Council Redistricting Poses Little Threat to Incumbents : Despite Controversy, Alatorre Finds a Niche
It has been 16 tumultuous months since a special election swept Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre into office in Northeast Los Angeles’ 14th District. Alatorre was the endorsed successor of Arthur K. Snyder, who resigned after 18 years on the council.
Since then, the former state assemblyman has presided successfully over a bloody redistricting plan, maintaining the reputation he earned in Sacramento as a hard-nosed deal maker. Alatorre has also entrenched himself firmly in the district, wooing voters--as did Snyder--with well-publicized efforts to improve municipal services.
But, as Alatorre prepares for election to his first full four-year term on April 14, the councilman’s image has been clouded by several controversies. The state Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating whether Alatorre violated a state law by attempting to influence a City Council decision in which he had a financial interest.
In another case, Alatorre admitted personal negligence for using money from his state campaign fund to run for city office in 1985 and for failing to disclose it as required by law. He agreed to pay a fine of $5,000, and his campaign committees agreed to pay another fine of $40,000. About $83,000 more must be returned to his Assembly campaign fund, and he must return about $32,000 to contributors.
Nevertheless, Alatorre appears confident of reelection in the 14th District, which spans Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and part of Mount Washington.
The race pits 43-year-old Alatorre, a seasoned political veteran of 13 years in the Assembly, against 27-year-old Rex Gutierrez, a self-described political idealist and former aide to state Assemblyman Mike Roos.
Gutierrez said he is using his savings of $9,000, plus about $4,000 in contributions, to run for office. Also running is 67-year-old dentist Loren Lutz, who captured 10% of the vote last year when he ran unsuccessfully for Alatorre’s vacated 55th District Assembly seat. Lutz has raised $330 for this race as of March 28, records show.
“People ask me why I’m even spending the amount of money I’m spending,” said Alatorre, who expects to incur campaign costs of about $100,000, mainly for mailers and an election headquarters. However, records filed with the city clerk’s office show he had raised just $48,160 as of March 28. Alatorre’s three campaign committees reported debts of $176,000, including the restitution and fines.
Alatorre said he wants to take no chances in his reelection bid and therefore has decided to run a deficit campaign to ensure a victory at the polls.
As election day nears, Gutierrez and Lutz said, they spend up to 12 hours a day walking precincts and meeting voters, waging a grass-roots campaign.
Lutz, a conservationist who is president of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, has pledged to oppose the construction of an oil pipeline proposed to traverse Northeast Los Angeles. He also opposes unchecked development, especially the building of more mini-malls in the district.
“Alatorre does not represent the district. He pays little attention to what the people have to say,” Lutz said.
Both Lutz and Gutierrez charge that Alatorre is pro-development, and they criticize his ties to Snyder. The former councilman endorsed Alatorre as his successor and now represents a number of developers seeking to build in the 14th District.
Gutierrez, a teacher from Highland Park, took sharp stabs at the incumbent late last month in a series of mailers sent to Northeast Los Angeles communities.
In one, Gutierrez asked, “Why do the people of Eagle Rock consider voting for a man who is allowing the face of Eagle Rock to be destroyed by L-shaped mini-malls and other development projects that do not take into account Eagle Rock’s scenic, historic nature?”
In another, Gutierrez, referring to Snyder, said, “I fear that Richard Alatorre cannot independently fight for Mount Washington because he was put in office by a man who now represents development.”
Alatorre denied any ties to Snyder and said that developers planning to build in his district will have to be sensitive to community needs.
“There’s going to be the constant problem of growth between developers and individuals . . . who want to leave everything the way it is,” Alatorre said. “My job is to keep people talking to each other.”
In 1985, Alatorre became the first Latino elected to Los Angeles City Council in more than 20 years. His close ties with the Eastside community from his years in the Legislature make him a major Latino political leader here.
Alatorre’s mailers stress his political experience and his efforts to upgrade municipal services such as trash pickup and tree-trimming. He also touts his success as architect of the city’s reapportionment plan, which established a second predominantly Latino district to satisfy a federal suit.
The new district map was approved in August, 1986, after months of infighting, two rejected plans and heavy doses of political horse-trading. Alatorre’s supporters as well as his opponents said that redistricting cemented the freshman councilman’s reputation as a tough power broker able to ram through controversial political proposals.
Conflict With Woo, Ferraro
In the process, however, Alatorre alienated Councilmen Mike Woo and John Ferraro, who would have been pitted against each other in the same district under one plan that eventually was discarded. Also unhappy were some community groups in Echo Park and Mount Washington, who found their neighborhoods split between districts, and Asian voters who felt their own power was diluted.
The reapportionment outcome, in addition to his admitted campaign law violations, may hamper Alatorre in a possible run for higher office, some Latino political leaders say. Alatorre has been suggested as a possible candidate for mayor or U.S. Congress by some Latino groups.
Besides, Alatorre’s handpicked candidate for the 1st Council District--which he carved out through reapportionment--lost to former Assemblywoman Gloria Molina earlier this year. The loss led some to speculate that Alatorre possesses only fractured support within the Latino community.
In his own district, however, Alatorre appears to have endeared himself to residents by, among other things, requesting a year-long moratorium on mini-malls along Colorado Boulevard, one of Eagle Rock’s main thoroughfares. The ban must be approved by City Council before it can take effect, and it would come too late to save a 72-year-old historic brick building on Colorado and Townsend Avenue that was torn down to make way for a mini-mall.
Residents’ Reaction Mixed
Some Eagle Rock residents said Alatorre listened to their concerns on the mini-mall issue and worked with developers to reach a compromise. But, across the district in Highland Park, members of a group that fought unsuccessfully to halt or modify construction of a 22-unit condominium project said they find him unresponsive and arrogant.
In a different issue, the Fair Political Practices Commission said it is investigating whether Alatorre violated state laws regarding conflicts of interest when he recommended last fall that a controversial East Los Angeles anti-poverty group be awarded a $722,000 grant to provide dial-a-ride service to handicapped and senior citizens.
Alatorre accepted a $1,000 fee plus expenses from The East Los Angeles Community Union for speaking at a meeting it held last year at Lake Tahoe. Alatorre persuaded the City Council’s Transportation Committee to award the grant to TELACU because it is a minority-run, community-based group, even though two other firms received higher ratings in a federal Department of Transportation grading system.
Alatorre abstained from voting on the issue when it came before the full council for a final vote, claiming he had a conflict of interest, and the grant was eventually awarded to another firm.
But Fred Woocher, a staff attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which asked the FPPC to investigate the action, said the abstention did not absolve Alatorre.
“He abstained from voting, but he set the whole groundwork for it. . . . Everything was done behind the scenes,” Woocher said.
A spokeswoman for the Fair Political Practices Commission said the investigation is continuing but declined further comment. Alatorre refused to comment on the investigation or on his relationship with TELACU.
However, his press secretary said Alatorre has “a longstanding relationship with TELACU that goes back years and years and years.” A former executive vice president of TELACU, George Pla, helped run Alatorre’s City Council campaign in 1985. In that race, the city charged the councilman with violating campaign laws by using thousands of dollars from his state Assembly funds to run for City Council without disclosing the spending as required by the state Political Reform Act.
Criminal Charges Filed
The city also filed criminal charges against three of Alatorre’s political aides, including his sister, but not against Pla. The charges against all three were dropped when Alatorre agreed to pay the fines and restitution.
In his defense, Alatorre claimed that the city attorney’s office gave him vague advice and that he was a guinea pig because his was the first election conducted under the city’s new campaign law.
According to a City Charter amendment that went into effect in 1985, incumbents are allowed to use funds accumulated during previous campaigns in general elections. However, in the December, 1985, special election, candidates were limited to using funds raised specifically for that race.
Financial records show that Alatorre has repaid about $75,000 to his Assembly fund. He has yet to pay $45,000 in fines assessed against him and his campaign committees. He is using the Assembly fund money in his city campaign, as allowed under the Charter.
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