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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

In 1986, Alatorre agreed to pay a record $141,966 to settle a lawsuit filed against him by the City Attorney for failing to disclose the source of campaign contributions to his City Council election campaign. Much of the money had been accumulated while Alatorre was an assemblyman, and the law required him to disclose the names of the donors. Alatorre said it was an oversight, but his critics have maintained it was a deliberate attempt to illegally use contributions raised while he was a legislative power. And last year, Alatorre paid a $2,000 fine for violating state conflict-of-interest laws. He admitted that he tried to steer a $722,500 contract to The East Los Angeles Community Union after it paid him a $1,000 speaking fee.

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.

TELACU, in fact, generates much of the controversy around Alatorre. It was founded in the 1960s to stimulate East Los Angeles businesses, build low-income housing and provide jobs as part of the federal War on Poverty. From the outset, TELACU was development-minded. Opponents accused it of questionable use of federal grants and of running businesses that seemed to have little connection with East L.A. jobs.

Alatorre is firmly allied with TELACU in a strong political operation, and TELACU now hopes to get a piece of Alatorre's biggest civic project, a proposal to redevelop a 67-acre area around Union Station into a neighborhood of commercial high rises in the next 10 to 15 years, which, opponents say, would destroy the essence of historic Olvera Street.

In answer to his critics, Alatorre says that his ties with TELACU and his work on city projects such as the Union Station-area redevelopment are evidence that he intends to shape East Los Angeles to meet community needs. "Why is it we do not open up opportunities for minorities and small-business people so they can do business with the city and with the state?" And as for his fund-raising, he says: "I believe in putting my money where my mouth is."

TODAY, ALATORRE is a relaxed man on the turf he has occupied for many years. One Saturday, he stops for lunch at a hamburger stand he has been patronizing since he was a boy. The owners yell at him to get a street light for their Whittier Boulevard corner. "I can't even get some stuff for my mother, man," he replies. "Ask the mayor," says one man. "No, no, it ain't the mayor. If it was the mayor you'd get it," Alatorre says, pointing out that the hamburger stand is in unincorporated territory under the jurisdiction of the county. "I got to talk to this other guy (County Supervisor Ed Edelman). I'll bring him down here."

Clearly, he's at ease and in control of his own territory. But Los Angeles history is filled with warnings to ethnic politicians looking for influence outside their communities. Take, for example, the painful experiences of Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.).

In 1949, the liberal Roybal was elected to the City Council. The following year, he cast the only vote against an ordinance requiring Communists to register with the police and forbidding them from owning guns. Even more annoying to the city's business leaders, he opposed plans for massive development in East Los Angeles, of the type that later leveled poor residential neighborhoods on Bunker Hill and in Chavez Ravine. In 1958, Roybal ran for county supervisor in a district that was mostly Anglo. He lost, but many East L.A. old-timers believe Roybal was the victim of election theft. After Roybal finished 393 votes ahead on election night, the county registrar discovered a 12,000-vote counting error. Roybal went on to become one of the nation's first Latino congressman and is regarded as a father figure by many up-and-coming politicians. But the point is, even a widely respected figure like Roybal couldn't manage to go beyond his own district.

Today, however, a Latino politician such as Alatorre might face fewer obstacles. The business and union leaders who backed Bradley are looking for a new champion--and Alatorre is sympathetic to their development policies. Aware that their population is shrinking compared to Latinos, some black politicians seem willing to support a non-black who is sympathetic to their concerns. And Alatorre, because of his work with the NAACP, is the Latino with whom they've forged the strongest ties.

"He was able to establish the kind of rapport with the black community that a lot of other people can't," says Montez. "That's . . . street smarts. "

But that may also be Alatorre 's great handicap: He may be too much from the streets, too tough in his pursuit of power. Montez has a warning for his friend: "Richard has to be careful he doesn't get the omnipotent feeling (that his TELACU allies) can do anything they want. That's the one blind spot Richard has. And he's got to watch it. Richard has a very, very large constituency that is his if he just continues to develop it and stops playing the old boy network. That is vitally important to Richard's future."

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