Over the course of 25 years in L.A. politics, Richard Alatorre's name has become synonymous with backroom political deals. So perhaps it is fitting that the early jockeying to succeed the controversial Eastside city councilman involved an awkward attempt at nothing short of a backroom deal.
The candidate who arguably has the best chance to unseat Alatorre next year has already been asked by an old-guard Eastside Latino political operative to step aside in favor of a "chosen one."
Observers say the attempt to arrange Alatorre's succession represents another turn in the long-running drama that has defined politics on the Eastside for more than a decade - the feud between Alatorre and County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
The candidate asked to defer: Alvin Parra, the idealistic, 30-year-old county bureaucrat who threw a political scare into Alatorre in the 1995 City Council election by winning 42 percent of the district's heavily Latino vote despite being outspent more than 10-to-1 by the powerful incumbent.
The arm-twisting operative: Henry Lozano, the crusty congressional aide - formerly to retired Representative Edward Roybal, now to Representative Xavier Becerra - who just happens to be in the middle of a bitter child-custody battle with Richard and Angie Alatorre, whose late sister bore Lozano's daughter out of wedlock.
The so-called "chosen one": Charter Commission member Nick Pacheco, whom Lozano and a few other self-styled power brokers have been shamelessly promoting as the Alatorre successor-in-waiting. Pacheco enjoyed Molina's endorsement in his run for the commission, and he worked on her campaigns before that.
So is Molina quietly trying to orchestrate a kingmaking coup de grace and savor the ultimate satisfaction, 16 years after Alatorre reneged on a promise to back her bid to replace Art Torres in the state Assembly - a betrayal that spawned the enduring Eastside rift?
Molina could not be reached for comment, but her aide Miguel Santana says no: "Gloria doesn't want to contribute to what's going on against Councilman Alatorre. She's offended that what's going on is in any way attributed to her."
In any event, the question is academic. Parra refuses to bow out, says he'll challenge Alatorre in next spring's City Council election and already sounds like a candidate ready to take on the incumbent and spit out any other challenger in the same breath.
"Politics and leadership are about having a vision," Parra says. "When Richard Alatorre was involved in the redistricting process [in the state Assembly, in 1981] he had a vision, but it's no longer there. Once a politician's vision fades, so does that politician's commitment on behalf of his constituents. Richard Alatorre no longer has a vision for empowering others. His vision has been for empowering himself."
Strong words, but Parra is speaking carefully. What he doesn't mention is that Richard Alatorre is, if not washed up, then certainly banged up by allegations of corrupt, money-grubbing deals and fears of a criminal indictment from a federal investigation.
Those allegations, first published in the Los Angeles Times, have broken the hearts of some of Alatorre's staunchest supporters. Especially damning is the scenario painted by former Alatorre secretary Linda Ward - of a money-strapped Eastside councilman shaking down people doing business with the city and returning to his office with wads of $100 bills to pay his personal debts.
"I am disheartened with him. I'm bleeding inside, and I don't think I'm alone," says Dionicio Morales, president of the Mexican-American Opportunities Foundation and, along with Roybal, one of the most respected Latino elder statesmen in Los Angeles.
"You dream of having the kind of political presence that Latinos have started to have," Morales continues. "You dedicate yourself and support people in leadership positions, and then something like this happens. You hope that the allegations aren't true, but even if they're not true, this is hardly an example of our community putting its best foot forward."
Such misgivings, from community stalwarts like Morales, have Eastside residents thinking about a future they haven't considered for years - one without Alatorre.
"We're talking 'Boss.' We're talking 'Big Daddy.' We're talking the last of the smoke-filled-room politicians," says East L.A. lawyer Alex Jacinto, a veteran Eastside political observer who has closely followed Alatorre's career.
"To people on the Eastside, Richard is either God or Godzilla. Political life without him is unthinkable, and yet life always goes on."
Or as political scientist and East Los Angeles College President Ernest H. Moreno put it: "Without Richard and his extensive influence, there inevitably would be a power vacuum. Someone's going to fill that vacuum. The question is who?"
Alatorre, for one, says the reports of his demise are distressingly premature.
"I would not be so quick to write me off," he said in an interview. "I still have every intention of seeking re-election."
In fact, the seemingly calm and collected manner of Alatorre and the powerbrokers of his Eastside political machine suggests that they are either the shrewdest operators in town or that they have finally overdosed on their delusions of invincibility.
Even as talk of Alatorre's demise gives way to curiosity over the shape of a post-Alatorre political landscape, those closest to him are talking openly about how the influential councilman and MTA board member will "be stronger than ever" when he seeks re-election in 1999.
As Alatorre braces for a lengthy federal investigation and possible costly prosecution, the councilman's closest friends claim that Alatorre's job-approval rating among his constituents has never been higher - and draw comparisons to President Clinton's own record-level popularity despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"There's been a feeding frenzy to find something that doesn't exist," says Alatorre's longtime friend and political guru Louis F. Moret. "This is a long way from a final conclusion."
Adds Alatorre confidant George Pla, "Some people have gotten alarmed. Some have gotten hysterical. But the fact of the matter is that Richard is going to work every day. He's a sitting member of the City Council with an important vote for another year and a half.
"Richard's not going anywhere."
Of course, some of this may be wishful thinking. Alatorre's crowd has grown accustomed to profiting by the city contracts he was able to steer their way. One such Alatorre pal is David Lizarraga, head of the barrio-to-riches economic-development giant TELACU, which has been the recipient of spoils from city contracts and stood to profit handsomely on potential contracts from the now-stalled Eastside extension of the MTA Red Line. Another is Pla, head of Cordoba Corporation, a consulting, development and management firm with business throughout California and around the world.
Commerce Department officials questioned Pla and Cordoba Corporation's financial management of a federal program (which involved the hiring of former state Senator Art Torres to a $90,000 job) - an investigation that many feared would destroy Pla.
According to Pla, federal officials have now reduced the money in question from several hundred thousand dollars to a few thousand, "and we're challenging even those figures, and will continue to.
"We have seen from what I've gone through," says Pla, "and from what many others have gone through that allegations are just that, allegations. Typically, there's an overreaction to a story, but that doesn't make it true any more than the allegations themselves."
Perhaps Alatorre can take heart that no one is talking recall, as some constituents sought to do in the northeast First Council District after Councilman Mike Hernandez's drug-related arrest last year.
Yet even Alatorre seems to view his political career with an air of resignation: "The fun has been taken out of it for me. There's too much demagoguery now that has nothing to do with progress. What I got into it for - which is helping people - is now secondary. It's no longer what you accomplish [in office], but whether you've dotted all your 'i's or crossed all your 't's.
"I do have a sense of satisfaction that we've opened many doors for others. But I'm not naive enough to believe that this is going to be forever."
That is as close as Alatorre has come to conceding that he and the Latino political establishment that has long controlled most of the Eastside are facing a serious crisis.
Still, if you thought that the Latino Eastside would suddenly foster some new utopian drive-through of the American democratic process, guess again.
Life after Alatorre, particularly in the 14th Council District, may not be so different than life with Alatorre. Machine politics. Backroom deals like the one proposed to Parra. Quid pro quos. There's even a word for it in Spanish - movidas. Richard Alatorre didn't invent the politics that he has practiced over the last quarter century. What he did was to use those arts in such a way that it now seems amateurish in the hands of his would-be successors.
In the current climate of speculation, potential successors run the gamut from Parra and Pacheco to Los Angeles school-board members Vicki Castro and David Tokofsky. Other names bandied about include Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, Alatorre's youngest son Darrell, former Alatorre aides Armando Ramirez and Gerard Orozco, and as well as Orozco's wife, current Alatorre chief of staff Hillary Norton Orozco. But in a measure of his continuing clout, most of these will stay quiet unless and until Alatorre is out of the picture.
Parra, a former aide to retired U.S. Representative Edward Roybal, is the sole candidate who says he is "committed to running against Alatorre" next spring. He vows not to exploit the scandal that hangs over Alatorre's head.
"I didn't run a mud-slinging campaign against him in 1995, and I won't engage in one this time either," says Parra. "I knew then about some of the things that have since been revealed about [Alatorre's] finances, but I chose not to use them.
"I intend to campaign against him on the issues that are important to the 14th District. I believe his foresight into public policy-making has been wrong, and I intend to bring that up in our campaign.
Another scenario would keep Alatorre's machine in place. The candidate here would be Richard Polanco, the powerful state senate majority leader groomed by Alatorre in Sacramento in the 1970s and early 1980s, retrenching to Los Angeles and succeeding Alatorre. Said Alatorre confidante Moret, speaking for the councilman's political clique, "Polanco may be the last horse we have to play." Polanco himself did not respond to telephone requests for comment.
Indeed, while political speculation may be the hottest non-Nintendo game in parts of the Eastside and the city, even Alatorre's most bitter rivals - Supervisor Gloria Molina included - have been careful not to gloat in public over his troubles.
Some of that is due to caution. "Anyone with any experience in politics knows that between now and April of '99, there's a lifetime," says Pla.
Adversity may even make Alatorre - who has historically performed best under fire, both politically and personally - stronger.
After losing his first attempt at elective office in 1971, Alatorre has endured a long line of political adversaries, from powerful Assembly speakers like Leo McCarthy, who made legislative life hell for Alatorre in the 1970s, to Gloria Molina, the media darling under whose shadow he has operated in city politics the last decade. On the personal front, Alatorre has weathered two failed marriages, a bout with alcoholism and the painful breakup of his onetime friendship with the late farm-labor leader Cesar Chavez.
And always he has persevered.
Moreover, Alatorre can depend on the unusual degree of respect that Latinos always accord their elected officials. The Eastside community historically has been blindly supportive of its politicians despite public disgraces: from former Congressman Roybal's involvement in the 1970s Koreagate scandal, to state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres' series of drunk-driving arrests in the 1980s while he served in the state senate - not to mention Alatorre's own previous run-ins with city and state ethics authorities.
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At the inaugural dinner meeting of the Mexican-American Political Association's newest chapter in Boyle Heights last month, for example, a roomful of Eastsiders were dying to ask Alatorre specific questions about the allegations against him.
"It was on everyone's minds, but out of respect, no one was going to bring it up,'' says Terry Castaneda, secretary-treasurer of the Corky Perez MAPA chapter. "There's tremendous respect for him, and no one is going to embarrass himself in public by asking him to explain the [allegations] against him.''
But the MAPA meeting also showed how things have changed between Alatorre and his constituents. Alatorre is notorious for hitting and running at community events, usually staying just long enough to be seen and shake a few hands. But at this chapter meeting of MAPA, an organization often regarded as a paper tiger, Alatorre stayed more than an hour.
"We were surprised," says Castaneda. "Maybe everything that has happened has made him more responsive. And he knows he needs the community behind him."