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Valley Perspective

His Own Private Pamplona

February 18, 2001|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is opinion page editor for The Times San Fernando Valley and Ventura County editions

When Alex Padilla first ran for the City Council, he was characterized by opponents and even some political professionals as too young, too inexperienced, too naive. Five other candidates, licking their chops, lined up against him. He was 26 years old and still lived at home, for crying out loud.

Then three things happened:

* He won the election by a landslide.

* He is running unopposed for reelection.

* Because of term limits and shifting political aspirations, he will become, at 28, one of the elder statesmen of a City Council that runs the second-biggest city in the United States.

Perhaps the most startling of these developments is that Padilla is running unopposed. In Los Angeles, running for office is like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. If you're foolish enough, feel lucky and don't mind a stampede, give it a try.

Want to be mayor? Jump right in; so do 24 others.

Perhaps the City Council? Get in line because 63 folks have filed papers to run for eight seats.

From revolutionaries to royalists, from gadflies to Greens, somebody is always running for office in Los Angeles.

Except in Alex Padilla's district.

And why is that? Has Padilla established such a powerful and well-oiled political machine that opponents are cowed or crushed beneath his bootheel?

Or has he begun to accomplish what he promised he would do: devote his time and energies to his northeast San Fernando Valley district beset by poverty, overcrowding and slum housing conditions, not to mention a lack of basic services that most other Los Angeles residents take for granted.

It is a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

It would be naive not to view Padilla as well established. He has had the backing of powerful labor unions as well as the mayor. He is a hometown boy in a community where being a homie means a lot. He is personable and smart, a formidable opponent for anyone. And the nature of his district is such that political aspirations often are out of reach for many potential challengers.

But more than that, Padilla is starting to make a difference in his district, something people can actually see after years of underrepresentation by political opportunists.

Witness El Dorado Avenue. To an outsider, it is just another side street running off Van Nuys Boulevard.

But not to residents. To them, it was a street that remained unpaved and blighted for 50 years before Padilla took office.

Now, it is paved and landscaped, a seemingly mundane improvement that is nonetheless seen as a miracle by those who live there and waited half a century for someone to fix it.

*

Padilla's devotion to his district was apparent when he was running in the primary. While other candidates were outlining their positions on big-ticket items, Padilla was establishing more provincial priorities. One of his first: getting a traffic light repaired next to the school he attended as a child.

It was a sign of things to come. Even now, if you drive around the district with Padilla, he enthusiastically points to things like new sidewalks, lighting and crosswalks the way other politicians would brag about a new five-star hotel or a flashy sports venue.

That is not to say that Padilla thinks small. He has managed to secure the new Children's Museum for his district, a move that some of his own staff thought was too much of a reach. He is getting a new police station. And a new branch library.

To be sure, in his zeal to improve the district, Padilla has made mistakes. One was his embracing of the Community Redevelopment Agency to oversee a massive project in the 7th District. In the Valley, the CRA, with its dubious track record, is viewed with all the warmth and respect of the Iraqi Republican Guard. Negotiations on the proposed 6,835-acre project became so heated in the district at one point that a fistfight broke out during a citizens advisory committee. The uproar eventually forced Padilla to back away from the plan.

*

Early in his council career, Padilla failed to get a federal jobs grant for Pacoima. The aid went to other areas of the city. Then there was the embarrassing incident in which lobbyist Ben Reznik, who had raised funds for Padilla's campaign, stood up during a council meeting and shouted to Padilla that he had voted the wrong way on a planning project, after which Padilla changed his vote.

Any one of these developments could have been politically crippling. But Padilla has learned and thrived by keeping his ear to the ground, listening and learning.

Alex Padilla's star is on the rise. How high it ascends is anybody's guess. But if he never accomplishes another thing in his career, he has made one major contribution to this city's political life.

He has shown the constituents of his beleaguered district that the system can work for them.

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