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Drive-by Reporting

As Jimmy Hahn was sworn in as mayor last month, he mumbled something, in Spanish no less, about wanting to represent all of the people of the city. He struck such a friendly note. Then one of his high-level appointees moved into her new City Hall office right after setting off a divisive stink bomb within the local Latino political community.

It‘s a sordid little story: Hilda Delgado had been working as a reporter at La Opinion, L.A.’s premiere Spanish-language daily, when she was tapped by Hizzoner Jimmy to become his press deputy. And earlier this month, on what was -- virtually -- her last day of work as a reporter, Delgado gave herself permission to publish a critical piece on Antonio Villaraigosa -- her new boss‘s defeated political rival.

Knowing that she was about to formally join the Hahn payroll the very next week, Delgado crossed some pretty bright ethical lines in filing her screed. A more experienced reporter would have had the common sense to recuse herself from a subject that was now a screeching conflict of interest. You just don’t write about the opponents of the guy who just hired you. Period.

Worse, this was no routine news story that she filed. Delgado‘s piece took a serious swipe at Villa-raigosa, essentially portraying him as a spoiler who was aiming to torpedo the political career of one of his oldest friends. Delgado quoted only anonymous “sources close” to Villaraigosa saying “it was a fact” that he had decided to run for the 22nd California Senate seat (which will open next year when Richard Polanco is termed out). And in doing so, Delgado wrote, he would be going up against his boyhood buddy, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, whom she anointed as “heir” to the post.

Nowhere in the story does it appear that Delgado sought any official response from Villa-raigosa’s office -- further bathing the whole episode in the manurelike fragrance of a cheap, political dump. “Absolutely no one who works for Antonio got a call from Delgado on this story,” said Elena Stern, who handled Villaraigosa‘s campaign press operation. “Antonio is pretty disappointed by all this.” As to whether “Tony Rap,” as his schoolmates liked to call the loquacious future speaker of the Assembly, had any plans to run for Polanco’s seat, Stern said, “To say ‘it’s a fact‘ is wrong. He’s looking at all his options and hasn‘t yet made any decision.”

Neither Delgado nor her former supervisor, La Opinion political editor Pilar Marrero, offered any on-the-record comment on the matter when queried. Delgado merely said she didn’t want to say anything to compromise her new boss, the mayor. But apparently, writing unsubstantiated reports about his just-defeated rival is just peachy. Her motivation, however, remains unexplained. Maybe it‘s just her relative inexperience -- only three years on the job as a reporter. And while the easy explanation might be that she was currying favor with her new boss, remember that the mayor had presumably hired her before the article was written. Or maybe Delgado just plain fancies Cedillo over Villaraigosa.

Just who will replace Polanco when he steps aside next year is, indeed, a delicate and potentially perilous matter for local Latino pols and one that deserves more serious treatment than that offered by Delgado. We hardly needed her drive-by to remind us that the two compadres, Cedillo and Villa-raigosa, are the two natural candidates.

As the two most prominent current and past elected officials of the vaunted Latino-Labor coalition, any showdown between them would be ugly -- and quite distressing to their enthusiastic supporters. There’s no doubt that both guys have been doing a torturous slow dance with each other around the coming election. Cedillo himself is facing Assembly term limits, and if Villaraigosa wants to be elected to something else in the next cycle, the 22nd Senate seat is one of his best options.

The L.A. left can‘t afford to lose either guy. Especially when you figure that, in the aftermath of Villaraigosa’s defeat, the truly ascendant Latino politicians are all considerably more moderate than either he or Cedillo. The historic moment of Latino Power may indeed be fast and finally upon us, but it just might be making its entrance from somewhere near stage right. Three of the city‘s top and rising politicians are all, at most, middle-of-the-road Latinos. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo recently described himself as a “New Democrat.” City Council President Alex Padilla is a card-carrying member of the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council. And Councilman Nick Pacheco, chair of the influential Budget and Finance Committee, is also playing footsie with the DLC.

And ditto at the state level. Polanco, in running the Latino legislative caucus, was less an insurgent than an old-style machine pol interested much more in money and power than in ideology -- and he has been shamelessly quick to play the race card when it suited his narrow ends. The new Latino caucus leader, Assemblyman Marcos Firebaugh, is a similarly devoted practitioner of pragmatic centrism.

Cedillo and Villaraigosa, meanwhile, have been meeting, trying to work out the future of the 22nd District without either destroying their 30-year friendship or self-destructing. “These two guys are the standard-bearers of the Latino-Labor left,” says local political analyst Gregory Rodriguez. “And if they make any move toward fratricide it will tarnish the image of the whole coalition from which they both spring. It will create a sense not of emergence, but rather of fighting over the crumbs.”

Finally, as to Hilda Delgado: It’s unfortunate that she begins her political career in the midst of such a sour controversy. But let her learn from the wisdom of her new employer.

When he was asked earlier this year about his mosh-pit campaign tactics against Villaraigosa, Hahn Himself stared right back at the inquiring reporter and reminded him that “Campaigns are not prom dates.”

Hilda, welcome to the dance.


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