One day last summer, state Sen. Richard Polanco was probably about as close to heaven as a machine politician can get in California.
With Gray Davis as the first Democratic governor in 16 years, a patronage feast was underway.
And the man in charge of the seating was a young lawyer-lobbyist whom Polanco recommended for the job.
Polanco had a staffer place a call to the man, Dario Frommer, whose assignment was to vet Davis' potential appointees.
Three minutes later, Frommer called back. Two hours later, he showed up at Polanco's door.
Polanco shut it. "This one is private," he told a reporter following him for a day.
The incident was a small but telling indicator of just how powerful Polanco, a Democrat from northeast Los Angeles, had become.
Not long ago, Polanco and other Latino lawmakers in Sacramento were a few isolated souls fighting the system.
"Now," said someone long active in Latino affairs, "they are the system."
There are many reasons for this: statewide demographic changes, voter registration drives, the perceived anti-immigrant bias of former Gov. Pete Wilson coming back to haunt Republicans.
But Polanco has been the catalyst.
He has done more than anyone else to organize the unprecedented surge to statewide clout that Latino elected officials enjoyed in a decade that will be recorded as a milestone in an ethnic community's political history.
Largely because of Polanco, Latinos, though still a minority of California's population, today constitute a larger share of the state's Legislature than of its electorate.
"I sometimes tease him," said his longtime, on-again, off-again political consultant, Richard Ross:
"I say, 'Polanco, you're the father of the nation.' "
Those who know Polanco say they are not surprised.
Polanco is so aggressive that he has been known to go to another guy's barbecue and take over the cooking, remarking, as an associate quoted him, "It'll be the best."
So aggressive that he marched into a 1991 board meeting of the Metropolitan Water District, an agency that shouted white power structure, and told members, in so many words, that they were a bunch of crooks. "Good afternoon," he began his speech to the small sea of ancient bobbing white heads. "I am here to talk about sweetheart contracts, shadow lobbying--and the general underhanded way this agency operates."
So aggressive that, beginning in the early 1990s, he hung out his own shingle as a political entrepreneur.
He recruited would-be Latino Democratic lawmakers from around the state, raised millions from special-interest groups to fund their campaigns, and helped run many of them himself.
Victories by candidates he sponsored helped triple the size of the Democratic Latino legislative caucus, which became, with 20 members, the Legislature's largest potential voting bloc outside of the political parties.
More importantly, from the standpoint of taking the reins of state government, alliances in the caucus served as foundations for broader coalitions that installed Latinos in legislative leadership posts for the first time.
Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former legislator from Los Angeles, said he and other Latino elected officials began working on this kind of "architecture" of Latino empowerment in the 1970s.
Polanco, he said, will be remembered for having completed it.
"He is at a moment of great historical opportunity," said his state Senate colleague, Tom Hayden, another Democrat from Los Angeles, "and he is turning the wheel."
Polanco, who is known in empowerment circles simply as "the architect," is a personally ambitious, practical politician who builds from the top down, not a civil rights leader, who builds from the bottom up.
He has the determination of a John Henry: "Tell me it can't be done," he says. "Tell me we can't find a way. We go out and find a way."
As befits a man building a machine, Polanco's great insight was mechanical. It was that no one could stop him if he wanted to bulldoze past long-standing Democratic Party protocols that called for legislative leaders to raise money only to fight Republicans.
Polanco was willing to do that. But he also wanted to raise money to help Latino Democrats beat non-Latino Democrats in primary contests for open legislative seats.
His attitude was: "[After] I fulfill my obligation to the party, don't tell me I can't play."
He became a fund-raising force. Occupying a safe Democratic seat, which meant he needed little money to run his own campaigns, he raised millions for others and helped allies raise untold more by urging donors loyal to him to contribute directly to them.
Fund-raising is difficult for lots of politicians. They find it awkward to ask for money without promising anything specific, and they are not supposed to promise anything, because a promise turns a campaign contribution into a bribe.
But Polanco suggests it is relatively easy. He learned how to vault this hurdle as a child selling oranges door to door.