There's plenty in the two-decades-long relationship between term-limited-out Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his northeast San Fernando Valley constituents that a political analyst might find dysfunctional.
As popular as term limits are among voters, who say they want fresh “citizen legislators” and not career politicians, voters have been happy to repeatedly reelect Alarcon as he utilizes what some critics see as the biggest loophole in California's term-limit laws: the ability to bounce from office to office for decades and become a career politician.
Never mind that Alarcon twice broke his word to voters to serve out his elected terms: He resigned from the Los Angeles City Council during his second four-year stint, where critics often quipped he was best known for his perfect hair, to become a state senator in 1998. Alarcon squeaked in, winning by 29 votes out of 90,000 cast.
Then he abruptly quit his third political job, as a state assemblyman, in 2007 — after a mere 102 days in office — to get back his old L.A. City Council seat.
Now, voters are poised to send Alarcon back to the state Assembly representing the 39th District in a race against five lesser-known candidates. Although he is considered the heavy favorite, he is running under a cloud, facing voter fraud and perjury charges filed by District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Prosecutors claim that Alarcon and his wife illegally lived outside his City Council district. He claims that he and his wife slept outside his City Council district only on nights that their legal residence within the district was undergoing extensive remodeling.
Alarcon's chief opponent on June 5, Democrat Raul Bocanegra, a deputy to Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, who is termed out of office in Assembly District 39, is trying to get Alarcon's mostly Latino voter base to turn away from him for the first time in two decades.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, views the legacy of term limits in California as a game of “musical chairs” played by politicians whose desire is to hold long-running and powerful jobs.
Alarcon's ability to repeatedly jump around, while fresh-faced candidates who run against him are repeatedly rejected by voters, “sounds schizophrenic,” Levinson says. “But it also makes sense. In the abstract, voters want new blood and think one way to do it is to legally mandate that politicians can only stay so long.
“But by the same token, incumbents wield so much power in name recognition, and they typically out-raise challengers in campaign fundraising, that, as anti-incumbent as we [Californians] are, we often vote for the person we know.”
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says term limits are still clearly preferable to a system where one lawmaker can keep the same office until he or she is elderly. He says Alarcon has simply tapped into the “opportunity” in the term-limits law.
“Any number of politicians have identified the loophole in term limits to stay in office,” Schnur says. “His just might be the most extreme example.”
In fact, the elasticity in the law is such that the 58-year-old Alarcon could continue to yo-yo from office to office, representing virtually the same constituency in the San Fernando Valley, until he decides to retire in his 60s or 70s.
“You could do it for a lifetime — absolutely!” says Phillip Ung, Common Cause policy advocate in Sacramento. “Almost every big-name politician in L.A. has been in government a very long time — even after being 'termed out.' ”
Alarcon campaign spokesman Richie Ross says Alarcon wants to serve the community where he grew up as long as he can. But not even Ross can defend Alarcon's sudden bolt from the state Assembly a few years ago to run for the much higher-paying Los Angeles City Council seat. That job pays $178,789, by far the highest city council salary in the United States.
Says Ross: “He should get ribbed for it.”
Alarcon has become fodder for critics tired of status-quo politicians. KPPC's John Rabe, host of “Off-Ramp,” for example, refers to Alarcon with the moniker “Councilman Richard '100 Days of Solitude in the Assembly' Alarcon.”
But Ross says that ultimately it's constituents who have kept their native son in office. “Schizophrenic might be too harsh — but they're ambivalent,” Ross says. “On one hand, they want what's new, but at some level … they think maybe [the veteran] knows what he's doing.”
Proposition 28 on the June 5 ballot would modify the California term-limits law to reduce the total time a politician could serve in the California state Legislature, from 14 years to 12. Instead of term-limiting legislators out of the Senate after eight years and out of the Assembly after six years, a politician could stay for 12 years in the same house.
Backers of Proposition 28 argue that if voters allow a long, 12-year tenure in a single house in Sacramento, the politicians will become more seasoned leaders — rather than bouncing around from office to office to stay in power.
“This is one of Common Cause's biggest criticisms of [existing] term limits,” Ung says. “The advocates of strict term limits will lead you to believe when an official is termed out, they go back to regular life — and that unfortunately is a fallacy. Regardless of what people think, this is what they do for a living.”
In 2006, proponents of Measure R, a similar plan to soften term limits on the Los Angeles City Council, was embraced by L.A. voters. Voters were assured by the League of Women Voters that if City Council members could hold office for 12 years instead of eight, City Hall's politicians would become more competent and seasoned.
Today, many critics say Measure R added four years of service but did not add any noticeable competence to the L.A. City Council.
However, it did allow long-ago Councilman Richard Alarcon to promptly drop his elected office in Sacramento in 2007, returning to L.A. City Hall for four more years.