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Eastside Pols Lose Clout

Villaraigosa's strength has the old guard flailing.

November 17, 2002|Frank del Olmo

The sleazy tactics began sooner than expected in the Los Angeles City Council's 14th District, where former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa is campaigning to unseat Nick Pacheco. But amid the understandable outrage generated by the racist attack one Pacheco backer unleashed, there is cause for optimism. The wannabe politico responsible for the ugliness may have sounded the death knell for a worn-out Eastside political "machine."

Villaraigosa no sooner announced his candidacy for the seat in March's elections than Ricardo A. Torres II, a law school classmate of Pacheco's, sent district voters mailers attacking the former Assembly speaker. The most detestable accused Villaraigosa of ignoring Latinos at the behest of his "gringo" advisors. A second rehashed "womanizer" accusations. Torres boasted to The Times that he would raise $500,000 to send out more mailers.

Pacheco denied responsibility for the mailers and asked Torres to stop sending them out. When Torres refused, Pacheco supporters such as Mayor James K. Hahn, City Council President Alex Padilla and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca joined the chorus of public disapproval. The sheriff withdrew his endorsement of Pacheco, saying Torres' mailers were too "divisive from the standpoint of race."

Torres cracked under the pressure by the end of last week. He announced the mailers would stop but refused to apologize and warned that he might resume his attacks.

Torres' sophomoric high jinks hurt not only Pacheco but also other political activists on the Eastside. They showed the city just how weak and desperate the clique that once dominated Latino politics in L.A. had become.

Outsiders persist in referring to those who once orbited around former 14th District Councilman Richard Alatorre as a "machine." But clique is more accurate. The group's cohesion is based less on political patronage than on personal relationships. And it was common practice for young pols in the group to be told when it was their "turn" to run for public office.

The first to buck that was Gloria Molina, who beat a clique-backed candidate for an Assembly seat in 1982. Since then she has supported other dissident candidates, generating talk of "two Eastside machines." But with Molina's ascension to county supervisor in 1991, her political base shifted to the increasingly Latino suburbs of eastern L.A. County, another indication of the Eastside's fading influence.

When Alatorre left office amid a corruption scandal, leadership passed to state Sen. Richard Polanco. But Polanco's recent departure from the Legislature because of term limits created a leadership void on the Eastside.

The speed and ease with which Villaraigosa grew as a citywide political power is proof of the clique's diminished power. He emerged from Molina's circle a decade ago, and his rapid rise, first to Assembly speaker, then as a serious mayoral candidate and now as a threat to an incumbent councilman, scares the Eastsiders. He can challenge them in their barrio base and is also attractive to non-Latinos.

But Villaraigosa is just one of a handful of independent Latino pols who illustrate the Eastside clique's irrelevancy. Another is City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, elected citywide in 1999 in his first run for office. And still another is City Council President Alex Padilla of the San Fernando Valley. Pacheco wanted the council president's job badly but couldn't muster the votes to win.

Padilla helped defeat Valley secession and may soon see his old mentor, Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, win a newly drawn council district in the Valley. If that happens, Latinos in the Valley won't ever have to follow the Eastside clique's lead again.

It is the Eastside old guard's realization that a Villaraigosa victory could be their last stand that has adherents rallying to Pacheco -- and at times striking out stupidly.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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