Photo by Ted Soqui

“Me too!” blurts state Senator Richard Alarcón, and the audience at mayoral
debate number two (or is it three? four?) is momentarily stunned. It’s closing-statement
time, and this is, after all, a deadly serious affair — at least to judge from
the stern looks on the faces of the leading mayoral challengers trying to grab
City Hall away from incumbent James Hahn, and their consultants, staffers and
hangers-on planted among the crowd. The contenders are laying out their platforms,
their most deeply held beliefs, with all the joy of men facing exploratory surgery.
Except Alarcón.

Hahn has had his say, as has former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who promised gravely to work with the environmental group sponsoring this debate to “make Los Angeles the cleanest, greenest city in the United States.” And now it’s Alarcón’s turn.

“Me too!” he says, and look — he’s smiling. The audience catches on, and breaks the spell of studied earnestness to erupt into laughter and wild applause. This guy’s having a good time! Is that allowed?

Tonight, as in the dozen or so debate nights to come over the next several weeks, the 51-year-old Alarcón cheerfully unfolds a package of populist plans. Clean up City Hall by banning campaign contributions of more than $100 from contractors and developers. (He’s circulating a ballot measure for signatures.) Stand up for ratepayers by reversing that 11 percent water-rate hike. (He’s suing the city to force a rollback.) Patrol the streets and protect the taxpayers with 1,000 new police officers paid for by airlines and shippers. (He’s touting a plan to get the money from the city’s quasi-independent departments.) Scratch that costly and controversial airport renovation and set up a big new airport to the north of the city, where there’s room to grow. (He’s introducing a bill in Sacramento to empower a new, independent airport authority to do just that.) Turn the neighborhoods over to the neighbors, by giving their councils real power over land use.

More cops? No new taxes? Water-rate rollback? Neighborhood empowerment? Hey, some surprised debate observers note, this San Fernando Valley native understands the middle-class aspirations that undergird Los Angeles. And look, he’s a Latino, and has a real feel for the burgeoning Latino majority in L.A. He’s got the environmental angle down cold, and a track record of progressive bills in the Legislature to go with it. And he’s such a natural in the debates, so much more comfortable and at ease than the other candidates. And he’s got that cleft chin, that 1940s matinee-idol mustache! This guy’s a winner! This guy’s perfect!

This guy’s going nowhere.

Alarcón disputes the assessment, but even after a dozen or so debates it appears that the March 8 mayoral election will give us a runoff that includes any two of three guys: Hahn and former state Assembly speakers Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa. But not Councilman Bernard Parks. And not Alarcón.

How come? He got into this race first, weeks before Hertzberg, months before Villaraigosa. It was he, long before the other challengers, who took Hahn to task publicly for what he calls poor transit planning and messy oversight of the Department of Water and Power and other City Hall institutions. And he’s not without enthusiastic support. Last summer, a group of Eastside activists heard from each of the challengers and then rejected native son Villaraigosa in favor of Valley boy Alarcón. He was on a roll.

Then came the debates, and he was — he often still is — by far the most impressive. But the dollars have gone elsewhere.

Money? Don’t worry about it, he responds when asked about his poor financial showing. After all, he was fifth in fund-raising back in 1993, when the Northeast Valley elected him to the City Council. He was second to Richard Katz in campaign dollars during the contentious state Senate contest of 1998, but he bested Katz by just over two dozen votes.

“My campaign is a campaign against money,” Alarcón explained recently. “It’s against the moneyed influence in City Hall. My primary issue is the ballot measure to eliminate contractor and developer contributions in City Hall.”

Hahn, Villaraigosa, Hertzberg — they’re all tainted by big-bucks contributions from the entrenched business and development interests, Alarcón said. Which is exactly the sort of thing a candidate is supposed to say when he is dead last in fund-raising.

It’s a quiet Friday morning at Big Jim’s, a half-century-old restaurant
that embodies the change, and the continuum, that is the Northeast Valley. Wagon
wheels and horseshoes are outlined on the terrazzo floor where several decades’
worth of suburban cowboys and truck drivers have walked to their regular booths
for their morning coffee. The menu has expanded over the years, adding chorizo
and eggs to the breakfast ham steaks, although Latinos aren’t newcomers here (Alarcón’s
father arrived in this neighborhood in the 1920s). On this morning, clusters of
police officers, DWP workers and MTA bus operators chat, in Spanish and in English,
over their coffee before reporting to work or going home after the night shift.

This is the other end of Laurel Canyon Boulevard — not the part that carries Volvos and BMWs as it snakes among $10 million homes in the Hollywood Hills, but the northernmost end, among the huge freeway offramps, tiny stucco houses and recycling centers of Sun Valley.

“I love this place,” says Richard Alarcón, after squeezing his silver hybrid Prius with its official state Senate license plate (S 20) into the parking lot and walking in to grab a booth. “This is the Valley. I’ve been coming here forever.”

As the coffee arrives, he explains that he decided to challenge Hahn when he learned that one of the mayor’s top aides, Troy Edwards, was subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury. Not just the county grand jury, mind you. The feds.

“I don’t believe the FBI is going to walk away with nothing,” he says.

He notes, as well, that he went through a long self-assessment before deciding to get in, then discovered that there really was no downside. If he loses, he’s still got two more years in the state Senate. After that, there are other options. Politically, he’s secure. And if Hahn remains the mayor, perhaps an Alarcón candidacy will shake up the famously quiet incumbent enough that he will rise to some of the challenges the city faces.

They will call me, Alarcón jokes, the Defibrillator.

So is he just playing around? No, he insists. “I really believe I can win.”

Later, at the wheel of the Prius, the state senator from the Northeast Valley is cruising the old neighborhood. That’s my high school, says Alarcón while passing John H. Francis Polytechnic High in Sun Valley, and he notes with reverence that some decades before Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to be his liaison for Valley affairs, Bradley, too, was a Poly student. Of course, the entire school was then located miles away in another part of Los Angeles.

A few blocks from the school is a huge grassy mound. A landfill. Around a corner, up the street — there’s another one. Next block over — another one. It’s eye-opening. All these nice green open spaces, and several built-up shopping areas — landfills. Closed, but considered active, until the requisite 30 years from the last dumping passes. From some, residents say, fumes seep up and make the neighbors and the schoolchildren sick.

There’s his mother’s house, and his aunt’s house, the shop where his father worked. Modest homes here now sell for half a million dollars. Pretty nice neighborhood, if they can keep the landfill operators, and their City Hall allies, at bay. It was Alarcón’s first promise as a City Council candidate in the 1990s — elect me, and I will close one of the big ones. Lopez Canyon.

And he did close Lopez, although he’s quick to point out that he got little help from the City Attorney’s Office of James K. Hahn, who fought (at first) to keep the landfill open. The closure cost the job of the landfill manager, Frank Miramontes, Alarcón’s cousin. No family strife over that, though. No home lost. Miramontes simply moved over to a new city post in recycling. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, Alarcón says. New industries, new jobs, to attack stubborn problems.

“This is why I’m in office,” Alarcón says, pointing at the little houses interspersed among the camouflaged landfills. “To fix this problem. To preserve a classic American way of life.”

That’s the kind of talk that wins Alarcón the affection and sometimes the respect of homeowner-association leaders who might otherwise turn up their noses at a labor-oriented Latino with a solid record of progressive legislation in Sacramento. It’s Alarcón the Valley guy, the populist. Middle-class dreams, as he says on his campaign Web site and in his brochures. A chance for everyone to grab a piece of the Valley dream, even if they are not in the Valley.

“I particularly like his fire with the transfer of DWP [ratepayer] funds to the city of Los Angeles fund,” says Joe Vitti of Valley VOTE, the group that very nearly led the Valley to cityhood. “I’m glad he’s made it a campaign issue.”

Attorney Rob Glushon, who once organized voter drives for Bradley and years later served as a charter-reform commissioner, calls Alarcón “a solid Valley guy” who is well-regarded across the board.

Affection and respect — but not a lot of backing. Much support in these parts is going to Bob Hertzberg, another Valley guy whose business-friendly stance is more in line with moderates in wealthier parts of the region like Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills than is Alarcón, whose labor-oriented bills rankle business groups. Alarcón is received warmly at meetings of Valley VOTE, where he once served on the board, and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. Sure, he’s a Valley guy. But those bills.

At a conference on affordable housing last year, one speaker took the microphone and announced that the top priority for anyone who wants to build more homes for working families ought to be to repeal the Alarcón bill requiring a prevailing wage for laborers building any project backed by public bond issues. The announcement drew a rousing cheer, not just from bankers and for-profit developers, but from progressive nonprofit developers and housing advocates as well.

His most ambitious quest recently (apart from his mayoral bid) has been to spearhead a task force to end poverty in California. End poverty? It would be an enormous goal even on the legislative agenda of someone with Villaraigosa’s traditional coalition of wealthy Westside liberals and Eastside Latino activists. But this is Alarcón, and this is the Valley, the land of the middle-class homeowner and the stationwagon (or the SUV) in the driveway. Valley people care more about public schools and traffic gridlock than poverty. Don’t they?

Don’t fool yourself, Alarcón says.

“Building middle-class dreams is about ending poverty,” he says. “The [DWP] water-rate issue — it’s the most regressive tax in the world, it impacts poor people the most. And you can’t stop poor people from using water. It causes rents to increase. It causes the costs of going to the laundromats to increase.”

Besides, as he told the business-oriented Central City Association recently, “Am I being a leftie partisan when I’m creating 4,000 jobs [at the former General Motors plant] and providing opportunities to flourish? And saving the Panorama Mall. And bringing in a Wal-Mart, for God’s sake.”

Alarcón’s inability to make as big a splash as, say, Villaraigosa or Hertzberg may be that he is outflanked on both the left and the right. Progressives salute him, but their first choice is Antonio. The Valley folks tip their hats, but they’re going with Bob.

Alarcón had worked in City Hall for six years when he filed in 1993 to
run for the Council seat being vacated by Ernani Bernardi, a former big-band saxophonist
who had represented that area of the Valley for two decades. The favorite was
Lyle Hall, a retired fire captain who had lined up union support. Alarcón took
the runoff — by 234 votes, in an election where 19,000 cast their ballots.

It was to be one of his widest-ever margins of victory.

Alarcón was the first of several Latino officials elected from the East Valley and represented the awakening of a neighborhood that long was overshadowed by the storied Eastside communities of Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights. Now places like Arleta, Sun Valley, Pacoima, Panorama City, are showing increasing numbers of Latino voters and with them increasing political vigor. In Alarcón’s wake came people like Tony Cardenas, a close ally who was elected to the state Senate with the help of one of Alarcón’s backers, strategist (and city commissioner) James Acevedo.

Cardenas, Acevedo and Alex Padilla represented a new presence in L.A. politics — Valley Latinos with a decidedly greater business and homeowner orientation than the powerful Eastside leaders who were forged in the activist era of antiwar protests and United Farm Workers marches.

Alarcón was a kind of bridge between the two worlds. From the same generation as Gloria Molina, Richard Polanco and Antonio Villaraigosa, he dropped his plans to go to Vietnam and participated in protests at Cal State Northridge. He was inspired in part by his older sister Evelina, also a CSUN student, who later ran for office on the Peace and Freedom ticket and led the Southern California chapter of the Communist Party USA. But Alarcón, who was fired up for social justice and became a high school teacher before taking his first job at City Hall, folded the progressive philosophy of the era into the suburban Valley vision of the middle-class dream.

The next step after the City Council was the state Senate, a seat he grabbed from Richard Katz by 29 votes in 1998. It was another first for a Valley Latino, and again signaled a demographic shift and growing Latino clout. But this time there was some trouble, especially after supporters sent out a mailer that falsely accused Katz of helping Republicans to intimidate Latinos from going to the polls years earlier in an almost-forgotten Orange County race. There was, briefly, some tension between Latino and Jewish leaders, and some personal resentments still flare up now and again.

Then there was the issue of Alarcón’s successor on the council. He backed Cardenas, and all was well until Cardenas said he didn’t want it. Alarcón then threw his support to his own wife, Corina, an insurance agent. But Cardenas had other plans for the seat. He picked his young aide, Alex Padilla.

There was a bit of a feud. Then Corina Alarcón backed out and threw her support to Padilla. So everything was patched up? Hardly. Richard Alarcón rejected his wife’s decision and went instead with Corinne Sanchez. What was going on with the Alarcóns?

There were awkward moments for everyone who knew the couple politically as well as personally. The subsequent breakup of their marriage divided the once-united bloc of Valley Latino pols. What’s more, when Padilla won the election, pundits said Alarcón’s star had burned out. Cardenas was the new power to reckon with in those parts.

But Richard Alarcón remained a player and gained a new aura of independence. He split again with Cardenas, Padilla and Acevedo in 2001, supporting Villaraigosa’s mayoral bid when the others went for Hahn. Then, the following year, in the midst of the secession drive, he briefly flirted with running for mayor of the would-be Valley city, only to help defeat Valley activists by coming out against cityhood.

Independent, sure. But — for a Valley city, or against it? With Cardenas, or against him? Then, last April, as his 2001 mayoral pick, Villaraigosa, mulled a rematch with Hahn, Alarcón beat him to the punch and announced that he would be vying for the mayor’s job.

“Oh, that’s just Richard,” a sometime supporter said when Alarcón made his announcement. “It’s his next crusade.”

Alarcón’s campaign has won some notice because of his various reform measures — especially the lawsuit to repeal the DWP rate increase. As for an independent airport authority, though — that will require state action. Grabbing money from the airport to pay for new cops has been tried. Hertzberg says substantive planning authority for the neighborhood councils is just not realistic, because it would saddle councils with redistricting rules under the Voting Rights Act.

Don’t worry, Alarcón says. People also told him he couldn’t close Lopez Canyon, and he did it. And don’t worry either about fund-raising. He’s never led in that department. Remember that headline in the Poly High School paper: “Alarcón Wins in Tight Race.”

“I’ve always been the underdog,” he says. “But David beat Goliath, the tortoise beat the hare, and Alarcón has never lost.”

Even if this time becomes the first, Alarcón claims he already decided that he wanted to engage the city in a debate. “I want to bring progressive ideas into the full light of day,” he says. “And challenge them to speak against my progressive thinking.”

A Valley Latino progressive? You bet, Alarcón says, and to underscore his point he cites a column by the late Los Angeles Times editor and columnist Frank del Olmo.

“When Los Angeles again gets around to electing a Latino mayor,” del Olmo wrote in 1996, “which will be sooner rather than later, given our rapidly changing demographics — it won’t be [Richard] Polanco or anyone else from the Eastside, like City Councilman Richard Alatorre or County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

“It will be Richard Alarcón, who grew up in the East Valley and now represents it on the City Council. And if it’s not Alarcón, it will be someone very much like him: a Latino leader bred to the Valley’s lifestyle. This will be the kind of Latino leader all L.A. likes, because he or she will understand the real Los Angeles and its quintessentially middle-class dreams.”

It is a point Alarcón’s supporters like to repeat. Villaraigosa, with his coalition of rich Westsiders who have no fear of losing anything, and Eastside Latinos, who are aspiring to become the undisputed policymakers for the new Los Angeles, is somehow not quite as L.A. as this new coalition of those same Latinos with Valley middle-class homeowners.

The problem with that assessment, and the problem for Alarcón (who backed Villaraigosa four years ago), is that it is Villaraigosa who, though failing so far to generate the enthusiastic movement that he did last time, is mounting the more serious challenge to Hahn.

Master L.A. political observer Raphe Sonenshein sees a parallel with Congressman Xavier Becerra of Eagle Rock, who impressed mayoral debate watchers in 2001, but was still dismissed as the “other Latino.”

If Hertzberg is taking the same ground occupied last time out by centrist Republican businessman Steve Soboroff, Sonenshein suggests, “Alarcón is a little bit in the Becerra role, the difference being that Alarcón has a geographically different base from Villaraigosa, which Becerra didn’t.”

Will the geography — and the “Valley lifestyle” — make a difference this time? If it’s all about money, no. But Alarcón insists it’s not all about money.

“I understand the desire to attain the middle-class dream,” he says, adding, one more time:

“I’ve never lost.”

LA Weekly