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L.A. Latinos' Political Feud Marks Generational Divide

Rancorous tactics in council race underscore faction's bitter sense of being shut out.

November 27, 2002|Tina Daunt and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco wears his resentment like a badge.

The 38-year-old Eastside councilman often laments the unwillingness of County Supervisor Gloria Molina and other political elders in the Latino community to support his first run for council in 1999, even after he set a course that he believed would please them.

He marched against the construction of a prison on the Eastside in the 1980s. He worked in Molina's field office. He went to college, then law school, then returned home to Boyle Heights to tackle community problems.

Still, when Pacheco ran for City Council, almost every Latino leader backed his opponent. "All of them worked against me," he said in a recent interview. "They should have been mentoring me."

Now, armed with a deeply nurtured sense of personal betrayal, Pacheco is determined to prove -- as he did four years ago -- that he can beat the establishment. In this case, his challenger in the 14th Council District is former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who is seeking Pacheco's seat after losing the mayor's race last year.

The aggressive and personal attacks made by a Pacheco ally in recent weeks to push Villaraigosa out of the race underscore the personal intensity of Eastside politics and the bitterness fueling a new set of ambitious leaders from that area.

Like angry sons, Pacheco and several friends have been bucking the pillars of the Latino political community for years, using techniques their critics say are intended to undermine, embarrass or defeat political heavyweights such as Molina, former city Councilman Richard Alatorre and ex-state Sen. Richard Polanco.

In their quest for power, Pacheco and his allies have simultaneously driven a wedge through Latino politics in Los Angeles and united some old foes in opposition to their brand of rancorous campaigning. Molina and Rep. Xavier Becerra -- whose relationship had been frosty since the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral campaign -- held a joint news conference Monday to denounce negative campaign ads recently used against Villaraigosa.

On Nov. 6, the day Villaraigosa declared his candidacy for Pacheco's seat, newly registered voters on the Eastside received an anonymous flier that accused the former legislator of turning his back on Latinos at the urging of "white advisors" and "gringos." A second mailer delivered two days later called Villaraigosa a "womanizer" and questioned the character of his father and one of his daughters.

While Pacheco disavowed the mailers, attorney Ricardo Torres, who went to UC Berkeley and Loyola Law School with Pacheco, said he was responsible for sending the ads.

Torres said he thinks it's time for politicians like Villaraigosa to give new Latino leaders a chance to prove themselves. In making that point, he sounded the messages of generational politics and resentment.

"I've always been concerned about Antonio's conscious decision to wipe out a young generation of elected officials who are now in power to advance his political career," Torres said. "Antonio feels he needs to take Nick out because he needs a platform for mayor? He should work on bringing together the Latino community before he focuses on destroying young electeds."

But some veteran politicians and strategists say Pacheco has made it difficult for some prominent Latinos to embrace him.

"They are trying hard to get their way and if they don't, they go bananas," said David Ayon, a political analyst at Loyola Marymount University. "They make these threats in a theatrical way. The problem is, they are starting to believe their own propaganda, which is filled with venom and poison. They have come to hate people like Antonio and it drives them crazy that they haven't been able to knock them off."

Pacheco, the son of Mexican immigrants, was raised in Boyle Heights. Although they had few resources, Pacheco's parents pushed their five children to get a good education. After college, Pacheco moved back to Los Angeles and got involved in politics. He later graduated from law school and went to work as a deputy district attorney.

One of his original political role models also has a reputation for going against the establishment.

In 1982, Molina had put together an impressive resume by working for various state and federal political causes. She went to then-Assemblyman Alatorre, a powerful local political figure, and asked for his endorsement in her campaign for an open Assembly seat.

Alatorre informed the 34-year-old that he had to meet with "the guys" first, Molina later said in an interview. Later he told her that it wasn't her turn, and picked his own candidate: Richard Polanco.

Vowing not to be intimidated, Molina ran anyway. She won the seat, and she made it clear that she would not forget the people who had stood in her way. "How many times do you let them sock you in the face?" she asked during an interview nine years ago.

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