Los Angeles' culture of narcissism and power, it is perhaps only the
practical and the environmentally trendy who aspire to drive a Toyota
So when the silver Prius chugged into the Sylmar High School parking
lot on a recent winter day, only the personalized California license
plate -- S 20 -- gave any hint of importance.
In a matter of days, Richard Alarcon would be replacing that license
plate, reserved for the representative of state Senate District 20,
with another personalized plate -- A 39.
Just how long Alarcon holds on to that license plate will be up to the
voters of the 7th City Council District, which Alarcón represented from
1993 until 1998 -- and which he now wants back, even as he becomes
accustomed to representing the 39th Assembly District.
If there was ever a politician who knows how to play political musical
chairs in the era of term limits, it is Alarcon. He is seen as the the
biggest immediate beneficiary of Measure R, the voter-approved
initiative that allows City Council members to serve a third four-year
"I didn't do Measure R," Alarcon says in explaining how he found himself in an unexpected position. "I didn't promote it
After being termed out in the Senate and winning an unchallenged race
last month for the Assembly, Alarcon stunned Los Angeles' political
landscape by announcing he would seek re-election to the council.
Alarcon's decision angered those already running in the 7th District
race, befuddled some political observers, and made the 53-year-old
lawmaker appear overly ambitious and opportunistic in seeking the
high-paying council job.
But for the Prius-driving Alarcon, the move was utterly practical.
"This is a very exciting time for the city under the leadership of
Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa," he says. "It's a time when the city is
moving forward, and I just want to be part of it."
In the weeks since Alarcon's announcement, the two candidates who
figured to offer the biggest challenge -- Cindy Montaanez and Felipe
Fuentes -- withdrew from the race and endorsed him.
That development virtually clears the path back to City Hall for
Alarcon, representing a district that includes Pacoima, Lake View
Terrace, Panorama City, Mission Hills, North Hills and Sylmar.
But perhaps more importantly, it underscores how the former
schoolteacher has emerged as arguably the most powerful political
figure in the San Fernando Valley.
"He may well be," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat
Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles. "Of
course, there are Congressmen (Howard) Berman and (Henry) Waxman. But
Richard has proven that he's up there ... and certainly the most
powerful Latino political figure in the Valley."
Alarcón sidesteps such thoughts, although he acknowledges that -- as he
seeks a second stint on the City Council -- he does so as an anomaly: a
lawmaker with almost two decades' experience in elected office, and a
throwback to an earlier, pre-term-limits era.
"When I came to the council," he recalled recently, "most of the
members had been there for years -- Richard Alatorre, Nate Holden, Joel
Wachs -- and some were legends like John Ferraro."
Ironically, it was an aspect of the 1993 election that first brought
Alarcon to the City Council and now may bring him back. In that
election, Los Angeles voters also imposed a two-term limit on elected
Knowing his years on the council were numbered, Alarcon left for the
Senate in 1998, barely a year into his second term. Both his first two
political campaigns were narrow triumphs: He won election to the
council by 130 votes and then won a bitterly contested Senate race by
But in winning those two elections, Alarcon changed San Fernando Valley
politics — particularly in the East Valley, which LA Observed blogger
Kevin Roderick has called "the rising center of Latino political power
in Los Angeles."
In succeeding longtime incumbent Ernani Bernardi in 1993, Alarcon
registered thousands of Latino voters who made up 70 percent of the 7th
Council District's population -- turning what had been a demographically
Latino area into a Latino political stronghold as well.
He did the same with the 20th Senate District, edging out former
Assemblyman Richard Katz and becoming the first Latino representative
of a district that had once been a bastion for non-Latino,
carpetbagging Democrats who kept moving into that district to seek
office — Herschel Rosenthal before Alarcon, and David Roberti before
"There's an inevitability about Richard and always has been," says
longtime Latino political consultant Bill Orozco, who worked for
Roberti. "He made political history in the Valley, and he'll make it
Behind the scenes
Just how he will do it this time may not be so much an example of
electoral power as of behind-the-scenes telephone calls, meetings,
go-betweens and personal candor -- involving Alarcon, Villaraigosa,
Montanez, Fuentes and other Latino leaders of the Valley who were all
intent on avoiding a political bloodbath that could possibly taint
Alarcon and potentially destroy political careers.
"For the three of us to have gone head-to-head would have been a grave, contentious situation," Alarcon concedes.
"They would have been strong candidates, and I can breathe a little
easier. They're both friends. ... I'm very pleased that they've
endorsed me, and I'm very excited about their futures because they both
are phenomenal leaders, and I've vowed to do everything I can do to
support their leadership."
Only days after the Nov. 7 election, having given up his council seat
early to go to the Senate, Alex Padilla began squiring Fuentes around
town and introducing his former chief of staff as his hand-picked
"Alex made it seem like it was a fait accompli," says Hollywood
restaurateur Lucy Casado, whose late husband, Frank, was a founder of
the Mexican-American Political Association and herself is a donya of Los
Angeles Latino political circles. "I guess it wasn't.
"My, how quickly things can change in the Valley."
Montanez, the former mayor of San Fernando, had also been priming
herself to compete for the open council seat when she heard Alarcon had
entered the race.
Montanez accused him of wanting to return to the council for the
additional $50,000 the post pays every year, as well as a city pension
that would kick in for a cumulative 10 years of service.
As an assemblyman, Alarcon earns $110,800 annually, plus a $153 per
diem for the days the legislative body meets. Beginning Jan. 1, City
Council members will get $171,168 a year.
But all that criticism is now in the past, especially since Alarcon's
endorsement could heavily influence who succeeds him in the Assembly,
presuming he is elected to the council.
Alarcon, Montanez and Fuentes each deny a political deal was brokered,
and a Villaraigosa representative said the mayor had no comment. The
prospect of Alarcon on the council would give Villaraigosa another
backer -- certainly more of an ally than he had in Padilla.
If there was ever any question about their ties, last spring's campaign
to succeed Alarcon in the Senate erased them, as both the mayor and
Alarcon endorsed Montanez in her unsuccessful bid against Padilla.
In last year's mayoral runoff, Alarcon endorsed Villaraigosa -- as he
had in 2001 -- and introduced and nominated him at the important Los
Angeles County Democratic Party endorsement meeting. There, daughter
Andrea Alarcon delivered one of the three critical votes that gave Villaraigosa the party's backing.
Andrea Alarcon was later appointed by Villaraigosa to the city's Transportation Commission.
Like the mayor, Alarcon supports plans for expanding the Palmdale
Regional Airport and building high-speed rail for connections to other
airports as part of adopting a regional approach to meeting Southern
California's air travel needs.
In education, Alarcon revived one of his own pledges of his own
ill-fated mayoral campaign when his brainchild -- the Valley Education
Collaborative -- announced last month that it was targeting four
low-performing Northeast Valley high schools for dramatic improvements
in graduation rates and college admissions.
Alarcon, who as a volunteer teaches a class each semester at Arleta
High, said it is not simply coincidence that the collaborative has
undertaken its new role as the mayor eyes reform of the Los Angeles
Unified School District as one of his top priorities.
At times, Alarcon talks as if he has never been away.
"From a professional career, I've been a part of the city's culture for
more than 20 years," he says. "The difference between being a state and
local legislator is that it's a much more hands-on and not partisan job
working on the City Council.
"It's also much more enjoyable, and there's more you can do on the City
Council. Others have said this, and I agree. The best job I've ever had
was on the City Council."
Los Angeles politics, he says, is part of his life, a world he was
weaned on and in which he rose in 1989 to become Mayor Tom Bradley's
deputy for the San Fernando Valley.
In the last of Bradley's four terms, Alarcon learned the subtleties of
City Hall's bureaucracy -- far different than Sacramento's -- and made
lasting connections with the politicians, labor leaders, lobbyists and
special interests who can make or break careers.
Ultimately, that led to the Eastside political clique that had
dominated Latino politics in California for an entire generation -- a
clique that was run by Richard Polanco, then a powerful state senator
and now an influential lobbyist.
Today, Polanco's former chief of staff, Saeed M. Ali, is Alarcon's
chief of staff, and insiders believe that with ties still intact with Polanco, Alarcon would have little difficulty raising money for a
rough-and-tumble spring campaign, if it comes to that.
But as anyone who drives a Prius will tell you, life isn't about only the money.
"Los Angeles is a city of glamour, and Antonio and a few others have
proved that old legislators -- termed-out legislators in Sacramento -- do
have some shot" (at elected office in Los Angeles), says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State
Los Angeles, who has followed several of Alarcon's campaigns.
"Antonio opened that door, at least a bit. But it's the fact that he
did, and the fact that Richard ran a good race in the mayor's campaign
in which virtually everybody gave him plaudits.
"All that, I think, emboldened him to at least look close at coming
home. There's the money, but I don't think it's the primary motivator.
I think he would love not necessarily being the council person, but
being (eventually) the mayor."
Ambition has spoken
Alarcon is too shrewd politically to touch that, but his ambition has already spoken.
He was the first to announce his challenge to incumbent Mayor James
Hahn's re-election, only to be forced aside by Villaraigosa and others
-- though he always left a favorable impression during the debates.
It was the result, say those close to Alarcon, of the hard work he puts into issues behind the scenes.
Former Alarcon legislative aide Jose Atilio Hernandez remembers the
long hours that his boss poured into developing his education plans, as
well as his idealistic agenda that harkens back to the era of Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society and the dreams of Bobby Kennedy.
"He wants to end poverty in California," says Hernandez, now a
consultant for an educational policy nonprofit. "That right there tells
you a lot about the man."
But not all.
That in an age when too often politicians' biographies talk about
overcoming troubled childhoods, Alarcon delights in reminiscing about
growing up in Sun Valley and talking about his father, who ran a
furniture upholstery shop.
That Alarcon grew up well-adjusted and well-liked -- being elected
student body president at Francis Polytechnic High School. That he's
still a bowler and that he has lived with his mother in her stucco home
since the 2000 breakup of his marriage to ex-wife Corina, while he
served in the Senate.
Nor the watershed moment in 1987 when a drunk driver killed the
youngest of his five children, 3-year-old Richie Alarcon, as well as
the boy's grandmother, Alarcon's mother-in-law.
Almost inconsolable, Alarcon eventually found forgiveness for the drunk
driver, who also was killed in the crash. He and comedian George Lopez,
a friend, created a scholarship foundation in Richie's name, and he
became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and in gang- and
youth-violence prevention programs.
"I come to this from my religious beliefs," says Alarcon. "I went to
Catholic school in the '60s, during the Church's Ecumenical Council
period and the idea of social justice was very prominent. I observed
the culture of trying to do something to help the poor, and that's what
I'm still trying to do."
At Sylmar High School last month, he spoke movingly about a young man
he met whose positive outlook on life changed when he lost some teeth
in a freak accident.
Alarcon personally sought out a dentist for pro bono work that repaired the teenager's smile and restored his self-confidence.
"The way we solve some of the problems our young people face," said
Alarcón, "is by taking action and doing something about one problem at
He has updated his populist agenda from last year's mayoral campaign:
Cleaning up City Hall with a ban on campaign donations of more than
$100 from contractors and developers; giving the neighborhood councils
real power and control.
Most of all, look for Alarcon to praise the traditional values of the
San Fernando Valley, as well as the hopes and aspirations of its
growing Latino influence.
"No one understands the desire to attain the middle-class dream better
than I do," he told an auditorium of teenage students wanting to go to
college and their parents wanting desperately to see them there.
"Building middle-class dreams is about ending poverty."