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Shameless in Sacramento 

The strange ways of Richard Alarcón

Tuesday, Nov 21 2006
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IS IT POSSIBLE TO LEAVE skid marks when abandoning a political office? That’s the first question for Richard Alarcón, a longtime pol from the northeast San Fernando Valley who is so eager to take advantage of a measure weakening term limits in Los Angeles that he’s thrown himself into a new campaign — before serving a single day in his new job as a state assemblyman.

Which leads to the second question: Can you really give up a job that you never bothered to hold in the first place?

So fluid are Alarcón’s political ambitions that it’s even hard to know what to call him. For now, he’s a state senator, having served in that post since 1998. In a couple of weeks, he’ll be a state assemblyman, thanks to his victory on November 7. And now he’s a candidate in the March City Council election, the latest guy to go after the seat held by departing Councilman Alex Padilla.

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If you only recently started following City Hall, you might not even remember Alarcón. He served five years on the City Council and then won an ugly race for state Senate. His star power waned dramatically by the time of the 2005 election, when he ran for Los Angeles mayor with a series of bizarre commercials that landed him in fifth place, narrowly ahead of Walter Moore, the grumpy blogger from Playa del Rey.

Each Alarcón ad was 15 seconds of pure weirdness: One showed him as a gumshoe, looking grim in a trench coat outside a nighttime crime scene. Another offered Richard Alarcón the pugilist, hammering at a punching bag amid incredibly bad lighting. Then there was Richard Alarcón the reformer, complaining about special interests as he rode in what looked like a recently purchased Lincoln Town Car. Each time, Alarcón sounded like he was muttering to himself. Was it the bad sound quality, or was he just odd?

Just when it looked like Alarcón’s strange ways would be confined to far-off Sacramento, he decided he just might like another term on the council, the body he left eight years ago in hopes of staying one step ahead of term limits. Alarcón’s name ID, if not his actual legislative accomplishments, could easily push him past the other hopefuls: Monica Rodriguez, a onetime aide to former Mayor Richard Riordan; Felipe Fuentes, the chief of staff to the departing Padilla; and Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, who thought she had convinced Alarcón to endorse her in her bid for the open Padilla City Council seat.

Funny thing is, no one at City Hall seems to have missed Alarcón. And those who are dreading an Alarcón Act 2 can only blame Proposition R, the ballot measure that passed earlier this month giving council members a shot at three four-year terms instead of two.

Montañez sounded flatly appalled that her former mentor would take up a council bid when he hasn’t even been sworn in as state assemblyman. “I would not run for an office and then not even give the voters the respect of serving for even a day,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to serve at least a term when we get elected,” she added. “I don’t know what his motivation is, aside from the obvious, which is that it’s a higher salary with a pension.”

Oh yes, that. Los Angeles does have a pension that kicks in bigtime once a lawmaker hits 10 years at City Hall. And the pay for a councilman is roughly $50,000 more than what state lawmakers earn in Sacramento. But Alarcón, who spent the past week drumming up support from lobbyists and labor leaders, said he simply loves Los Angeles and sees nothing shameless in seeking one job before starting another.

“There’s no surprise in terms of my desire to want to come back to Los Angeles. There is some surprise that I’m running, but that’s because people were surprised that [Prop.] R passed,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the folks who cooked up Prop. R were so dubious about their chances of victory that they bypassed the typical election-night party, leaving the hoopla to the sad sacks of the losing Proposition H campaign. But council members quickly made up for lost time, attending a blowout last week at Liberty Grill in downtown Los Angeles, a place packed with lobbyists and labor leaders — despite the numerous promises that Prop. R would limit the influence of special interests.

Indeed, one of the speakers there to celebrate Prop. R was Chris Modrzejewski, a lobbyist for Anschutz Entertainment Group, the firm that received nearly $300 million from the council to build a hotel and outdoor mall next to Staples Center. An ebullient Councilwoman Janice Hahn — thrilled that Prop. R will likely allow her to stay until 2013, not 2009 — told the crowd of land-use lawyers and union activists that they should all get together in four years and do the same campaign again. Hahn later said she meant those words as a joke, since Prop. R was designed to weaken but not end term limits at City Hall.

As it turned out, the real punch line came days later, when Alarcón seized on Prop. R as a way to get back to City Hall. Only weeks earlier, Alarcón had acted like a mini kingmaker to Montañez and Fuentes, both of whom sought his endorsement for their separate council campaigns. Montañez, a tough-talking former mayor of the tiny city of San Fernando, insists that she walked away with Alarcón’s backing — only to see that commitment evaporate once Prop. R passed.

Alarcón said Montañez “obviously misread the conversation.” “The conversation was me advising her as to what she would have to do to win the campaign. Obviously I didn’t endorse her if I’m running myself.”

Obviously. Fuentes went to Alarcón for an endorsement too, only to be told that any decision would be guided by the city’s two political powerhouses — Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “He said that it would be a difficult decision, and that he would be checking in with the speaker and the mayor,” said Fuentes, who lives in Sylmar.

Now, of course, Alarcón wants the mayor’s support for himself. “I can tell you I have consulted with him on several occasions. He likes the idea of having friends on the City Council, but that’s not to say that other candidates are not friends too,” he said.

Councilwoman Hahn said she and her colleagues always expected that a few City Hall veterans might make their way back into City Hall. But, she added, Prop. R is “still a good thing.” “Richard is Richard,” she added. “I mean, you can either look at him as a guy with a lot of experience or a political opportunist.”

And so voters who backed Prop. R, which will likely scare off any real competition in nearly every council contest until 2013, probably unwittingly worsened the musical chairs played by politicians angling to remain in office — in the northeast Valley. Montañez went to the trouble of moving into Los Angeles from her hometown of San Fernando to make sure her bid was legit. Alarcón moved last week into an apartment in Panorama City, where he now lives with his new girlfriend’s brother. This is the city’s version of reform.

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