Alex Padilla, the young engineer who abandoned rocket science for politics, knows how to pick a winner.
He backed James K. Hahn for mayor, even though it meant turning his back on the up-and-coming Latino candidate supported by many of his San Fernando Valley constituents. Before he became a councilman, Padilla cut his political teeth running the energetic campaigns of underdog candidates--and winning.
Now, as he settles behind the ornate walnut desk of the Los Angeles City Council president, Padilla has once again positioned himself on the winning team. Term limits had whittled away the field of those jostling for the presidency, clearing the way for the 28-year-old lawmaker to take the helm of a council he joined just two years ago.
"It's humbling," Padilla said after his colleagues chose him as their leader. "All I do is follow my heart and try to do the right thing."
Padilla's rise has been nothing short of meteoric, even in an age of rapid political turnover. He grew up poor in Pacoima, the middle child of a Mexican-born housekeeper and a short-order cook who were determined to see their children succeed.
Padilla was trained as an engineer at MIT and then returned home to write software for satellites at Hughes Aircraft.
But it was politics that captured his imagination--and that gave him a way to try to provide the basic services that he believed his working-class district in the northeast Valley had long been denied.
At 22, he ran the successful Assembly campaign of Tony Cardenas, then a little-known owner of a real estate agency. He later managed the bare-knuckled 1998 campaign that propelled Richard Alarcon into a state Senate seat by a mere 29 votes.
In 1999, Padilla jumped into the race for Alarcon's former council seat. He was barely known outside political circles, but he put together a potent cadre of backers, including labor unions and then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Padilla won by a landslide.
"He came in at the right time," said Xavier Flores, treasurer of the Valley chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn. "The groundwork was laid out for him. There were 15 years prior to him, building, building, building . . . our political power. Had that not happened, Alex would not have been able to do anything with his campaigns."
But if his path was smoothed by a generation of Latino activists, Padilla kept mostly to a moderate course once he took office.
His early priorities were simple: Keep the potholes plugged and streets paved, create more jobs for sagging businesses, and bring home plenty of youth programs.
Padilla has already successfully lobbied for a $40-million Children's Museum and a youth baseball complex for his district. But he was forced to shelve another project, a $490-million redevelopment program in the Northeast Valley, after residents objected. (He has said he may try again with a small version.)
A poised, deliberative man known for working long hours, Padilla has won the respect of many of his older colleagues.
"I just think Alex has the grace and elegance and vision to be a very, very good leader of the City Council," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who supported Padilla's bid to become president.
But it was the new faces on the council--five of the six voted for Padilla--who carried the day. Padilla courted the newcomers assiduously, working his cell phone so hard that the batteries expired every few hours, according to an aide.
"It's very important in this city to have a strong voice from the Valley that is in favor of keeping this city together," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, a novice lawmaker who backed Padilla.
In Pacoima, where Padilla still lives just around the corner from his family's home, residents were thrilled that one of their own had been chosen council president.
"I am so proud to hear it, you can't imagine," said Isaac Arias, a retired factory worker and a 49-year Pacoima resident. "Finally! We had to wait 49 years for someone who was born and raised in our community. He's the only one who knows the problems we have."
The expectations--in the Valley, among Latinos--run high in a city that has seen several once-prominent Latino politicians derailed by scandal.
"We believe he is going to be the next [Henry] Cisneros for our community," Flores said, referring to the former San Antonio mayor who rose to become a Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton. "Hopefully, he will have learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and be able to go all the way."
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* Age: 28
* Residence: Pacoima
* Education: Bachelor's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
* Career highlights: Ran successful campaigns of Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar). Elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1999. Chosen council president by his colleagues Tuesday.
* Family: Single