By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Any sudden death where the departed had no life-threatening disease and seemed in good spirits is worth careful scrutiny, especially if a substantial estate is left behind. This rule also applies to political life. So when state Senator Richard Polanco’s career as legislator, power broker and kingmaker came to an unscheduled end with his February 21 withdrawal from a City Council race, many observers called for an autopsy.
There was, in his brief withdrawal statement, an explanation of sorts, but he may not have been entirely forthcoming.
Polanco, who as majority leader is No. 2 in the state Senate hierarchy, had seemed the picture of political health, regarded as the overwhelming favorite in his bid to segue onto the City Council in the downtown district being vacated by the retirement of Mike Hernandez. While this would have been a step down from the prestige and clout of his present office, he had a good shot, say some political savants, at an immediate promotion into a starring role as successor to ailing and often absent City Council President John Ferraro. ”The rumor mill gave him seven votes -- some of them not elected yet,“ says city-employee-union president Julie Butcher. Evidence for such ambitions comes from the fact that Polanco had endorsed candidates in at least three open council districts, including Carl Washington, best-funded candidate in the downtown--South-Central 9th, and Conrado Terrazas, the sole Latino contender in the heavily Latino Hollywood--Silver Lake--Echo Park--Highland Park 13th. Another likely vote could have come from Pacoima‘s Alex Padilla, who started his own career as campaign manager for Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, a Polanco protege.
With these prospects ahead, why would Polanco decide that his legislative duties in Sacramento needed his ”full attention“ after all, or that opportunities in the private sector, not specified then or later, loomed magnetically on his horizon? Polanco aide Bill Mabie says his boss was discouraged and despondent after a meeting of the Democratic Party’s county central committee at which he fielded much flak and failed to get the party endorsement. Nonsense, say many party activists -- Polanco never counted on being loved, and had shown enough strength to keep the endorsement from opponents. The ”fire in the belly“ that had propelled him in earlier races had gone out, according to his more introspective rationale for the about-face, but that still left a haze that political insiders considered a smoke screen for matters Polanco wasn‘t talking about.
At about the same time as the withdrawal announcement, a birth certificate was being faxed around to contenders in the council race, and to selected media, including the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times, listing Polanco as the father of an 8-year-old whose mother is a longtime staffer in his Capitol office. In a more innocent age, such a revelation about a married man would have been political cyanide. But many question whether in the post-Lewinsky era it would have inflicted much damage, especially, says one downtown Democratic official, in a district that tolerated -- or at least failed to recall -- a crack-addicted councilman who was using his City Hall office as a crash pad and private porno theater. Moreover, it’s unclear how effectively the story would have filtered into public awareness. Major media, including the Times and La Opinion, were reluctant -- out of respect for the privacy of the staffer and her child -- to circulate stories of a decade-old dalliance unless there was a compelling reason.
For many journalists, the drawn-out Monica saga prompted soul-searching over the question of when sex stories are legitimate journalism. In this case, there were mixed signals. The romantic relationship was allegedly long over. On the other hand, the job continued -- was it held on professional merit or as a personal favor? ”It‘s a dilemma for a journalism ethics class,“ says one junior Times editor. ”You don’t want to be a tool of blackmailers, but if the blackmail succeeds, how do you ignore it?“ In the view of a Sacramento reporter who has covered the mother‘s work on prison and child-welfare issues, ”It’s not a bimbo story -- this is a very competent, skilled professional.“ Reporters considered the quasi-nepotism angle, only to find that the rules of the Legislature forbid employment of relatives by marriage only if they live under the same roof -- a rule that presumably applies in quasi marriage as well. The Times started looking at Polanco‘s withdrawal the day after its announcement; tellingly, nothing saw print until nearly three weeks later, only after silence had been broken through a political-gossip column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
If a competing candidate had openly brought the issue into the campaign, it might have been hard to ignore. But the media were uncomfortable with an adultery story from an anonymous source. Some believed that the source was an outfit already more powerful than Polanco’s political machine -- the state‘s prison-guard union.
A few weeks before Polanco’s announcement, the fate of L.A.‘s 1st Council District was under discussion in a peculiar venue: the Sacramento office of California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) president Don Novey. Sitting with Novey and his lieutenants were East L.A. Councilman Nick Pacheco and Polanco’s main (if overmatched) challenger in the race, former Hernandez chief of staff Ed Reyes. The meeting, says Reyes, was ”to see if I was real, was the passion there, and why was I so crazy as to take this guy on?“ Reyes‘ recall is hazy on how the conclave came about; Pacheco says it was Novey’s idea. Discussion soon centered on a proposal that the union underwrite an independent anti-Polanco campaign, something in five figures, a proposal Reyes warmly welcomed: ”I‘d beat every bush I can to get resources.“