When Richard Alatorre gave up his 55th District Assembly seat last year to become a Los Angeles city councilman, he endorsed his aide, Richard Polanco, to become his successor.
But Polanco, who moved into the district from Duarte, was forced into a runoff in a special election in April, and won the seat in June only after a tough battle with fellow Democrat Mike Hernandez, a Los Angeles businessman.
Almost immediately, Polanco got into trouble with East Los Angeles residents when he cast a decisive committee vote on a bill that would authorize the building of a prison near 12th Street and Santa Fe Avenue in the neighboring 56th Assembly District of Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles).
Polanco's vote got the bill out of committee and onto the floor of the Assembly, where it was approved.
Polanco later said that, although he opposes the prison site, he thought the measure should go to the full Assembly for discussion and mistakenly believed it would be voted down.
But some critics saw Polanco's vote as political retaliation against Molina. Polanco and Molina ran against each other for the Assembly in 1982 and Molina supported Hernandez against Polanco this year.
Not a Burning Issue
Polanco, 35, said that he opposes the proposed prison site but that it is not a burning issue in his own district, which includes Highland Park and parts of Eagle Rock, Atwater, Glassell Park and Pasadena. He said he has received only four complaints from constituents about his committee vote.
Polanco said residents in his district are more concerned about other issues, such as drug use. He said he has been working on legislation to increase drug penalties and expand drug treatment and education.
But other candidates in the 55th Assembly District said Polanco is underestimating anger over the prison issue, and they hope to exploit the issue in their campaigns.
Running against Polanco are Loren Lutz, 66, a dentist, the Republican nominee; Sarah E. Foster, a writer, the Libertarian nominee, and Michael Zinzun, 37, the Peace and Freedom Party candidate.
But they are running against heavy odds because the district, which has a large Latino population and a growing Asian one, is overwhelmingly Democratic. Of the 98,759 registered voters, about 68% are Democrats and 22% Republicans; unaffiliated and minor parties total about 10%.
Lutz, who has practiced dentistry in Alhambra since 1945, said of Polanco: "The primary issue is the prison. The gentleman said he was against the site and he voted for it."
Lutz, a former chairman of the state Park and Recreation Commission, said the state already runs halfway houses and other facilities for prisoners in East Los Angeles and it is unfair to put a prison there, too.
Characterized as Outsider
Zinzun said many East Los Angeles residents are upset with Polanco over his prison vote. He characterized Polanco as an outsider who has been adept at advancing his own interest but not at protecting the community.
He said the district needs an assemblyman who can stir the community. "We need a loud-mouth representative who will take information to the streets. Someone who will stand in the streets and holler," he said.
Zinzun said he worked at a cooperative print shop before an incident with Pasadena police in which he claimed that he was beaten by police and lost the sight in one eye. Zinzun said he has been unable to work since the incident but has been putting full effort into his campaign.
He lists himself on the ballot as an "anti-apartheid community activist" and has a platform that calls for rent control, an end to police brutality and protection of workers' rights.
Foster could not be reached for comment.
According to Polanco's latest financial disclosure statement, filed with the state last week, he is more than $238,000 in debt as a result of his multiple campaigns. It also shows that he raised $39,271 and spent $14,665 from July 1 through Sept. 30.
Foster declared raising less than $500.
Financial reports from Lutz and Zinzun had not reached Sacramento, despite an Oct. 6 deadline, and they could face fines for being late.