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CROSSOVER DREAMS : Richard Alatorre Calls the Shots in East L.A., But to Succeed Citywide He'll Have to Woo the Westside

October 22, 1989|BILL BOYARSKY | Bill Boyarsky, former Times City-County bureau chief, now writes a political column for The Times

He brought his calculatingly blunt style with him when he decided to leave what he saw as the relative obscurity of the Assembly to run for City Council in 1985. A strong ally of the mayor, he's aligned with pro-development forces on the council and is acknowledged to be a skillful practitioner of complex, behind-the-scenes political maneuvers. He's a vocal advocate of civil rights and civil liberties. In his short tenure on the council, Alatorre has organized shelters for the homeless. He has put together government and private funds for construction of more than 250 units of low- and moderate-income housing in his district. He has obtained state "enterprise zone" tax incentives to promote development in East Los Angeles. Assuaging the fears of some of his more affluent constituents, Alatorre has also pushed through an anti-development mini-mall moratorium in the Eagle Rock section of his district.

Critics acknowledge that he can get things done, but many question his tactics. "He would have been a great guy in L.A. when everything was done on the inside," says Rudolfo F. Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, whose book, "A Community Under Siege," chronicles the political awakening of East L.A. Acuna says Alatorre spends too much time raising money from and catering to special-interest groups, to the neglect of the community.

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.

"Richard knows how to command power, to use power," adds Councilwoman Gloria Molina, whose district adjoins Alatorre's and who is considered to have a bright political future herself. "Richard's style was pretty dictatorial; he had a tendency to be a bully." But she says he has changed on the City Council. "I find him still persistent about things, but he isn't as pushy as he was before. He's changed as a person. I think he has softened up."

That change may be a reflection of his coming to terms with the strains of his political life. His second marriage ended just recently. And, he revealed in answer to questioning, he is a recovering alcoholic.

"I have a drinking problem," he said during a long interview in his office. His coat was off. The door was closed. He was seated on the couch, his feet on the coffee table. The question was posed because reporters in Sacramento had talked about what they considered Alatorre's erratic behavior in committee hearings, where his moods would swing from anger to boredom to hilarity. A year ago, he sought treatment, he says, and since then he has been involved in a sobriety program.

"But, you know, I look at it from a positive. I'm happy I stopped. I never looked at myself as having a problem as it related to alcohol," he says, "but I think it got basically to a point where it just didn't work for me. And what I learned (is that) where other people have normal outlets for their rage, for their anger, for their hurt, I didn't. I suppressed it all," he says. "Not a lot of people can say they know me," he continues. "And that worked for me. But it also became very destructive. You know, this is the type of profession that just takes a lot out of you. It is very demanding. There's a lot of hurt and there's a lot of pleasure. . . . It was easier to escape your own problems by dealing with other people's problems. But that didn't do any good for Richard Alatorre," he concludes. "You know, I'm 46 years old and I'm still learning about Richard Alatorre."

TO UNDERSTAND Richard Alatorre, it is necessary to understand where he came from. East Los Angeles, the gritty community where he was born and raised, reaches from the Los Angeles River, through Boyle Heights and City Terrace, out Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard and to Monterey Park, where Spanish store signs give way to those in Chinese and Vietnamese. Technically, it begins east of the big concrete flood-control channel formed from the Los Angeles River, but it really starts just west of the river, at the plaza near Olvera Street, where Los Angeles was founded on Sept 4, 1781.

The plaza, now as then, is an entry place for Latino immigrants. Many will eventually settle in Boyle Heights, Maravilla or Belvedere, where Latinos moved when downtown businesses displaced them from the plaza in the early 20th Century. Jews, Armenians, Japanese and blacks also lived in these East L.A. neighborhoods. A common history still links the groups that have passed through East L.A., and it is among them that Alatorre would have to forge new ties to win a citywide race.

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