In Los Angeles' culture of narcissism and power, it is perhaps only the practical and the environmentally trendy who aspire to drive a Toyota Prius.

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 term.

"I didn't do Measure R," Alarcon says in explaining how he found himself in an unexpected position. "I didn't promote it

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whatsoever, but the voters decided 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."

Challengers withdraw

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 officials.

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 29 votes.

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 Rosenthal.

"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 again."

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 successor.

"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.

'More hands-on'

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 a time."

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."

Tony Castro, (818) 713-3761