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Tenacious Underdog;

Richard Alarcon has won by reaching out to all ethnicities. But he has also burned bridges.Los Angeles Times

In trailblazing campaigns during the last dozen years, Richard Alarcon became the first Latino from the San Fernando Valley to win election to the Los Angeles City Council and the state Senate.

The Democratic lawmaker's campaigns were notable for mobilizing new Latino voters, but Alarcon won both seats by building a base of support that extended to voters of all ethnicities.

Alarcon, 51, is now hoping to use that successful formula to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in 133 years, a move that would confound skeptics who have, yet again, labeled the lawmaker an underdog.

The former schoolteacher has built a solid reputation from Sacramento to Sylmar as a champion of the working class, small businesses and other struggling constituencies.

As a councilman from 1993 to 1998, he brought street lights and police officers to neglected, gang-infested neighborhoods in the Valley.

In Sacramento, where he has represented the 20th Senate District since 1998, Alarcon has been a leading force for reform of the state's education and workers' compensation systems.

But along the way he has been accused of ruthlessly pursuing his political career at the cost of political and personal relationships. The ensuing divisions could come back to haunt him in his current quest.

Cutting Ties

In 1999, his then-wife and her supporters were infuriated when he split with her months after winning his Senate seat with her help, and a month after she turned down his plan for her to run for his council seat.

The Senate election was tainted after a mailer paid for by an Alarcon supporter falsely linked his opponent to Republican poll guards in Orange County who were accused of intimidating Latino voters. The opponent, Richard Katz, actually had led the opposition to the guards.

Alarcon burned more bridges afterward by refusing to back Alex Padilla, who had helped run his Senate campaign, for his old council seat. Padilla ran anyway and won, beating a candidate put up by Alarcon. Padilla is now president of the City Council and head of a powerful faction of Latino leaders who have refused to back Alarcon for mayor.

As a result, Alarcon's campaign has been plagued by anemic fundraising -- he has raised the least money of the top five candidates -- and a dearth of big-name endorsements. Even Alarcon is describing his as the "dark horse" candidacy of the race to unseat Mayor James K. Hahn in the March 8 election.

But the senator has come from behind to win big before.

This time he is arguing that his years away from City Hall make him the right person to restore public confidence in a government that is the target of criminal investigations into whether city contracts were sold for campaign contributions.

"Los Angeles needs a new kind of direction that has integrity," Alarcon said. "When all is said and done, the people of Los Angeles can trust me because I have less strings attached to the contractors and corporate interests that are affecting decisions at City Hall."

Colleagues and critics describe Alarcon as a tenacious legislator and scrappy campaigner. Some colleagues say he can appear to test the wind before acting, but former state Sen. Richard Polanco, a longtime friend who has endorsed Alarcon, said the senator's style is misleading.

"Of all the candidates, he is probably the one that is the most underestimated," Polanco said. "Richard is very low-key. He doesn't get visibly excited a lot, but he has a lot of passion, and he has been reaching out to all of the communities to show that passion."

Trim and photogenic, with a cleft chin and distinguished mustache, Alarcon has cultivated the image of the average Joe.

Over coffee at a diner near City Hall, Alarcon said sheepishly that his accomplishments in Sacramento include having won the annual legislative bowling tournament five years in a row, rolling a high score of 235.

When he is not wielding the gavel at hearings in the ornate halls of the state Capitol, the divorced father of four and grandfather of two lives with his mother in the same Sun Valley home in which he grew up. His parents are divorced, and his father lives in North Hollywood. Alarcon drives an electric car issued to him by the state.

His four children are grown and on their own. A fifth child died in 1987 at age 3; the boy, Richie, was riding in a car driven by a relative when it was struck by a speeding auto. His death inspired Alarcon's efforts to expand the state's trauma care system.

Alarcon said his favorite book is Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation," which details the struggle and sacrifice of his parents' peers.

"They represent, in my mind, the core value of American democracy: that if you work hard you will succeed," Alarcon said. "When I talk about rebuilding middle-class dreams, I'm talking about the dreams of my parents."

'Popular, Spirited' Youth

Indeed, Alarcon's family struggled to become part of middle-class Los Angeles.

His father moved to Southern California from El Paso as a child, and, after serving in the Navy during World War II, set up an upholstery business in Sun Valley. Alarcon's mother worked at Alexander's Market to help make ends meet.

But when Alarcon was 15, his mother lost her job for a year and he was forced to work part time in a food market to help pay the family's bills.

His family could no longer afford tuition for his Catholic school, so Alarcon transferred to J.H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, where he played baseball and set himself on an early career path, becoming the first Latino elected class president.

Enrique Duran, a drama teacher at the time, recalls a 16-year-old who was "popular, spirited and rambunctious." He saw a bright future as a leader for Alarcon, who starred in the play "Twelve Angry Men" and grabbed the attention of dozens of students from five high schools who heard him speak during a conference on joining student government.

"He had that kind of effect on people -- they listened," Duran said.

Alarcon went to Cal State Northridge to study political science and public administration, hoping to become an attorney. But by the time he graduated from college, he had three children, so instead -- needing the money -- he went to work as a teacher.

The job did not hold him long. Soon, he joined a city-financed job training agency that put him in contact with aides to then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Alarcon won a job with the mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Planning, where he helped develop Bradley's public safety agenda.

Bradley later made Alarcon the mayor's representative in the Valley. Along the way, Alarcon began thinking of running for office.

His opportunity came in 1993. Veteran Councilman Ernani Bernardi decided not to run for reelection, and Alarcon jumped into a race that culminated in a runoff with former fire Capt. Lyle Hall. The campaign's trajectory would be repeated throughout Alarcon's career.

Hall was backed by organized labor and the state Democratic Party, and was thought to have a lock on white voters. Only 26% of the voters in the council district were Latino, so Alarcon could not win without support beyond his own ethnic base. He struck a chord with other ethnic groups by promising to bring to the district basic city services that had been denied by the downtown establishment for decades. Alarcon stunned the front-runner, winning by a margin of 234 votes out of nearly 19,000 cast.

"Mayor Bradley used to tell me no mayor of Los Angeles can represent just his ethnic group. I think I've done a good job of demonstrating how you can represent everyone," said Alarcon, who features photographs of the popular former mayor in his campaign material.

Closed Down Landfill

As a councilman, Alarcon was credited with ending decades of neglect of the northeast Valley. He was instrumental in converting the old General Motors automobile factory into a shopping center and office complex that employs 4,000 people. And he led the successful 1996 effort to close the Lopez Canyon Landfill in Lake View Terrace.

Phyllis Hines, former president of the Lake View Terrace Improvement Assn., said Alarcon single-handedly persuaded the City Council to shut down the landfill even though it cost the city millions of dollars more to dump its trash elsewhere.

"I give him all the credit," Hines said. "The day it came up in council, he went around and talked to every single one of the council members and, by golly, they voted for it. He was very persuasive."

Alarcon's record in the City Council propelled him into the bitter state Senate contest against Katz, a former assemblyman.

During the campaign, Katz criticized Alarcon for accepting a $38,000 loan from the wife of a developer who later benefited from a city loan that was voted on by Alarcon. The money was used for improvements, including a pool, to the Sylmar home in which Alarcon was then living.

Alarcon admitted at the time that he "goofed" but said that when he voted for the loan, he did not know the lender's husband would benefit.

But the race's biggest controversy centered on the last-minute campaign mailer sent out at Polanco's expense, which falsely made a connection between Katz and attempts to intimidate Latino voters at Orange County polling places.

At the time, Katz called it race-baiting, though he now says he has put the dispute behind him. The election strained relations between Jewish and Latino leaders in the Valley.

Katz' political consultant for the race, Harvey Englander, still boils over when asked about the mailer. "I do not believe Richard Alarcon has any integrity," he said.

Alarcon said he was not involved in sending out the mailer, though he later apologized to Katz. Ultimately, Alarcon won by just 29 votes. The race had more fallout, however, that has haunted his current effort.

When Alarcon won the Senate seat, he asked Tony Cardenas, then an assemblyman, to run for his council seat, but Cardenas declined. Corina Alarcon, his wife at the time, also declined his request to run for his seat.

Alarcon ended up backing healthcare manager Corinne Sanchez for his council seat, but she was trounced by Alex Padilla, Alarcon's former campaign aide.

In the 2001 mayoral race, the rift between the Valley's top Latino candidates was still visible. Alarcon backed Antonio Villaraigosa -- the former Assembly speaker now making his second run for mayor -- while Padilla and Cardenas supported Hahn.

"They don't get along any more," said Carol Silver, a Cardenas appointee to a city panel, referring to Padilla and Alarcon.

The simultaneous breakup with his wife was messy, with Corina Alarcon charging in public papers that her husband had a lavish lifestyle that put the couple deeply in debt and contributed to the bankruptcy of her insurance business.

"The whole family values thing that was part of his campaign was not appropriate, based on what happened," Corina Alarcon said recently. "The bad feelings are gone but not forgotten."

Corina Alarcon, who the mayor has appointed to the Police Commission, is supporting Hahn for a second term.

If the end of his Senate race provided fireworks, Alarcon's Senate tenure has been less controversial.

For the last four years, he has served as chairman of the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, where he wrote legislation aimed at bringing down the cost of workers' compensation.

But in April, when the Senate voted 33 to 3 to overhaul the workers' compensation system, Alarcon voted against the measure. He argued that it cut too many protections for injured workers and small businesses.

"I didn't feel there was ample protection for small businesses on rates," Alarcon said, noting that he voted "no" only after a bill he wrote to regulate rates was killed.

"I was frankly impressed," said Doug Heller, executive director of the nonpartisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, based in Santa Monica. "Sen. Alarcon was stronger on the issue of protecting workers and standing up to insurance companies than anyone else in the Senate."

Overall, Alarcon's record in the Legislature demonstrates his allegiances: He voted only twice in 2004 for legislation backed by the California Chamber of Commerce and voted 15 times against the chamber on bills. In contrast, the California Labor Federation said Alarcon has voted with labor 95% of the time.

His route to the mayor's race was roundabout. In 2002, Alarcon was encouraged by many Valley leaders to run for mayor of the proposed Valley city on a secession ballot that Hahn opposed. His candidacy would have given credibility to the secession campaign, especially among minority voters.

After months of speculation, Alarcon announced that he had decided not to run for Valley mayor. Hahn, he said, had assured him that he would help draft new powers for the city's system of neighborhood councils. But Alarcon says today that the mayor never followed through on his promise. "I think he betrayed the city over the neighborhood council system," Alarcon said.

Alarcon's run for mayor has been complicated: Hahn and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg are competing with the senator for Valley votes, while now-Councilman Villaraigosa is vying with Alarcon for Latino support.

Much of Alarcon's run for mayor has been spent campaigning against the city Department of Water and Power, a massive agency that has played the role of villain in the campaigns of many populist candidates. Alarcon has vowed to repeal an 11% water rate increase.

He also is pushing a ban on political contributions by contractors and developers to change the culture of City Hall.

Alarcon vows to expand the Los Angeles Police Department by 1,000 officers without increasing taxes by asking the independent airports, harbor and utility departments to pay a combined $235 million annually for security now provided by the LAPD.

He also has pledged to explore the possibility of repairing city roads and expanding transit by charging tolls to motorists coming into Los Angeles County from elsewhere.

Critics say Alarcon's plans are long on promises and short on details. How, they ask, could he charge tolls on interstate freeways?

Councilwoman Laura Chick, who joined the council the same year that Alarcon was elected, said Alarcon sometimes comes out with creative ideas "before he has completed his homework."

But, she added, "One thing I have learned is never to underestimate Richard Alarcon."

One recent evening, Alarcon took his anti-DWP roadshow to Boyle Heights, addressing an audience that had been brought in to a community center by a flier calling for lower water rates.

The crowd of about 40 people saw a polished presentation by Alarcon and his supporters.

Among those who were drawn by the flier to the Boyle Heights speech was Monica Negrete, who was still steaming that her bimonthly water and power bill had reached $300. "For people [with a] low income, this is an important issue," she said.

But, asked what she knew about Alarcon, Negrete responded sheepishly, "Nothing."

Alarcon was not discouraged.

"I have kept my promises," he said, contending that that is in pointed contrast to Hahn. "I have followed through on major endeavors and brought jobs and housing and healthcare to the districts I represented. I have a level of passion for providing services, whether it be streetlights or fighting crime, and I would like to take that to the entire city of Los Angeles."
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Richard Alarcon
Born: Nov. 24, 1953, Glendale
Residence: Sun Valley
Education: Cal State Northridge, bachelor of arts degree in political science (1981)
Personal: Divorced; four adult children, two grandchildren
Party: Democrat
Career: Member of the state Senate, 1998-present; member of the Los Angeles
City Council, 1993-98; staff member to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, 1988-93
Strategy: To appeal to voters, including conservatives in his San Fernando Valley base, he has launched a petition drive to repeal the recently approved 11% increase in city water rates. Highlighting concerns over ethics at City Hall, he is pushing a ban on campaign contributions from city contractors and developers.