In the highly charged race between indicted L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon and another political insider, Raul Bocanegra, the mostly Latino voters of Assembly District 39 in the northeast San Fernando Valley are not getting the choice some had hoped for: at least one candidate who stands for a different kind of politics.
Alarcon, an unusually persistent seat-switcher who has spent little of his life outside government, has held an L.A. City Council seat twice — separated by stints as a state senator and assemblyman in Sacramento. Once popular on the Latino left, he's been too focused on job-hopping for power, according to District Attorney Steve Cooley. Prosecutors are pursuing Alarcon for 17 felony counts of perjury and voter fraud, for lying about where he lived when he ran for and won his current District 7 seat.
The "home" Alarcon claimed on official papers, prosecutors say, is an abandoned derelict property in a somewhat rough area of Panorama City — while Alarcon and his wife actually lived outside District 7, in an attractive Spanish Colonial house in tree-lined Sun Valley.
There was early talk that a transformative figure might rise up to represent Assembly District 39 — perhaps a fed-up, anti-Sacramento activist from a neighborhood council. But the northeast Valley's legendary, old-guard comadre network of interlocking families is backing Bocanegra, an insider groomed by insiders.
Bocanegra worked for ex-City Council president Alex Padilla; he's currently on unpaid leave from his position as chief of staff to controversial Assembly District 39 Rep. Felipe Fuentes, whom the L.A. Weekly profiled in its story "The Worst Legislator in California." Bocanegra also worked briefly for Alarcon.
With Fuentes being forced out of his District 39 seat by term limits — and set to run for a $178,789-per-year seat on the L.A. City Council, Bocanegra, a part-time urban studies teacher at Cal State Northridge, wants Fuentes' $135,000-per-year legislative spot.
On his website, Bocanegra promises he will "stand up to special interests and career politicians who are bankrupting our state."
But Jamie Regalado, a longtime political analyst, says that Bocanegra is even more connected in the state capital than Alarcon. With Alarcon possibly circling the drain, three state senators, 14 Assembly members and the California Democratic Party have endorsed Bocanegra. "Most people know [Bocanegra] as Felipe [Fuentes'] chief of staff," Regalado says. "Some people may get turned off by what looks like a hand-off from a politician."
The race is an example of the new "top two" law in California. Democrat Bocanegra defeated Democrat Alarcon in the June open primary. No Republican came close to them in votes, so none is on the ballot. Regalado calls it an "even race."
Bocanegra campaign spokesman Pat Dennis says, "It is pretty clear that [Alarcon] is losing, is desperate, and his campaign is in a tailspin."
Alarcon hits back. "I feel like I'm running against the invisible man. You never see him in the community."
Somewhat humorously, Alarcon charges that Bocanegra is "not new blood" and his "career is tied to politicians."
Dennis snaps, "Alarcon has spent a career using his position to help his friends, jump from office to office, and now his complete focus is on the criminal charges he is facing. This is a district with honest, hard-working families. They want someone who will focus on improving schools and creating jobs."
Once an aide for Mayor Tom Bradley and later a powerful, often imperious, chairman of the state Senate Labor Committee, Alarcon, 58, soon could get a taste of life without power — if his former aide, 41-year-old Bocanegra, brings down the curtain on him. If that happens, will Bocanegra be any different from Alarcon, 17 years from now?