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The Machine Lives 

Alatorre Is Gone, But His Legacy Isn't

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
CALL IT POLITICAL MACABRE. ARE RICHARD Alatorre and his Eastside political machine so cunning that even from the depths of what would appear to be their political grave they are orchestrating the race to succeed him in the 14th Council District campaign?

Consider, first, that the 14th, home for generations to some of the city's shadiest shadow politics, is grappling with a sudden dose of democracy, with 13 candidates qualified for the April 13 ballot.

Consider, too, that for most of their adult lives, Alatorre and his wholly owned subsidiary, state Senator Richard Polanco, have been joined at the hip. Consider that equally ambitious Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, an adopted member of the Eastside machine, has designs on becoming the next mayor of Los Angeles.

So when Polanco and Villaraigosa -- now two of the most powerful political figures in the state -- throw their considerable collective weight behind the council candidacy of Victor Griego, an Eastside political consultant with long connections to the machine, would it be safe to say that Griego has been designated the Latino establishment's candidate?

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Perhaps, unless you see that, at the same time, Alatorre and some of his cronies have lent their imprimatur to the candidacy of Luis Cetina -- a political novice who, apparently with Alatorre's aid, has emerged with the endorsement of the powerful Service Employees International Union and the backing of millionaire former gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi.

And then there's Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, still another machine player with close ties to Villaraigosa, coming out with an endorsement of immigration activist Juan José Gutiérrez, a candidate regarded as something of a dark horse.

What gives? Have Polanco and Alatorre feuded? Has Alatorre been abandoned to lick his wounds along with envelopes in Cetina's campaign office? Is the Eastside political machine, damaged severely by the scandal and investigations surrounding Alatorre, now so splintered from the big fall that none of the king's men can put it back together again?

ONE CAN ONLY SPECULATE -- INDEED, with the shifting alliances and murky power plays, one is obliged to speculate -- but some experienced Eastside observers believe the machine is still operating. These insiders suggest that the longtime power players are hedging their bets. They consider Griego to be the true machine candidate. But they hold that in a crowded field, Griego can only be assured of an April 13 electoral plurality that would get him into a June runoff. Consequently, the machine is trying to maneuver Cetina into the other runoff spot, where his campaign would sputter and the machine would claim the Eastside council office for one more term.

"The strategy is having the best two horses, getting both in the runoff and then sacrificing one of them," says East Los Angeles attorney Alex Jacinto, who has been involved with Eastside campaigns for the last 30 years. "They would sacrifice Cetina because Griego is one of the boys. I doubt that Cetina's even aware of it. He's too new at the game.

"But this would be classic Richard Alatorre. Do not underestimate him. Nothing here is coincidental."

And what of Cedillo's endorsement of Gutiérrez? Despite his closeness to Villaraigosa, Cedillo still holds a grudge against Griego for the negative campaign his client Vicki Castro waged against him in their Assembly campaign last year, and figures Gutiérrez would be one more way of splitting the district vote.

The leading political players roundly deny any such scenario of political machination. But what was once seen as an opportunity for the Eastside to break the hold on an entrenched political machine has increasingly taken on the appearance of a referendum on that very same established leadership.

To outsiders it may not be an inviting sight, perhaps like going to a new Mexican restaurant and finding out that the menu is not that different from the Mexican restaurant that has been giving you indigestion for years. The old guard, however, continues to wield the campaign contributions and experience in deploying the resources and volunteers that can decide any political contest.

And this election could decide more than simply who will succeed Alatorre as the leader of the 14th District; it could determine the future of Latino politics citywide. Mayoral aspirant Villaraigosa, for one, hopes that the success of Griego's candidacy will clear his path of any other Latino mayoral aspirant -- namely U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra.

Insiders say it is Becerra's candidate, Deputy District Attorney Nick Pacheco, that the old-guard Latino establishment least wants to see in a runoff. Pacheco, who in 1997 ran a successful campaign to represent the district on the Elected Charter Reform Commission, also has the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan.

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