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Adieu to Alatorre 

But no warm regards

Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

It was freezing in the Los Angeles City Council Chamber last Friday afternoon. "They must have turned off the heat," another reporter said. Though it was 70 degrees outside, it felt like 40 indoors; I sneezed as I zipped up my jacket and put on my hat. You always get these portents when you least need them. Meanwhile, everyone else was standing and applauding something Richard Alatorre had said about the brilliant career he was relinquishing.

It was quite a career, to hear the councilman tell it. But if you’d been around during the 27 years Richard Alatorre held office, you couldn’t help but feel that it had been mostly downhill after Alatorre’s breakthrough 1972 Assembly election delivered a bright-eyed, 28-year-old Eastsider into the den of some of state politics’ slickest operators. The skid began somewhere in the early ’80s, after Alatorre had helped set up the Agricultural Labor Relations Board for Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, completed several worthy redistricting proj ects and had, by later admission, learned how to snort.

And it ended last year with Alatorre, the free-spending councilman, subject to multiple investigations for a number of allegedly dirty deals. A judge finally caught him using cocaine to help ease himself through a tough custody hearing over the future of his sister-in-law’s young daughter. Along the way, there had been all the backroom transactions, all costing the public untold sums. There was the MTA, which Alatorre chaired as it became the costliest local pork barrel in California history. And the Hayward Hotel deal, which left the city in a $25 million hole. And the little favor he did two years ago for Marathon mogul Bill Burke — committing the city to support a downtown car race for a promised $5,000 expenditure that quickly grew to over $350,000. And, of course, the long stream of city, federal and LAUSD contracts he finagled for his chums in TELACU (the East Los Angeles Community Union) and the Cordoba Corp., most of which produced nothing of value for anyone but select insiders.

Now it was all over. Ever the braggart, Richard Alatorre was boasting that he’d done it His Way. He even bragged of his "bare knuckle" toughness in settling the 1990s police and DWP contract disputes. Others called the settlements giveaways.

"I am a man of my word. I will fight to the end," he said. But for whom and against whom? Mostly, it would seem, for Richard Alatorre. Since he was never much of a speaker, Alatorre’s last address as an elected official was beset by significant stumbles. He recalled how he had always "fought for the poor and the powerful." The poor now and then, the powerful most of the time. And that he "prevented historic buildings." Which speaks for itself, I suppose. What I most remember Alatorre fighting are things like the Ethics Commission’s attempts to regulate lobbyists. Alatorre, then chair of the council committee with jurisdiction on this issue, obstructed this proposal by failing to show up at meetings for over a year.

Mayor Dick Riordan was there to say nice things. Most of the City Council was not. I think it’s fair to say that, in the end, most of his colleagues didn’t like the man. There would always come a time when you’d have to deal with him: He’d have the votes and you’d have the proposed ordinance, and there you were. And there you were again, on the spot, when he came back with his invoice that you owed him. The most egregious example of this that I can recall came in early 1991, when the virtuous Zev Yaroslavsky, of all people, was somehow recruited. Zev thus led the last-minute charge to wrest the contract for a vital minority-business-contract study from a gilt-edged panel of Berkeley sociologists and hand it over to Alatorre’s Cordoba cronies. Who, predictably, produced, after many years of delays, a useless, worthless slab of paper for which the city paid nearly in full.

But people whose arms you twist don’t remember you fondly. And it was getting harder for Alatorre to find arms to twist as his colleagues shunned him. There were too many stories in the Times about his drug use, his tapped-out credit cards and bundles of anonymous cash. The councilman was now skipping council meetings, while reading the paper and staring at the ceiling during those he attended. It was said that even Mayor Riordan, who’d long counted on Alatorre as his only friend on the council and the MTA board, had begun to let their relationship swing loose.

Meanwhile, the bright tint of Alatorre’s blood was spreading through the political waters. As of Friday, with four more filing days left, 15 people — far more than in any other council district — had already filed with the Ethics Commission to run for his seat in April. They included longtime laborite Victor Griego, sometime Tom Hayden aide Jorge Mancillas, and Alvin Parra, the grassroots kid who came close to edging Alatorre in 1995 while spending only 10 percent as much as the incumbent.

Alatorre, of course, put the best face on the retirement thing. He bragged Friday that he’d win again this year, had he not wanted to spend "more time with his family." The people wanted him to run for this last term, he said, and he could easily "raise $500,000" to run in April.

Not likely for someone in his kind of financial trouble. But now it would probably cost much more than $500,000 to sell him to his scandal-weary constituency. The 14th is, demographically speaking, a very young district. And what struck you about the 300 or so supporters who half-filled the council chamber Friday was that they looked mostly over 55 — Alatorre’s age — while some of them have long since moved outside the district’s boundaries. Even if he were still flying high, now would be the time for Alatorre to step down. As low as he’s been cruising, what other choice did he have but to bail?

Long Time Gone

As it happens, I was also there the last time that a 14th District councilman announced his retirement. It was — some coincidence — 14 years ago, and in contrast to last week, all the council members were present. Arthur K. Snyder and the word scoundrel have become somewhat synonymous over the past decade, so we ought to recall that at the time, the Artful Dodger had done some terrific things for his district — far more in his 18 years than Richard Alatorre ever did in his 14 years as councilman. There were new pools and tennis courts. The famous Plaza de la Raza cultural nucleus was created, as were eight senior-citizen centers that still function, somewhat worse for wear. Snyder even brought street lighting to a district that had, in fact, been neglected severely by his predecessor. According to his own records, Snyder also got 6,000 trees planted, and wangled two new fire stations and eight new parks. He even made the Eastside a cultural magnet, sponsoring the greatest David Alfaro Siqueiros show ever to be held in Los Angeles and, for good measure, an early Frida Kahlo exhibit that was crucial to establishing her current level of American recognition.

I stress this because former Alatorre aide Michael Gonzalez was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that "the community had not had a voice in nearly 25 years" when Alatorre took office. What slop. Snyder’s wasn’t a Latino voice, but the Eastside sure had a voice in him. And as a 14th District resident over most of the Alatorre years, I’d say it had a much stronger voice then than it does now.

If the Times reporters Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez’s diligent coverage was a central factor in forcing Alatorre to resign, it was some very slipshod reporting that helped drive out Snyder. In early 1985, the District Attorney’s Office leaked a report that Snyder’s estranged wife had accused him of molesting their child. The report turned out to be untrue: Snyder and his subsequent wife won the child’s custody. But the report alleged exactly the sort of thing that most of the media were prepared to believe about Snyder, so the falsehood sealed his political career. He retired in midterm.

Am I wrong to think that this was not a good thing? Had Snyder served the rest of his term, a more estimable Eastside candidate than Alatorre might have had time to develop a campaign for the seat.

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