The Los Angeles Establishment gave me quite a lesson in political realities during the special election to fill the 14th City Council District seat.
In particular, I learned that if the grass-roots politics of change are ever to be a force in this city, much more work must be done.
The election of a Latino to a City Council seat is a welcome, even if belated, development. But not until the forces of change become an important part of the political dialogue will such elections translate into concrete, and not just symbolic, benefits to the Latino community.
City policy must be changed if benefits such as commercial development, low-income housing and housing rehabilitation are to come to the 14th and other inner-city districts. Moreover, only through a change in policy can we create better opportunities in districts with high unemployment and increase services to the poor and the homeless.
Latinos, like blacks, make up a highly disproportionate percentage of the unemployed and the poor. But the concerns that we express are citywide, shared by low-and moderate-income residents of all races and their organizations.
At cross purposes is the Establishment--the corporate interests such as developers, cable-television operators, insurance firms, downtown law firms, bond-selling houses and other businesses that line up with some elected and appointed officials to preserve the status quo.
The Establishment is against anything that will disturb its generally acknowledged firm control of city government. And the reasons are simple: The Establishment wants "business as usual" to continue on the City Council. Business as usual means assorted lucrative contracts, permits and even subsidies; easy pickings for lobbyists; fat campaign contributions for the council members; the appointment of cronies to the city commissions to ensure all of the above, and the strengthening of the "old boys' network."
When the efforts to fill the seat of retiring Councilman Arthur K. Snyder through appointment were defeated and the City Council called for a special election instead, many Latino leaders and activists set out to organize a low-budget, grass-roots, issues-oriented campaign that would challenge this corporate control of the city.
It was not to be. While it was generally acknowledged that a Latino would at long last win the seat, we did not figure just how much muscle the Establishment would invest to make sure that its Latino candidate was the winner.
That candidate, state Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, was endowed with a campaign war chest of at least $300,000, most of it raised in $500 contributions. A powerful Democrat in the Legislature, Alatorre also benefited from the endorsements of key elected officials. The top local AFL-CIO officials engineered the endorsement of the local labor federation and mobilized their own personnel for the campaign. And, of course, Snyder godfathered the Establishment's choice and led him to his own 14th District network for the absentee-ballot drive--a key component of the campaign.
On the face of all this economic and political muscle--combined with a heavily financed, Madison Avenue, high-tech campaign--the issues and the conditions of the 14th District were never a significant consideration in the election. The candidate, the name, the face were sold to the voters just like Coca-Cola.
To be sure, the election of Alatorre is an important step forward in the Latino community's struggle for equal representation. We now have a voice on the City Council of Los Angeles, where we are almost one-third of the population. However, how soon we will begin to reap benefits from his election will depend in part on whether or not Alatorre becomes an advocate of change, of concern for the poor and the unemployed and of the Latino community.
Unfortunately, Alatorre has already given clear signs that he intends to play it safe. He has expressed tacit disapproval of the council's decision to make the city a sanctuary for Latin American political refugees because it will mean that "more refugees will come to the city." Alatorre, amazingly, has also refused to openly support city redistricting despite widespread opinion, especially in the Latino community, that the 1982 city reapportionment plan effectively diluted the voting power of the Latino community and prevented the election of Latinos to the City Council.
However, with his recent appointment to the city committee that will examine the 1982 plan, Alatorre has been handed an opportunity to exercise strong leadership to correct a wrong done to his own community. He should support the Latino community's call for an out-of-court settlement of the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit and the drawing up of a new and fair redistricting plan.
Let us hope that Alatorre rises to the occasion. The 14th District, the Latino community and the city deserve principled leadership, not another safe player in the Los Angeles Establishment game.