The epicenter of Los Angeles' Latino power structure may be the bustling immigrant neighborhoods patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division.
The Pico-Union, Westlake and Echo Park districts are represented by what reads like a Who's Who of rising Latino political stars: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, Rep. Xavier Becerra and County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
For the past six months, these leaders have been repeatedly pounding on their core issues--improving access to health care, extending rail to the Eastside and solving the turmoil in the school district. What they have said little about is the worst LAPD scandal in city history, which has unraveled right in their backyard.
"Some people say, 'You guys haven't been outspoken enough' " in response to the tales of LAPD officers framing, shooting and deporting residents, acknowledged one Latino official who represents the area. "But we don't want to fan the flames of a problem."
Latino leaders' muted response to the Rampart scandal contrasts sharply with the increasing public outrage from a handful of white and black liberals, and has become a sore point for some activists.
"This lack of leadership from our elected representatives is exactly what perpetuates the intolerable conditions in which we must live, and why we continue to be victimized by law enforcement and the judicial system," said Hector Carreon, an activist and former county commissioner of real estate management.
Latinos Part of Power Structure
The reasons for the relative silence are manifold, analysts say, and reflect how Latinos have become part of the power structure in Los Angeles.
Some officials and activists say that families in the district are more concerned with access to health care and education. Others cite the struggle over Los Angeles school Supt. Ruben Zacarias' firing last fall as having distracted them. But there may be a broader reason.
"The Latino officials are really establishmentarian officials [now]. . . . Maybe in their younger years they were trying to break down doors," said Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. But that is no longer the case, he said, citing the "constructive" style of the new leadership.
Indeed, many Latino leaders bristle at the assertion that they have been quiet on the Rampart scandal, saying they have a responsibility not to exploit the situation for political gain.
"I'm not an ambulance chaser, so I'm not just going to do a press conference to get a line," said Villaraigosa, who spoke forcefully about the scandal's implications for the justice system in an interview Monday. The speaker denied that he has been quiet, saying he wrote an opinion article on the scandal last fall and has spoken with Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.
Becerra said, "I'm not interested in bashing the people who are there to protect my wife and children day to day just because there are some truly bad apples in the department.
"We need to root out the problem, but that doesn't mean you have to constantly get out and speak on the thing"
Moreover, although leaders said in interviews said that they are horrified by the allegations, they expressed confidence in the response of the system so far.
"You have a police chief who indicates he's willing to be responsive, a D.A. who indicates that he wants to prosecute," said Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who also represents the areas patrolled by the Rampart Division.
Some questioned whether Rampart should be viewed as a Latino issue because many officers at the station who are accused of wrongdoing are of Latino descent, including Raphael Perez, whose confessions of corruption revealed the scandal. "Now," said a legislative aide, "if that'd been a white guy . . . "
Personal dynamics may also have something to do with the quiet.
Immediately after the 1992 riots, Latino elected officials--who are predominantly U.S.-born--were criticized for their slow response to the needs of immigrant neighborhoods like Pico-Union. The exception was Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez. But Hernandez remains low-profile on Rampart, Loyola Marymount professor Fernando Guerra and others say, having been arrested by LAPD officers on drug charges two years ago.
Hernandez said Monday that he has been active on Rampart issues, "doing my work on the council floor" supporting the Police Commission's investigation.
Guerra also said that speaking aggressively about the scandal carries risks for the two candidates for Los Angeles mayor who represent the district--Villaraigosa and Becerra--at a time when coalition-building is crucial to winning a citywide election.
"If you take on the LAPD you're going to be tagged as a radical," Guerra said. "A Latino's already suspect on public safety issues."