By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|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.