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Hernandez Must Step Aside

The councilman's cocaine addiction has undermined his ability to represent the special needs of the 1st District.

September 28, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

When Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez first ran for public office in 1986, I took an immediate liking to him and wrote that he was "in the truest sense of the words, a community leader."

I still feel that way, which is why I was happy to learn that he has begun treatment for the cocaine addiction that led to his recent arrest. But that is also why I've come to the conclusion that he must resign from office. It is the only way to close a sad episode that has troubled and embarrassed his constituents as much as it humiliated him.

Last week, Hernandez made his first public comments regarding his arrest for cocaine possession on Aug. 21. He apologized to his City Hall colleagues and his 1st District constituents, but also expressed a determination to beat his addiction and remain in office.

The councilman said he will return to work Oct. 7. Later, when he is due to be arraigned in court, Hernandez will plead guilty to cocaine possession. As a first-time offender, he will ask for a court-ordered referral into a drug treatment program. A final judgment against him would then be deferred until he completes rehabilitation--anywhere from 18 to 36 months.

Hernandez considers his dependency on cocaine and alcohol an illness, and said the recent deaths of his mother and an uncle pushed him over the edge. "I chose inappropriate ways to deal with my grief and stress," he added.

It was a classy and courageous performance. It reminded me of the briskly efficient businessman Hernandez once was and could easily be once again if he steps away from the harsh and unforgiving light of political life.

It is easy to forget the younger Hernandez, especially now that local TV has broadcast the grainy videotapes undercover police made of the councilman before his arrest--shuffling into darkened alleys to buy cocaine, then apparently snorting it in the front seat of his city car.

The younger Hernandez was quite a guy. He had a successful bail bond company, was active in the Jaycees and even helped organize the annual Lincoln Heights Christmas parade.

When he first ran for the Assembly, Hernandez was a refreshing contrast to so many other candidates for public office then emerging on the Eastside. They were mostly uninspiring hacks--clones of career politicians they slavishly served as staffers. Few had even held jobs in the private sector, much less run a business.

Despite being a political neophyte in 1986, Hernandez almost beat Richard Polanco, then an aide to City Councilman Richard Alatorre and now a state senator. Hernandez finally won public office in 1991, when he was elected to finish the City Council term of Gloria Molina after she was elected to the county Board of Supervisors.

Since then Hernandez has established a track record as one of the hardest working members of the council and a staunch advocate for the poor and working-class residents of his inner-city district and the needy throughout Los Angeles. I have rarely disagreed with any stance Hernandez has taken in all that time, but must do so now.

Because the issue underlying the controversy over Hernandez's future is the abuse of illegal drugs. And that one overarching problem is arguably at the root of most of the other problems facing Hernandez's 1st District.

Think for a moment about all the problems associated with the so-called inner city: violence, theft and other property crimes, the lack of jobs and economic opportunity. Almost every one can be traced, at least in part, to the scourge of illegal drugs.

Under the circumstances, it is little wonder that Hernandez's arrest so discombobulated his constituents. They looked to him to be part of the solution and found he was part of the problem.

A small part of a very big problem, to be sure. Perhaps even a largely blameless part of it. But as terrible as the inner demons were that drove Hernandez to cocaine, they have not driven all the other residents of his district to drug abuse.

And if the death of loved ones was especially painful for him, then what of the pain of those Angelenos who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses (as I have) or to drug-related gang violence? And what of Hernandez's constituents who, almost inevitably, will lose loved ones to drugs in the future? Can they look with real confidence to a city representative while wondering if he is still clean?

I am not suggesting that Hernandez can no longer be a leader in his community. He can be and should be. At the very least, his own rehabilitation can inspire others trying to fight their way out of drug-induced hells.

But in this particular case, in this particular district, I see no way a man who has undermined his term in public office through drug addiction can be truly effective as a councilman. Hernandez would do his district and himself a favor by stepping aside with the same courage and candor he admirably displayed last week.

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