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Autumn of the Ethnocrats

Two demises on last Wednesday's front page. One death was literal: Tom Bradley's, at 80 years of age. The other was political: 14th District Councilman Richard Alatorre's, at 55.

What a contrast.

Bradley died at 80 after over 50 years of public life: He came closer to representing most of this city than has any other mayor. We ought not forget the lessons of his sad last years in office. But all we have to do to measure his true importance is to try to imagine what this city would have been like without him.

The political death of Richard Alatorre was without honor: He flunked a court-ordered drug test after swearing he was clean. Ironically, he lost the custody of his beloved niece in the same moment the cocaine-use disclosure cost him his political future.

For 25 years, Bradley and Alatorre bracketed the spectrum of California ethnic politics. One was the inclusive example, the other the exclusive. Alatorre went to the state Assembly as Bradley became mayor. Their paths crossed 13 years later, when Alatorre traded his Assembly seat for Art Snyder's council position. It was Bradley who appointed Alatorre to the transit agency that was to become the MTA. Yet, their dissimilarity remained strong.

Bradley loved huge crowds; people sought out his handshake and reserved smile. Until the eve of that 1992 riot, Bradley was popular everywhere. He built his famous polyethnic coalitions and kept them together. He brought out the best in his subordinates. He was hard to get to know, and he liked it that way; he guided by example. For most of his working life he was one of our most honest politicians. He made Los Angeles the envy of the world, then strove for higher office and let his city decline. I'm not sure how this contradictory totality made him great. But I think that it did.

Alatorre, on the other hand, was in it for himself: While close to his cronies, he seemed uncomfortable with constituents; with city subordinates he was intimidating and brutal. I can still point to 14th District swimming pools and tennis courts ordained by Art Snyder. Under the incumbent, the streets do get paved. But no one could say, as Los Angeles Magazine once did of Snyder, that Alatorre serves his constituents better than any other councilman.

But again, Alatorre's priority wasn't serving his constituents. He preferred to be both a symbolic Hispanic leader and a real-time power monger under the discrete authority of a downtown establishment that didn't care what happened in Boyle Heights. He was the city's second Latino council member, but unlike his expansive and inclusive predecessor Ed Roybal, he chose to be an ethnocrat, a leader propelled less by desire to do the job than for the insider rewards due the chief of a community that until recently felt itself ethnically disenfranchised.

Certainly, Alatorre wasn't the first ethnocrat. Preceding him on the City Council was that charming downtown freebooter Gilbert Lindsay. Way before either, there was King Herod. The first rule of ethnocracy is that you lead the parades while looking out for Number One. And then one's friends. And then the district's voters. And lastly, the city you've sworn to serve. I cannot recall Richard Alatorre ever doing anything for the city of Los Angeles. He mostly did things to it.

Alatorre's relationships stemmed from power and money. Yet, perhaps because of his drug addiction, the money is gone and the power is ebbing. In months to come, the councilman's affairs may move into the criminal jurisdiction. He could face perjury charges on that drug-addiction denial, not to mention consequences of that alleged $100,000 kickback for leaving the city holding a $25 million bag on the Hayward Hotel, not to mention his sordid trove of other slimy deals, before and since. Bradley's best years corresponded to the best years of this city. Alatorre's record delineates a history of corruption reaching beyond Los Angeles and the MTA. His career is over. Now it's time for justice.

Progress Then and Now

Taking in the final session of the "Progressive L.A." conference at Occidental College last weekend, I was struck by the overflow crowd of youngsters, many of them encountering the speakers and their ideas for the first time. Talking to some attendees, I got the sense that much intellectual stimulation was taking place, but not without some resentment of certain elderly attitudes expressed by the speakers.

I remembered feeling the same way about my political and intellectual role models in the early 1960s. Yet most of what they said then was what the progressive agenda still believes now. The last Sunday panel was discussing the future of the progressive agenda, carrying it over for yet another generation. So I imagined a similar panel on the future of the social issues of my college years, including similar "progressives" (they actually weren't coy about calling themselves leftists then) of that time and place: let's say, anti-establishment scribe I.F. Stone, social critic Dwight MacDonald, activist Dave Dellinger, gay social critic Paul Goodman - what, no women? No elected officials? No people of color? Well, that was the early '60s for you.

When you're young, you quickly learn to separate the wheat of ageless truth from the chaff of adult bullshit. Thus I thought then: "This is awesome, what you're telling me about Mississippi and Vietnam, but enough with blaming me for liking pop music and losing the Spanish Civil War five years before I was born."

The young people last weekend might have felt the same way, fronted with a similar meld of passion and posturing. For instance, when former Western regional director of the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund Connie Rice was telling us, "Don't let me start telling you what it's like being black," one of them might have thought, "Sure, do tell me what it's been like being black. But while you're at it, tell me what it's like being probably the most important and successful public-advocacy attorney in California."

Of course, when it comes to mixing politics and attitude, state Senator Tom Hayden holds the crown. He interrupted his own down-to-earth discourse on bringing out the middle class's "capacity for compassion" with an out-of-plumb-nowhere attack on the downtown law firm of Latham & Watkins. Which, if I got it right (Hayden was moving very fast), put its puppet Tom Bradley in the Mayor's Office in order to bury the rest of us under a tidal wave of wanton, oppressive development, while increasing air pollution to its current worst-ever levels.

Whew. No one addressed that loony last assertion, but Madeline Janis-Aparicio of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), with notable restraint, reminded Hayden that the building trades do employ a vast segment of the unionized working class. If I were a teenager, I'd have been wondering whether this 60ish male activist had contracted a paranoid strain of Tourette's syndrome.

The overall panel consensus was that the progressive future lay in bigger and better coalition building. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg stressed how her living-wage ordinance garnered support from a majority of residents in communities across the city, from Eastside barrios to wealthy Valley enclaves, suggesting that some progressive issues can link broad populations. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas made one of the strongest cases ever for charter-mandated neighborhood councils by stressing how his own broad-based 8th District Empowerment Congress had both kept him in touch with local needs and reduced "a perception of ghettoization" within the area.

Janis-Aparicio reached out furthest toward the young: She basically invited them to come and join the activist party. Many young radical organizers, a majority of them women, have already flocked to the Living Wage Coalition and other LAANE projects. Perhaps the city's leading coalition builder, Janis-Aparicio nevertheless indicated her surprise at LAANE's recent success in drawing Hollywood Hills homeowners into her partnership, which is seeking major community givebacks in return for Universal City's expansion. "I never had such a surreal experience," she said. You admired her tough open-mindedness.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa may have gone slightly over the heads of the college-agers when he told us that in the end, we all share the commonality of the workplace. "Work is where we identify ourselves," he said, sounding much like a classic anarcho-syndicalist. But then, in a constructive reproach to all self-isolated progressives, past and present, he added, "We're our own worst enemies: We stress things we don't agree on, rather than things we have in common. A [successful] broad coalition manages to unify us with people we disagree with."

This was something I wished we'd all believed in the '60s, before that movement fell apart into mutually despising sects. Maybe it's something this generation of progressives can believe, live by and pass along to the next generation.