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Riordan's Headache: Alatorre

The Spin / BILL BOYARSKY

July 03, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

Richard Riordan is the mayor of Los Angeles, but on some matters, it's smart to listen to another Richard.

That is why, while Mayor Riordan was giving his inaugural day news conference Monday, I decided to check out a speech being delivered by Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who was talking about two of the subjects on which he has almost as much power as the mayor--the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city budget.

I could see--from the timing--that this was Alatorre's counter-inaugural speech, a preview of the difficulties Riordan faces in fulfilling the promises made on the day of his swearing-in. It is, in fact, Alatorre who will determine to a large extent what happens to Riordan's grand plans.

*

Alatorre was speaking to the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, a downtown luncheon group. In the audience were engineers, lobbyists and public affairs consultants employed on city and MTA projects. Alatorre is important to them as chairman of the City Council's Budget Committee and an influential member of the MTA governing board.

In other hands, the message might have been grim. But Alatorre is a political artist whose work appears simple and straightforward but is, in reality, intricate and layered. A word, an intonation, a laugh, a look of contempt from beneath his dark eyebrows all mean something.

He wore an expensive looking double-breasted dark blue suit. Before rising to speak, he sat at the head table studying the text of his talk, ignoring the chattering diners, not eating or drinking, showing none of the politician's compulsion to be friendly.

When he spoke, his voice was more of a growl than usual, the result, he said, of allergies. His style of speaking--gruff, often profane--has fooled opponents into underestimating Alatorre. When he was in the Assembly in the 1980s, Speaker Willie Brown put him in charge of reapportionment, and Republicans scoffed at his inexperience and apparent lack of sophistication. But they learned how badly they had misjudged the young assemblyman when they began counting the seats they had lost.

Each point Alatorre made to the luncheon group was a direct message to the mayor.

Riordan had pledged to continue his top priority--strengthening the Police Department. Fine, said Alatorre, but not at the expense of parks and libraries, public institutions vitally important to his constituents, including many working-class Latinos.

Before Riordan's budget is approved by Alatorre's committee, the councilman will make sure it will provide for funds to keep every city library open seven days a week and at night. "Many times, libraries are the only safe haven kids have," he said.

As Alatorre knows from his rise from Garfield High School through Cal State L.A., libraries provide the books and study space needed by college-bound working-class young men and women. There is no issue, polls show, more important to Alatorre's constituents than education.

Alatorre's next subject was the MTA. Riordan is willing to complete the Red Line subway to North Hollywood. But he doesn't share the councilman's enthusiasm for subways.

Alatorre, on the other hand, wants to keep building rail lines. He said the MTA, with all its financial troubles, can build everything on the planning books. "I think we have the capacity to do it," he said. "It won't be easy. We will have to be creative."

Finally, Alatorre dismissed another of Riordan's projects, conversion of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into a modern facility that would be acceptable to a National Football League team.

He scoffed at the Coliseum as "yesterday." It was a typical Alatorre remark--brief, irrevocable and tinged with contempt for the other side. The words reminded me of what he used to say when he was a state legislator and foes accused him of going back on promises: "What was then is then; what is now is now."

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All this means headaches for Riordan. In the past, he has favored cops over the library. He is pushing for a massive reorganization of the MTA, where he also serves on the board. And on Tuesday, he reaffirmed his support for the Coliseum make-over.

Riordan may disagree with other council members, but Alatorre is the only one with a political machine, one with roots deep into East L.A. and branches that reach throughout the Southland and into the Capitol in Sacramento.

It is a machine based on friendship, alliances and a common belief that this is the time for Latinos to move into economic and political power.

The machine does not run on belief alone. Like all political machines, it runs on money, on campaign contributions from the contractors who build the rail lines and the other projects that Alatorre loves so well.

This is political power in the old-fashioned big city sense of the phrase.

Wherever Riordan turns, Alatorre or his allies will be waiting. It could be in Sacramento or in City Hall or at the MTA.

Just as he did in his first term, the mayor will have to call on this powerful man and show respect to him, his friends and his causes.

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