership are about having a vision," Parra says. "When Richard Alatorre was involved in the redistricting process [in the state Assembly, in 1981] he had a vision, but it's no longer there. Once a politician's vision fades, so does that politician's commitment on behalf of his constituents. Richard Alatorre no longer has a vision for empowering others. His vision has been for empowering himself."
Strong words, but Parra is speaking carefully. What he doesn't mention is that Richard Alatorre is, if not washed up, then certainly banged up by allegations of corrupt, money-grubbing deals and fears of a criminal indictment from a federal investigation.
Those allegations, first published in the Los Angeles Times, have broken the hearts of some of Alatorre's staunchest supporters. Especially damning is the scenario painted by former Alatorre secretary Linda Ward - of a money-strapped Eastside councilman shaking down people doing business with the city and returning to his office with wads of $100 bills to pay his personal debts.
"I am disheartened with him. I'm bleeding inside, and I don't think I'm alone," says Dionicio Morales, president of the Mexican-American Opportunities Foundation and, along with Roybal, one of the most respected Latino elder statesmen in Los Angeles.
"You dream of having the kind of political presence that Latinos have started to have," Morales continues. "You dedicate yourself and support people in leadership positions, and then something like this happens. You hope that the allegations aren't true, but even if they're not true, this is hardly an example of our community putting its best foot forward."
Such misgivings, from community stalwarts like Morales, have Eastside residents thinking about a future they haven't considered for years - one without Alatorre.
"We're talking 'Boss.' We're talking 'Big Daddy.' We're talking the last of the smoke-filled-room politicians," says East L.A. lawyer Alex Jacinto, a veteran Eastside political observer who has closely followed Alatorre's career.
"To people on the Eastside, Richard is either God or Godzilla. Political life without him is unthinkable, and yet life always goes on."
Or as political scientist and East Los Angeles College President Ernest H. Moreno put it: "Without Richard and his extensive influence, there inevitably would be a power vacuum. Someone's going to fill that vacuum. The question is who?"
Alatorre, for one, says the reports of his demise are distressingly premature.
"I would not be so quick to write me off," he said in an interview. "I still have every intention of seeking re-election."
In fact, the seemingly calm and collected manner of Alatorre and the powerbrokers of his Eastside political machine suggests that they are either the shrewdest operators in town or that they have finally overdosed on their delusions of invincibility.
Even as talk of Alatorre's demise gives way to curiosity over the shape of a post-Alatorre political landscape, those closest to him are talking openly about how the influential councilman and MTA board member will "be stronger than ever" when he seeks re-election in 1999.