Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
The way Corinne Sanchez tells it, two months had passed since she first tried to contact Mayor Richard Riordan. Now, finally, he was on the phone.
A candidate for L.A. City Council from the northeast San Fernando Valley, Sanchez already had the endorsement of Richard Alarcon, whose election to the state Senate last fall left the 7th District seat open. Believing her decades of experience in the social-service sector made her the best candidate for the job, she hoped to get the mayor’s endorsement.
The news, however, was not good. Riordan told her that later that morning he would publicly throw his support to her opponent, 26-year-old newcomer Alex Padilla. She says that when she asked the mayor why he would not even give her a hearing, Riordan was blunt: “‘I’m sorry,’ he admitted. ‘I cut a deal with the unions.’”
Only one person could confirm that such an exchange took place, of course, and the mayor did not respond to repeated requests by the Weekly for comment. Fabian Nunez, political director for the L.A. County Federation of Labor, dismissed the story as “absurd . . . bordering on paranoid.” State Senator Alarcon, however, said the purported exchange reflects his sense of the political dynamic at work in his old district. “I speculate that some deals were made [between organized labor and the mayor] that have to do with governance of the city,” Alarcon said by telephone from Sacramento. “The message is loud and clear now. The unions have made it clear they want to be able to deliver voters to the polls and get candidates elected.”
Alarcon is himself endorsing Sanchez, despite the fact that Padilla did pivotal work for Alarcon’s recent election. The reason, Alarcon said, is simply a question of experience, and does not imply disrespect for his former staffer.
Whatever it was that Riordan told Sanchez, political observers agree that the victor in District 7 can expect to claim a citywide leadership role for the politically emerging Latino community. And with such potential clout on the line, L.A. powerbrokers have responded. The County Federation of Labor, Mayor Riordan and his downtown associates have weighed in heavily on Padilla’s behalf, including in the program a controversial union-sponsored independent expenditure campaign.
No slouch herself, Sanchez, 52, has remained competitive by tapping into an array of elected officials and community leaders who are familiar with her work. Still, a lingering question hovers over the contest: Who is Alex Padilla, and how does a young campaign operative without a constituency raise more than $200,000 from some of the city’s most powerful people?
Telegenic and articulate, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Padilla has made friends in high places by helping run campaigns for up-and-coming Latino politicians such as state Assemblymen Gil Cedillo (D-L.A.) and Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), and Senator Alarcon. His specialty: bringing longshot candidates into the winner’s circle by mobilizing forgotten or long-dormant Latino votes. In Alarcon’s Senate race, that meant staffing phone banks seven days a week for four straight months, and building and distributing more than 10,000 yard signs.
As for Riordan’s support, Padilla says he earned it. “We’ve already worked together to address community issues,” he told the Weekly, citing his service on the city’s Building and Safety Committee. “We don’t see eye to eye 100 percent of the time, but we have the ability to work together in a reasonable and moderate fashion to accomplish things.”
Riordan political consultant Rick Taylor is running Padilla’s campaign, touting him as a homegrown wunderkind — he was raised in Pacoima. “I am the only candidate who grew up in this district,” Padilla said. “I went to school here. I understand the problems and issues of this district better than anyone else running. You can’t buy that kind of experience.”
But his backers apparently think they can. Padilla became a serious candidate February 9, when Mayor Riordan held a joint press conference with Miguel Contreras, president of the County Federation of Labor, to announce their support. Eastside developers TELACU and top lobbyists like Latham & Watkins’ George Mihlsten have since jumped on the Padilla bandwagon. As of March 27, Padilla had collected $186,525 in contributions. Asked to review a list of his powerful support-ers, Padilla avoided discussing specific names. “What people who are criticizing me don’t tell you is that my list of supporters is pages and pages long,” Padilla said. “Many of them are day in and day out community leaders in the district. It’s their support that means the most to me.”
The County Federation, however, is going the extra mile for Padilla, launching an independent expenditure campaign in District 7 — funding that is exempt from campaign spending limits. That type of effort helped lift Gil Cedillo and other union candidates into office in recent elections. The federation has spent more than $50,000 on Padilla mailings, as well as fielding phone crews and precinct walkers. On Monday, District 7 candidate Raul Godinez filed a complaint with the City Ethics Commission charging the federation had not reported their expenditures on Padilla’s behalf; by Tuesday, the federation had filed a report.
Sanchez has been busy as well. The longtime president and CEO of El Proyecto del Barrio, a nonprofit agency in the Valley that provides job training and drug-rehabilitation programs, Sanchez has used her varied contacts across the city to build a well-funded, competitive campaign. Sanchez is backed by four L.A. County supervisors, including Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky — who have hosted fundraisers on her behalf — as well as much of the liberal wing of the City Council. Her efforts went so well she broke the district’s primary campaign-contribution records, collecting just over $200,000 by March 27. Lawyers and businessman are among those prominently represented in her contribution statements.
“I have worked in this community a long time,” Sanchez told the Weekly, “27 years to be exact.” Besides expanding El Proyecto from a $500,000 agency to one that now receives $10 million per year in federal, state and local grants, Sanchez helped open four community health clinics in the Valley.
However, Sanchez has also had to answer for financial problems at El Proyecto. Last week, the L.A. Times reported that the city is reviewing allegations that the agency may have billed the city for $276,000 in excess rent. It was the third time since 1994, it was reported, that the agency had come under scrutiny for improper billing. Sanchez said the problems are strictly bureaucratic mishaps. Overall, city officials say, El Proyecto has a good record of compliance.
The duel between Sanchez and Padilla has largely eclipsed four other candidates who have not been able to keep pace with the torrid fund-raising. The entire field, however, agrees on the district’s pressing needs, which are considerable. Living-wage jobs, a larger share of city services and a program to empower local neighborhoods top the list.
“We are being ignored by City Hall,” said Ollie McCaulley, an articulate local gadfly speaking at a candidate’s forum at San Fernando High School in mid-March “If elected, I will focus on economic development,” added Raul Godinez, formerly the mayor of San Fernando, shifting from English to Spanish for the largely Latino audience.
Good jobs have become scarce since the collapse of the aerospace industry in this financially depressed district, and gangs and graffiti have become commonplace. The best economic-development proposal in recent months — one which the candidates uniformly oppose — was a proposal from Wal-Mart to build a store offering dozens of minimum-wage jobs. “We deserve better,” said candidate Tony Lopez, a local director for Boy Scouts of America, who has raised over $50,000 but received little press coverage.
As the forum progressed and the campaign promises grew more elaborate, Padilla’s opponents focused on his ties to the downtown political establishment. McCaulley, a former Marine who has been endorsed by Republican Congressman James Rogan, received the most boisterous response of the morning when he took Padilla to task on the issue.
“You are not going to find the mayor of L.A. doing a fund-raiser for my campaign,” McCaulley said, cheers erupting from the decidedly populist audience. “I don’t have money from special interests and PACs from downtown,” he said, emphasizing that he wouldn’t be a “puppet and yes person” for any group.
Padilla seemed weary of that implication when he responded during a later interview, “The only people I will be beholden to [are] the people of the 7th District.”
Julie Butcher, president of SEIU Local 347, which represents 10,000 city workers, was effusive when talking about Padilla. She denied SEIU was part of any deal to support Padilla, and said that Padilla got the highest ranking of any candidate in any district after debating issues at the union’s endorsement meeting. “He is an incredible young man,” Butcher said.
Union support could prove key in the 7th District, which has one of the highest concentrations of union workers in the city — and a record of low voter turnout. In June 1997, only 6.77 percent of registered voters in the 7th made it to the polls.
Senator Alarcon agrees with Butcher’s appraisal of his former campaign manager, but decided not to endorse him for a simple reason. “It boils down to experience,” Alarcon said. “We don’t need potential on the City Council. We need someone who can hit the ground running.”