Fire in the Belly

Any sudden death where the departed had no life-threatening disease and seemed in good spirits is worth careful scrutiny, especially if a substantial estate is left behind. This rule also applies to political life. So when state Senator Richard Polanco’s career as legislator, power broker and kingmaker came to an unscheduled end with his February 21 withdrawal from a City Council race, many observers called for an autopsy.

There was, in his brief withdrawal statement, an explanation of sorts, but he may not have been entirely forthcoming.

Polanco, who as majority leader is No. 2 in the state Senate hierarchy, had seemed the picture of political health, regarded as the overwhelming favorite in his bid to segue onto the City Council in the downtown district being vacated by the retirement of Mike Hernandez. While this would have been a step down from the prestige and clout of his present office, he had a good shot, say some political savants, at an immediate promotion into a starring role as successor to ailing and often absent City Council President John Ferraro. ”The rumor mill gave him seven votes -- some of them not elected yet,“ says city-employee-union president Julie Butcher. Evidence for such ambitions comes from the fact that Polanco had endorsed candidates in at least three open council districts, including Carl Washington, best-funded candidate in the downtown--South-Central 9th, and Conrado Terrazas, the sole Latino contender in the heavily Latino Hollywood--Silver Lake--Echo Park--Highland Park 13th. Another likely vote could have come from Pacoima‘s Alex Padilla, who started his own career as campaign manager for Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, a Polanco protege.

With these prospects ahead, why would Polanco decide that his legislative duties in Sacramento needed his ”full attention“ after all, or that opportunities in the private sector, not specified then or later, loomed magnetically on his horizon? Polanco aide Bill Mabie says his boss was discouraged and despondent after a meeting of the Democratic Party’s county central committee at which he fielded much flak and failed to get the party endorsement. Nonsense, say many party activists -- Polanco never counted on being loved, and had shown enough strength to keep the endorsement from opponents. The ”fire in the belly“ that had propelled him in earlier races had gone out, according to his more introspective rationale for the about-face, but that still left a haze that political insiders considered a smoke screen for matters Polanco wasn‘t talking about.

At about the same time as the withdrawal announcement, a birth certificate was being faxed around to contenders in the council race, and to selected media, including the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times, listing Polanco as the father of an 8-year-old whose mother is a longtime staffer in his Capitol office. In a more innocent age, such a revelation about a married man would have been political cyanide. But many question whether in the post-Lewinsky era it would have inflicted much damage, especially, says one downtown Democratic official, in a district that tolerated -- or at least failed to recall -- a crack-addicted councilman who was using his City Hall office as a crash pad and private porno theater. Moreover, it’s unclear how effectively the story would have filtered into public awareness. Major media, including the Times and La Opinion, were reluctant -- out of respect for the privacy of the staffer and her child -- to circulate stories of a decade-old dalliance unless there was a compelling reason.

For many journalists, the drawn-out Monica saga prompted soul-searching over the question of when sex stories are legitimate journalism. In this case, there were mixed signals. The romantic relationship was allegedly long over. On the other hand, the job continued -- was it held on professional merit or as a personal favor? ”It‘s a dilemma for a journalism ethics class,“ says one junior Times editor. ”You don’t want to be a tool of blackmailers, but if the blackmail succeeds, how do you ignore it?“ In the view of a Sacramento reporter who has covered the mother‘s work on prison and child-welfare issues, ”It’s not a bimbo story -- this is a very competent, skilled professional.“ Reporters considered the quasi-nepotism angle, only to find that the rules of the Legislature forbid employment of relatives by marriage only if they live under the same roof -- a rule that presumably applies in quasi marriage as well. The Times started looking at Polanco‘s withdrawal the day after its announcement; tellingly, nothing saw print until nearly three weeks later, only after silence had been broken through a political-gossip column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

If a competing candidate had openly brought the issue into the campaign, it might have been hard to ignore. But the media were uncomfortable with an adultery story from an anonymous source. Some believed that the source was an outfit already more powerful than Polanco’s political machine -- the state‘s prison-guard union.

A few weeks before Polanco’s announcement, the fate of L.A.‘s 1st Council District was under discussion in a peculiar venue: the Sacramento office of California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) president Don Novey. Sitting with Novey and his lieutenants were East L.A. Councilman Nick Pacheco and Polanco’s main (if overmatched) challenger in the race, former Hernandez chief of staff Ed Reyes. The meeting, says Reyes, was ”to see if I was real, was the passion there, and why was I so crazy as to take this guy on?“ Reyes‘ recall is hazy on how the conclave came about; Pacheco says it was Novey’s idea. Discussion soon centered on a proposal that the union underwrite an independent anti-Polanco campaign, something in five figures, a proposal Reyes warmly welcomed: ”I‘d beat every bush I can to get resources.“

The CCPOA is a titan among state political players, and is the top donor to California legislative races. But the city of L.A. operates no prisons, and there are no plans to build any within city limits, so Novey’s intense interest in the composition of its City Council seemed oddly unconnected to his group‘s policy goals. Novey would not respond to several calls from the Weekly, but Pacheco says interest stemmed from the union’s long-running feud with the senator. Novey vehemently denies any role in spreading scandal: ”I wouldn‘t do that to another human being,“ he told the Times.

Pacheco, who overcame Polanco-backed Victor Griego to capture his own council seat in 1999, candidly admits the spending would have been to settle a score and that there was no city issue at stake, but ”You don’t think the senator‘s bringing statewide money into the race?“ he asks. ”Why should anyone else be held to a different standard?“

The CCPOA’s legislative-policy specialist, Jeff Thompson, said he was not involved in CCPOA‘s political endorsements or funding decisions, but said the union had a substantial difference with Polanco on the issue of private prisons. ”Prisons for profit threaten our professionalism -- he carried their water for a long time,“ he says. Polanco’s backers, on the other hand, say he only backed private prisons -- with no success so far -- because he saw it as a way to reduce the union‘s political clout, a power he’s viewed with misgivings as he delved into penal issues.

As co-chair of the state Legislature‘s Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, Polanco has been a persistent thorn in the side of the prison-guards union, shining a spotlight on abuses behind bars they would prefer left in the shadows. In 1998, Polanco chaired sensational hearings into conditions at Corcoran prison in the Central Valley, highlighting 50 shootings by guards (seven of them fatal), rival gang members pitted against one another by guards for exercise-yard ”cockfights“ and defiant inmates being punished by getting a 230-pound rapist as a cellmate. These hearings embarrassed not only the union, but also Governor Pete Wilson and then--Attorney General Dan Lungren, who had commissioned investigations that were slammed as a ”sham“ in the hearings by members of the investigative staff. A federal indictment brought an end to the careers of several guards, four of whom were tried (though not convicted) for violating inmates’ civil rights.

Public officials who weighed in against him, such as U.S. Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard and Xavier Becerra, prefer to frame their choice in terms of nice noises about competitor Ed Reyes rather than with unkind words about Polanco. Sometimes the reality beneath this rhetorical convention can be unveiled. Newly elected Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg, who dealt with Reyes in Hernandez‘s office during her last City Council term, calls him ”tireless, committed and underestimated“ and suggests he’d be the most effective provider of community services. She also praises Polanco as a fighter for good causes in Sacramento. But her endorsement, she says, was also shaped by the views of her ”kitchen cabinet,“ about a dozen longtime friends who give Goldberg feedback and advice on politics and policy. Kitchen-cabinet members in turn explain their preferences in frankly anti-Polanco terms, showing how his past came back to haunt him.

”He plays dirty politics -- the Katz race,“ says one, alluding to the senator‘s sponsorship of a last-minute 1998 primary-campaign mailer slandering Assemblyman Richard Katz as anti-Latino on wholly fictional grounds. ”He’s slimy,“ says another, citing Polanco‘s role in hardball City Council contests in Lynwood and Commerce, involving the contracting of city-attorney posts to Polanco allies.

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