Richard Alarcon is in trouble.
After easily winning various elections in the San Fernando Valley area over the last 20 years — hopping from the L.A. City Council to the State Senate to the State Assembly and back — he's finally losing his grip.
This became embarrassingly clear on Tuesday night as the votes streamed in for Assembly District 39. His opponent, charming CSU instructor Raul Bocanegra, pulled out ahead early on and never looked back.
At final count, Bocanegra finished in first place with 36.5 percent of the vote. Alarcon took a distant second with 27 percent.
So what went wrong?
Leo Briones, a longtime Los Angeles-area campaign consultant who worked as press secretary for Alarcon when he first ran for City Council in 1993, has some theories on how his former boss lost touch with the people of AD 39.
Back in his beginnings, says Briones, the up-and-coming Valley politician relied on word of mouth to propel himself to City Hall. The vote started with his immediate family, which in itself was very large, then spread exponentially outward to cousins and friends.
“His mother, his aunts — they knew a lot of women,” says Briones. “So they just kind of called around.”
Briones calls this the “comadre network” — and he says that for a politician in the northeast San Fernando Valley, it's the only way to win.
“Unlike urban communities in the basin, the northeast San Fernando Valley still has a rural social network,” says the political strategist, who's currently running one hell of an Assembly campaign for City of Bell activist Cristina Garcia. “Many [residents] come from the same little pueblitos in Mexico and have known each other for a really long time.”
Alarcon's downfall? When he went off to Sacramento to serve in the Senate for eight years, Briones feels Alarcon lost touch with this small-town web and began to neglect the community on ground level.
Other Latino Democrats like Alex Padilla, Tony Cardenas and Felipe Fuentes gained popularity in Alarcon's absence, making friends and attaching themselves to the crucial comadre network. And when Alarcon returned, his head was still in Sacramento — the focus being on union endorsements and press statements, not chatting up grandmothers at the BBQ next door.
Alarcon still managed to win a seat on the City Council in 2007. This Assembly race, however, is a more intimate fight.
Because of the new runoff election system, Alarcon has to go up against another candidate with the same area requisites: liberal and brown.
The race, then, comes down to who's better-liked. And when Alarcon was dealt charges of voter fraud two years ago for allegedly living outside his district, Briones says that for residents, it was “verification that this guy doesn't care about us, and he only cares about himself.”
California's recent redistricting shakeup may also have played a role in his loss. The new Assembly District 39 “is so provincial” that falling out of neighborhood graces “hurt him more in that area than it would have otherwise,” says Briones.
Raul Bocanegra, meanwhile — the guy in first place — has been putting in his hours as Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes' chief of staff. (We aren't sure why this reflects particularly well on Bocanegra, seeing as LA Weekly published a story about his boss Fuentes, headlined “The Worst Legislator in California,” in which we revealed how Fuentes lets dozens of special interest groups ghostwrite most of the state laws he puts his name on. A large number of the ghostwritten laws benefit the very people and groups who wrote them. Fuentes takes money from the ghostwriters — for his campaigns. Dozens of California “lawmakers” do this and insist it is perfectly ethical, but Fuentes is a real standout.)
Bocanegra also nabbed the endorsement of Senator Alex Padilla, who Briones calls the “king of Pacoima.” With those two comadre networks came hundreds of volunteers and supporters.
Enough, apparently, to net Bocanegra 2,383 more votes than Alarcon in this week's primary, despite the latter's status as current City Councilman. Which is all very ironic, says Briones — “seeing as Alarcon was really the first one to tap into it.”
It, of course, being the mythical power of the northeast San Fernando Valley comadre network.