LOU KORANSKY needed help in the credit department of his busy jewelry store on Whittier Boulevard. It was 1960 and the old East Los Angeles of Russians, Armenians, Japanese, Latinos and Jews, which existed when Koransky arrived in Boyle Heights from Chicago in the '20s, had disappeared. The Koranskys and many other Jewish families, for example, had moved to West Los Angeles after World War II. Now East L.A. was almost entirely Latino, and a large number of Koransky's customers spoke no English.
The person Koransky sought had to speak Spanish. But mostly the employee had to be someone as smart and tough as Lou himself. "I was looking for someone who was aggressive," Koransky recalls, sitting in his small office at the rear of the store. "In the collection business, you have to have a certain amount of toughness. But you have to be very tactful because someday the slow customer might turn out to be a very good paying customer."
A perfect job description for a bill collector--or a politician. Koransky found a young man with those talents at Garfield High School, a few miles from the store. He was Richard Alatorre, the student body president, who was about to graduate and attend Cal State L.A.--and who would eventually become one of the most influential Latino politicians in the state.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 24, 1989 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Jack Fenton--In a story Sunday in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, former state Sen. Jack Fenton was incorrectly described as "the late Jack Fenton." Fenton is alive and well and working as a legislative advocate in Sacramento.
"I was good," Alatorre says of his five years at the jewelry store. "The way I used to collect is I used to embarrass people, and that's painful. . . . I had this one guy, his bill was $15,000. I would go to his place, sit down with him, then I'd tell him, 'Well, OK, man, how much you going to pay me?' He said, 'I'll give you $300.' I said, 'Hey, man, you think I sat down here and had a drink with you for $300? I need more.' So he gave me $1,000. . . . I was good because I was mean when I had to be mean. And I was a softie when I had to be a softie."
A quarter of a century later, Alatorre is still applying the lessons he learned in Lou Koransky's jewelry store. When it comes to back-room negotiations or to raising campaign funds, the Los Angeles city councilman and former state legislator can be shrewd and tough, not always playing by the accepted rules. The power he and his allies wield has led critics to dub them the "PRI of East L.A.," a cynical joke referring to the ruling party in Mexico, which is known for its win-at-all-costs politics. Yet many say he is extremely sympathetic when it comes to helping the struggling families of his old neighborhood find jobs, gain political clout and obtain city services. Over the years, he has moved back and forth between the tough, inside politics he believed were needed to bring economic development to East Los Angeles and the more accommodating kind of politics needed for acceptance in the mainstream.
Now, as he contemplates a possible run for mayor or county supervisor, Alatorre is walking a far trickier path, a path that makes it increasingly necessary for him to refine his unpolished personal style. That approach worked well with his East L.A. constituents. It clearly produced results among back-room powerbrokers in the State Assembly, who put him in charge of fashioning a legislative and congressional reapportionment that gave Latinos their most substantial political representation in history.
But to succeed in a highly visible citywide or countywide campaign, Alatorre needs different set of skills. He has to charm the media. And he needs the support of corporate executives and other major contributors whose backing is essential for a race that could cost several million dollars. Although Los Angeles has become a city where minorities are the majority, the largest single group of voters will remain middle-class and affluent whites. That's because they are the most likely to go to the polls, splitting between liberals and conservatives. Looking at it as a campaign manager would, it's clear that the winner in the next mayoral election is likely to be a minority person who appeals to white liberal and moderate voters.
On the surface, Alatorre looks like a candidate who could be packaged effectively in a high-profile campaign: A slender man of 46, he favors expensive-looking, well-cut Italian suits. His hair is black, his complexion dark. He comes across well on camera. But his combination of the crude and the pleasant, of bluntness and courtliness, casts an aura that puts off people used to more conventional, or more polite, politicians. At City Council meetings, Alatorre slumps in his chair looking bored as his colleagues drone on. He reads the newspapers, sneaks a cigarette at the side of the chambers. And smoking, swearing, always saying "Hey, man," Alatorre sometimes acts as if he never left Garfield High.