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Mayor's Race Reopens Valley Political Fissure

Former allies Sen. Richard Alarcon and Assemblyman Tony Cardenas back different candidates. Winning group could become leadership voice of area's Latinos.


The Los Angeles mayor's race has sharply divided the San Fernando Valley's Latino leadership, reopening an old rift between two powerful camps and sparking new debate about which group better represents the Valley's growing Latino population.

The runoff election between City Atty. James K. Hahn and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa has triggered a replay of a split between state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) and Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) over who should succeed Alarcon on the City Council.

Until 1999, Cardenas and Alarcon were close allies who, with the help of political strategist James Acevedo, helped each other get elected as the first Latinos to hold state legislative posts in the Valley.

But two years ago, when Alarcon won a seat in the state Senate and left the City Council, the alliance that many hoped would provide a united front for the Valley's Latino community shattered.

Alarcon backed health agency administrator Corinne Sanchez for his council seat, but Cardenas and Acevedo supported Alex Padilla, 26, a relative unknown who ultimately was elected.

Cardenas, Padilla and Acevedo endorsed Hahn for mayor in December.

"James Hahn shares my vision for what my priorities and needs are for my district," Padilla said Thursday. "I have a track record of working with James Hahn."

Then last week, Alarcon, three San Fernando City Council members and leaders of the Valley chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn. joined Sanchez in endorsing Villaraigosa in his bid to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century.

"As much as I think Jim Hahn would be a good mayor, there is no doubt in my mind that Antonio will be a great mayor," Alarcon said.

With the two camps backing different mayoral candidates, the stage is set for another showdown to test which faction best represents the will of Valley Latinos.

The issue takes on added urgency because of new census figures showing the Latino population exploding by 42% in the Valley from 1990 to 2000--four times the rate of the rest of the city.

"The result of the mayor's race will show which camp wins, which is more in tune" with the community, Valley activist Carlos Ferreyra said.

The outcome also could boost the stock of the winning faction. Padilla, for instance, has enjoyed a close relationship with Mayor Richard Riordan, which has allowed the councilman to reap more city services for his district.

"Obviously, they would have more influence depending on who becomes mayor," said Jorge Flores, a political consultant not involved in the mayor's race.

Some Leaders Welcome Diversity of Opinion

Ferreyra and Flores welcomed a diversity of opinion within the Latino leadership.

"It may seem from the outside that there is a rift in the family, but I think it is healthy to have different views come to the table," Flores said.

Padilla agrees.

"It reflects the level of sophistication in the community when leaders can agree to disagree in a race," the councilman said.

The danger, however, is that a divided leadership could see its clout diminished on election day, with neither side delivering enough votes to make a difference.

For his part, Cardenas said he and Alarcon agree more than they disagree on issues, but that they don't agree on who should be the next mayor.

"I endorsed James Hahn because I thought he was the most experienced candidate, and he continues to be," Cardenas said.

The assemblyman admitted that he does not get along with his former legislative colleague, Villaraigosa.

Cardenas planned in 1999 to run for the Assembly speaker position but dropped out after Villaraigosa supported Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg for the job.

"The relationship between Antonio and myself is not very good, and people try to make it one issue that pushed us apart, but it was many, many issues where he was consistent in damaging our relationship," Cardenas said. Villaraigosa's action on the speakership "was one issue but not the worst," Cardenas added.

But despite endorsements from Cardenas and Padilla in December, Hahn was beaten badly by Villaraigosa in the April 10 election in much of the Valley.

Valleywide, Villaraigosa received 28% of the vote to Hahn's 15.9%, but in Padilla's home base of Pacoima-Arleta, Villaraigosa received 51.7% to Hahn's 15.6%. In Sylmar, the home area for Cardenas, Villaraigosa received 40% to Hahn's 14.6%.

Cardenas did not take Hahn's poor showing as a reflection on him because, despite his endorsement, "he wasn't out there doing much," said Jose Cornejo, the assemblyman's chief of staff.

There are other theories in the community about why Hahn did not fare well in the northeast Valley, despite the support of Cardenas and Padilla.

One missing ingredient was the County Federation of Labor, which was instrumental in Padilla's election but which is backing Villaraigosa.

The vote also reflects a broader trend in which Villaraigosa received most of the Latino votes.

Padilla and Cardenas said they will be stepping up their campaigning for Hahn.

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