Earlier this summer, after being chosen president of the Los Angeles City Council, Alex Padilla promised "a little more active" role than people had come to expect of the low-key position.
It took only two months--and the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history--to show what he meant.
In the absence of Mayor James K. Hahn, Padilla has been omnipresent on Los Angeles radio and television. He has assuaged and assured over and over, in English and Spanish, displaying far more polish than his 28 years and his rocky start as council president might have suggested.
Hahn has been stranded in Washington, D.C., since Tuesday on a four-day lobbying trip that was rapidly overtaken by events. He tried to return home on a military flight Wednesday but could not because all aircraft were placed at the disposal of emergency crews.
Aides are working on alternative arrangements. "He hopes to get back as soon as possible," said Tim McOsker, Hahn's chief of staff.
In the meantime, the nation's second-biggest city is left in the hands of Padilla, the acting mayor who is widely thought to harbor designs on someday winning the job in his own right--a prospect he may have enhanced in the last two days.
"This can only be helpful, if you want to be crude in the political sense, to whatever future plans he has," said Rick Taylor, a Los Angeles political consultant who ran Padilla's 1999 council race. "He's done a very good job, though it's a terrible thing to say at this moment of horrible tragedy."
Robin Kramer, chief of staff to former Mayor Richard Riordan, agreed. "I don't think he seemed 'political' at all," Kramer said. "I think he comported himself quite well."
Padilla and his press aide, David Gershwin, chose not to venture down such a treacherous path. "That's not even on my mind," Padilla said of the political ramifications of his stand-in mayoral performance. "I'm just trying to do the job I'm charged with doing."
The two emphasized Padilla's concentration on his official duties, pointing out the role of acting mayor was thrust upon him by the City Charter. His frequent media appearances, Gershwin suggested, are simply the best means of communicating with far-flung residents. "In times of crisis, people do look to their leaders for answers, for information," Gershwin said.
Serving in his fill-in capacity, Padilla has taken Hahn's seat at meetings of the Emergency Operations Board, which includes the city's fire and police chiefs and major department heads. Taking repeatedly to the airwaves, he has urged local residents to give blood, steered them to traffic information on the city's Web site and repeatedly advised that the city is sound and secure.
On Wednesday, Padilla dove into the role of community conciliator, attending an interfaith meeting at an Islamic center in the mid-Wilshire district. Throughout, Padilla has remained in close contact with Hahn, a key political ally, speaking as often as six times a day.
Padilla's smooth performance belies a rather ham-handed start to his tenure as council president.
The Pacoima native was elected to the council in a 1999 special election to replace Richard Alarcon, who left for the state Senate. Padilla was reelected in 2000 and in July leapfrogged over the more experienced Ruth Galanter to win the council presidency.
Padilla stumbled almost immediately. He managed to antagonize several African American council members through his allotment of committee assignments, denying them coveted seats on panels dealing with economic, housing and social service issues.
Padilla also rankled advocates of San Fernando Valley secession by removing Councilman Hal Bernson, a supporter of Valley cityhood, from the panel studying secession and replacing him with Cindy Miscikowski, an opponent of the breakup.
However it has lifted his public profile, Padilla's recent moves may not do much to help him within the insular world of City Hall.
"Colleagues are probably both relieved and jealous," said Kramer, who spent several years as a council aide before joining Riordan's staff. "Relieved because this really is a time beyond politics and he didn't make a fool of them or himself; jealous because it wasn't him or her" in the public eye.
But longer term, Padilla seems to have boosted his political stock.
At such times in the spotlight "it only matters if you mess up," Taylor said. "What you don't want to do is overplay your hand and act like president instead of City Council president. And Alex hasn't done anything of that kind."