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The Machine Lives

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
CALL IT POLITICAL MACABRE. ARE RICHARD Alatorre and his Eastside political machine so cunning that even from the depths of what would appear to be their political grave they are orchestrating the race to succeed him in the 14th Council District campaign?

Consider, first, that the 14th, home for generations to some of the city's shadiest shadow politics, is grappling with a sudden dose of democracy, with 13 candidates qualified for the April 13 ballot.

Consider, too, that for most of their adult lives, Alatorre and his wholly owned subsidiary, state Senator Richard Polanco, have been joined at the hip. Consider that equally ambitious Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, an adopted member of the Eastside machine, has designs on becoming the next mayor of Los Angeles.

So when Polanco and Villaraigosa -- now two of the most powerful political figures in the state -- throw their considerable collective weight behind the council candidacy of Victor Griego, an Eastside political consultant with long connections to the machine, would it be safe to say that Griego has been designated the Latino establishment's candidate?

Perhaps, unless you see that, at the same time, Alatorre and some of his cronies have lent their imprimatur to the candidacy of Luis Cetina -- a political novice who, apparently with Alatorre's aid, has emerged with the endorsement of the powerful Service Employees International Union and the backing of millionaire former gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi.

And then there's Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, still another machine player with close ties to Villaraigosa, coming out with an endorsement of immigration activist Juan José Gutiérrez, a candidate regarded as something of a dark horse.

What gives? Have Polanco and Alatorre feuded? Has Alatorre been abandoned to lick his wounds along with envelopes in Cetina's campaign office? Is the Eastside political machine, damaged severely by the scandal and investigations surrounding Alatorre, now so splintered from the big fall that none of the king's men can put it back together again?

ONE CAN ONLY SPECULATE -- INDEED, with the shifting alliances and murky power plays, one is obliged to speculate -- but some experienced Eastside observers believe the machine is still operating. These insiders suggest that the longtime power players are hedging their bets. They consider Griego to be the true machine candidate. But they hold that in a crowded field, Griego can only be assured of an April 13 electoral plurality that would get him into a June runoff. Consequently, the machine is trying to maneuver Cetina into the other runoff spot, where his campaign would sputter and the machine would claim the Eastside council office for one more term.

"The strategy is having the best two horses, getting both in the runoff and then sacrificing one of them," says East Los Angeles attorney Alex Jacinto, who has been involved with Eastside campaigns for the last 30 years. "They would sacrifice Cetina because Griego is one of the boys. I doubt that Cetina's even aware of it. He's too new at the game.

"But this would be classic Richard Alatorre. Do not underestimate him. Nothing here is coincidental."

And what of Cedillo's endorsement of Gutiérrez? Despite his closeness to Villaraigosa, Cedillo still holds a grudge against Griego for the negative campaign his client Vicki Castro waged against him in their Assembly campaign last year, and figures Gutiérrez would be one more way of splitting the district vote.

The leading political players roundly deny any such scenario of political machination. But what was once seen as an opportunity for the Eastside to break the hold on an entrenched political machine has increasingly taken on the appearance of a referendum on that very same established leadership.

To outsiders it may not be an inviting sight, perhaps like going to a new Mexican restaurant and finding out that the menu is not that different from the Mexican restaurant that has been giving you indigestion for years. The old guard, however, continues to wield the campaign contributions and experience in deploying the resources and volunteers that can decide any political contest.

And this election could decide more than simply who will succeed Alatorre as the leader of the 14th District; it could determine the future of Latino politics citywide. Mayoral aspirant Villaraigosa, for one, hopes that the success of Griego's candidacy will clear his path of any other Latino mayoral aspirant -- namely U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra.

Insiders say it is Becerra's candidate, Deputy District Attorney Nick Pacheco, that the old-guard Latino establishment least wants to see in a runoff. Pacheco, who in 1997 ran a successful campaign to represent the district on the Elected Charter Reform Commission, also has the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan.

 

"I think it's clear that the feeling is 'anyone but Nick Pacheco against Victor,'" Pacheco himself says. "That's the piece that's missing. Antonio will do anything to become the next mayor, and he needs someone in this council seat who will be loyal to him.

"He can't back me, because he knows I would be Xavier's [Becerra] man, so he's chosen to back Victor. He must think he knows him better than some of us do."

VICTOR GRIEGO'S APPARENT SELECTION by the district's political heavies has not come without cost. Indeed, Griego, 43, has himself become as much of a campaign issue as crime, economic development, public transit and education. Pacheco and local Little League president Cathy T. Molina have been spearheading the challenge of Griego's residency in the district, and other candidates have joined in decrying Griego's alleged district hopping.

Griego concedes that he moved into the district from his family's current home in South Pasadena in December -- just in time to register for the campaign -- and the press has hammered him for it. "Carpetbaggers, No! Grassroots, Sí!" blared a headline over an East Los Angeles Tribune story suggesting that Griego failed to meet the spirit, if not the letter, of campaign residency laws. A story in La Opinión suggested that Griego's residency fulfillment was sham.

Griego admits that his family continues to live in the South Pasadena home he owns, but maintains that "I have legally and ethically met the residency requirements." He is now staying with his brother Tom, an assistant city attorney who resides in Highland Park.

This is par for candidates backed by the Eastside machine. In 1982, a Los Angeles Herald Examiner investigation found that then-Assemblyman Art Torres, now head of the California Democratic Party, then­ Assembly candidate Gloria Molina and several of their aides were all registered to vote at the same small East Los Angeles apartment. No action was taken against them, and Torres retaliated by introducing legislation that would make it a crime for anyone to publish a legislator's home address.

Like Griego, Luis Cetina has also come under fire for a recent arrival in the 14th. According to the county Registrar-Recorder, Cetina changed his voter registration to an address in the district on February 28, 1998. And in a sworn Declaration of Intent To Run statement filed with the City Clerk's Office, Cetina pegs the date of his move into the district as December 14, 1998 -- a day after Griego's own sworn district-residency move-in date. Cetina himself, however, maintains that he moved into the district several years ago.

The residency question has dominated a number of candidate forums, as at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights last month, where one senior citizen told Cetina, "No quieres vivir con nosotros pero quieres representarnos" ("You don't want to live with us, but you want to represent us").

At a forum at Occidental College, the finger pointing reached absurd heights. "I admit I'm a carpetbagger," declared former Alatorre field aide Armando Hernandez, one of those candidates accused of moving into the district at the last possible moment. But he defended himself by saying he had worked in the district the last four years for Alatorre. Then, motioning to Griego and Cetina, he added, "But they're even worse carpetbaggers than me."

IF THE BATTLE FOR THE 14TH IS SHAPING up as the machine's struggle to survive, then the flip side of that dynamic is the raft of truly independent candidates seeking to knock off those designated by the district's old guard. Best-known among them is 1995 campaign upstart Alvin Parra, who garnered more than 40 percent of the district vote against Alatorre the last time around, despite being heavily outspent.

Understandably, Parra takes all the credit he can for showing Alatorre's political vulnerability long before scandal and a federal investigation led the councilman to retire.

"I am the only person who actually had the courage to run against Richard Alatorre four years ago, which makes me stand out from all the candidates," says Parra, 30, president of the L.A. County Commission on Business Licenses. "Having run against Mr. Alatorre four years ago demonstrates my lifelong commitment to my community."

Another candidate deemed to have a longshot chance of surprising the pundits on the strength of a refreshing grassroots campaigns is Cathy Molina, considered by some insiders to be the strongest of three women in the field.

Molina, who almost single-handedly persuaded the city to build a new Little League ballpark near Dodger Stadium, battled Alatorre for much of the past year over a permit for another youth baseball field in Highland Park. Alatorre wanted the park to go to a Little League program in Eagle Rock. Ultimately, with pressure from the community and Little League's own international office, Alatorre backed down.

 

"What we did was to show that you can beat City Hall," says Molina, who operates the Los Angeles office of the California Bar Association. "That's the kind of attitude, perseverance and community spirit that I can bring to this council office."

Juan José Gutiérrez espouses the same brand of politics-of-action, as opposed to politics-by-connection. Gutiérrez is a founder of One-Stop Immigration, an activist organization that provides services to legal and undocumented immigrants. Gutiérrez was also instrumental in organizing the controversial 1994 march against the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, a mass demonstration whose sheer size showed off the growing political strength of Latino L.A., but whose militant tone -- marked by dozens of Mexican banners -- may have clinched the ballot measure's success.

YET WHILE ALATORRE'S DRAMATIC FALL from grace has opened the door to a democratic free-for-all, the large number of candidates has fostered a desperate scramble for endorsements, campaign dollars and whatever political edge an aspiring council member can muster. Indeed, Nick Pacheco -- a candidate with broad connections and deep pockets -- sees betrayal, and not grassroots democracy, as the early hallmark of this campaign. In particular, Pacheco contends that he was victimized in an apparent double-cross by Victor Griego, who first worked on Pacheco's campaign and then bolted.

Pacheco, 35, has known Griego since he was a youngster, and his mother until recently worked as the custodian at Griego's Highland Park office. Late last year, as the campaign filing deadline drew near, Pacheco says he approached Griego about helping him on the campaign, despite warnings from Becerra staff chief Henry Lozano, who personally undertook an unofficial role in managing Pacheco's campaign.

"I told Nick not to trust him," says Lozano. "Victor's a gun for hire. He has no loyalty to anyone but himself. I've seen him turn on Alatorre when he worked for Alatorre."

Griego says he decided to jump into the race late last year, when it became evident that no consensus alternative to Alatorre was emerging and he concluded, after consulting with family and friends, that he himself could put together a serious campaign.

At the time, though, Pacheco was under the distinct impression that Griego was committed to his candidacy.

"One night, [Victor] invites me to a fund-raiser for [Sheriff] Lee Baca for the sole purpose of me meeting potential contributors," Pacheco recalls. "The next morning he calls me up to tell me that he's running and that he's getting a $100,000 loan on his mortgage on his house in South Pasadena to run . . .

"I don't talk to him anymore. I'll never trust him again in my life."

Griego says that he had made no firm commitment to Pacheco, and insists that it is not disloyalty but the opposite, his unselfish work on behalf of clients, that has earned him the support of political leaders such as Villaraigosa, Polanco and others.

Griego's roots on the Eastside indeed are deep. In 1984, he organized the most successful Latino voter-registration drive in history. He later organized for the United Neighborhoods Organization, the church-based neighborhood group that rose to prominence in the late '80s. In between he worked as an Assembly aide to Alatorre, then left to oppose Alatorre by running Mike Hernandez's Assembly campaign against Polanco. Finally, Griego went into business for himself as a political consultant specializing in Latino and Eastside campaigns.

"Victor," says Hernandez, who has also endorsed Griego, "is an organizer's organizer."

In endorsing him, Villaraigosa praised Griego as a "people person."

"I met Victor 15 years ago, when he was chair of the Greater Eastside Voter Registration and Education Project," said Villaraigosa. "He registered 43,000 new voters in East and Northeast L.A. -- more than anyone in that area had ever registered before. Today, I am impressed that, years later, he continues to develop participation among the people of this community."

The endorsements of Griego from Villaraigosa and Polanco are important beyond the symbolism for a campaign that already exceeds the nearest rival in fund-raising by $50,000. They bring with them an organization that is becoming more and more evident in legislative and local campaigns in which the Polanco machine gets involved. When political newcomer Jenny Oropeza found herself in a close campaign for a seat on the Long Beach City Council last year, she put in a call to Polanco. Almost overnight, Polanco dispatched six experienced staffers to oversee and man the campaign's get-out-the-vote drive. On Election Day, Oropeza won with 60 percent of the vote.

 

"If there is one single architect for the rise of Latino power in the 1990s in California," says Latino demographer and political observer Gregory Rodriguez, "it's Richard Polanco."

Adds veteran Latino political expert Louis F. Moret, who lives in Eagle Rock, "If you wanted an endorsement, who would you want? Polanco. Polanco brings money, the spirit to fight and the ability to put his money where his mouth is."

UNTIL THIS YEAR, OF COURSE, IT WAS Alatorre, not Polanco, whose endorsement carried the most weight on the city's Eastside. Now, however, Alatorre's allegiance is a mixed blessing, and in the case of the current campaign, a cryptic one. And nobody was more surprised than Luis Cetina when, early this year, Alatorre dropped by Cetina's Eagle Rock campaign office and offered his services as a campaign volunteer.

There apparently is little history between the politically slick Alatorre, who has come to be synonymous with backroom deals and alleged political impropriety, and the 33-year-old Cetina, a Cal Poly graduate and civil engineer -- and former Republican -- whose telegenic charisma appears to be matched by his political naiveté.

To his credit, Cetina, who probably speaks the best Spanish of all the candidates, has packaged a platform that includes a campaign to refurbish rundown business districts and neighborhoods plus drawing in new businesses to build a badly needed tax base.

Cetina has also garnered his own roster of political endorsements, although most have been from outside the district. The most notable of those has been Checchi, a friend of Alatorre for whom Cetina volunteered during his gubernatorial campaign.

As the campaign began to heat up, the Alatorre crowd was even taking credit for Cetina's getting the endorsement of the important Service Employees International Union, whose own hand-picked candidate -- SEIU political director Jorge Mancillas -- had suffered the humiliation of failing to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

"Richard and I got Cetina the SEIU," said longtime Alatorre loyalist Bill Orozco. "They owed Richard for all he's done, and they owed me for helping them organize in [the City of] Commerce."


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