CROSSOVER DREAMS : Richard Alatorre Calls the Shots in East L.A., But to Succeed Citywide He’ll Have to Woo the Westside
LOU KORANSKY needed help in the credit department of his busy jewelry store on Whittier Boulevard. It was 1960 and the old East Los Angeles of Russians, Armenians, Japanese, Latinos and Jews, which existed when Koransky arrived in Boyle Heights from Chicago in the ‘20s, had disappeared. The Koranskys and many other Jewish families, for example, had moved to West Los Angeles after World War II. Now East L.A. was almost entirely Latino, and a large number of Koransky’s customers spoke no English.
The person Koransky sought had to speak Spanish. But mostly the employee had to be someone as smart and tough as Lou himself. “I was looking for someone who was aggressive,” Koransky recalls, sitting in his small office at the rear of the store. “In the collection business, you have to have a certain amount of toughness. But you have to be very tactful because someday the slow customer might turn out to be a very good paying customer.”
A perfect job description for a bill collector--or a politician. Koransky found a young man with those talents at Garfield High School, a few miles from the store. He was Richard Alatorre, the student body president, who was about to graduate and attend Cal State L.A.--and who would eventually become one of the most influential Latino politicians in the state.
“I was good,” Alatorre says of his five years at the jewelry store. “The way I used to collect is I used to embarrass people, and that’s painful. . . . I had this one guy, his bill was $15,000. I would go to his place, sit down with him, then I’d tell him, ‘Well, OK, man, how much you going to pay me?’ He said, ‘I’ll give you $300.’ I said, ‘Hey, man, you think I sat down here and had a drink with you for $300? I need more.’ So he gave me $1,000. . . . I was good because I was mean when I had to be mean. And I was a softie when I had to be a softie.”
A quarter of a century later, Alatorre is still applying the lessons he learned in Lou Koransky’s jewelry store. When it comes to back-room negotiations or to raising campaign funds, the Los Angeles city councilman and former state legislator can be shrewd and tough, not always playing by the accepted rules. The power he and his allies wield has led critics to dub them the “PRI of East L.A.,” a cynical joke referring to the ruling party in Mexico, which is known for its win-at-all-costs politics. Yet many say he is extremely sympathetic when it comes to helping the struggling families of his old neighborhood find jobs, gain political clout and obtain city services. Over the years, he has moved back and forth between the tough, inside politics he believed were needed to bring economic development to East Los Angeles and the more accommodating kind of politics needed for acceptance in the mainstream.
Now, as he contemplates a possible run for mayor or county supervisor, Alatorre is walking a far trickier path, a path that makes it increasingly necessary for him to refine his unpolished personal style. That approach worked well with his East L.A. constituents. It clearly produced results among back-room powerbrokers in the State Assembly, who put him in charge of fashioning a legislative and congressional reapportionment that gave Latinos their most substantial political representation in history.
But to succeed in a highly visible citywide or countywide campaign, Alatorre needs different set of skills. He has to charm the media. And he needs the support of corporate executives and other major contributors whose backing is essential for a race that could cost several million dollars. Although Los Angeles has become a city where minorities are the majority, the largest single group of voters will remain middle-class and affluent whites. That’s because they are the most likely to go to the polls, splitting between liberals and conservatives. Looking at it as a campaign manager would, it’s clear that the winner in the next mayoral election is likely to be a minority person who appeals to white liberal and moderate voters.
On the surface, Alatorre looks like a candidate who could be packaged effectively in a high-profile campaign: A slender man of 46, he favors expensive-looking, well-cut Italian suits. His hair is black, his complexion dark. He comes across well on camera. But his combination of the crude and the pleasant, of bluntness and courtliness, casts an aura that puts off people used to more conventional, or more polite, politicians. At City Council meetings, Alatorre slumps in his chair looking bored as his colleagues drone on. He reads the newspapers, sneaks a cigarette at the side of the chambers. And smoking, swearing, always saying “Hey, man,” Alatorre sometimes acts as if he never left Garfield High.
“I think a Hispanic is going to get elected mayor of Los Angeles,” says Philip Montez, who was one of Alatorre’s political mentors and is now the regional director for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Los Angeles. “But I think it depends on the price that the Hispanic individual is willing to pay. The price is that you can’t be as ethnic as where you came from.” Alatorre’s ascent has come at considerable personal cost. Twice he’s paid fines in ethics disputes. And he’s gone through two divorces and a struggle with alcoholism.
Indeed, his rise from the barrio illustrates the difficulties that face an ethnic-minority politician who wants to move from such a neighborhood to the broad mainstream of politics.
Ethnic candidates began entering Los Angeles’ political leadership in the 1960s, when the dual effects of the civil rights movement and a growing influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America shaped a new urban politics. Blacks, organizing their communities with voter-registration drives, got elected to the City Council and in legislative districts; Mervyn M. Dymally, who built a power base in South-Central Los Angeles, was one of the first and most successful, becoming an assemblyman, lieutenant governor and now a congressman. Young Jewish politicians--Henry Waxman and Howard Berman (both now congressmen) and Waxman’s brother, Michael--organized the large Jewish population that had settled on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.
In 1973, Tom Bradley became the city’s first black mayor, heralding the emergence of an important variation: the crossover ethnic politician. That is somebody who can not only carry his ethnic base but also win support from other ethnic groups, as well as from voters not associated with an ethnic minority. Bradley is the supreme crossover ethnic-minority politician, well liked in his South-Central Los Angeles base, and, before his recent financial troubles, in non-black areas, particularly the Westside Jewish community. But there have been no crossover politicians from the rapidly growing Latino minority, which is projected to comprise almost 40% of the Los Angeles population by 1993, up from the current 29%. Now, leaders of that community are itching to reach the top, too.
So a serious test awaits Alatorre: Can he become a crossover campaigner in a bigger electoral arena? Can he mount a successful campaign for county supervisor or even mayor of Los Angeles? If he were to run for mayor in 1993 and succeed, he would be Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor since Anglos forced Mexicans from power in the 19th Century.
THOUGH HIS name may not yet be a household word in Los Angeles, Richard Alatorre long ago become a force in the state Democratic Party’s mainstream. As an assemblyman from 1973 to 1985, he helped shape the state’s farm labor law, which gave migrant workers collective bargaining rights. Using his influence with Assembly leaders, he got the UC Irvine School of Medicine to admit more minorities in return for an appropriation for a new teaching hospital. He was the first Latino with enough power to be a key leader in one of Sacramento’s great events, the fall in 1980 of an Assembly speaker--in this case, Leo T. McCarthy--and later he became a key lieutenant to current speaker Willie Brown, whom he had supported in a pivotal vote.
His style was confrontational, clever, surgical. His friends say he is warm and intelligent, but his enemies--those he has outmaneuvered--say he can play rough.When Republicans stormed into his office protesting the gutting of their districts, he replied: “It has nothing to do with you personally. Business is business.” And when opponents accused him of going back on promises, he smiled and said, “What was then is then; what is now is now.” When McCarthy was speaker, Alatorre was banished to the reapportionment committee in a year when there was no reapportionment bill. He and a friend got revenge by shepherding a series of good government bills out of the committee onto the Assembly floor. The legislation was so strict it was doomed to defeat, an embarrassment to McCarthy, who was cultivating an extra-clean image. Finally, McCarthy called Alatorre into his office and complained. “Leo,” Alatorre replied, “I understand what you have to do to me. I hope you understand what I have to do to you.”
He brought his calculatingly blunt style with him when he decided to leave what he saw as the relative obscurity of the Assembly to run for City Council in 1985. A strong ally of the mayor, he’s aligned with pro-development forces on the council and is acknowledged to be a skillful practitioner of complex, behind-the-scenes political maneuvers. He’s a vocal advocate of civil rights and civil liberties. In his short tenure on the council, Alatorre has organized shelters for the homeless. He has put together government and private funds for construction of more than 250 units of low- and moderate-income housing in his district. He has obtained state “enterprise zone” tax incentives to promote development in East Los Angeles. Assuaging the fears of some of his more affluent constituents, Alatorre has also pushed through an anti-development mini-mall moratorium in the Eagle Rock section of his district.
Critics acknowledge that he can get things done, but many question his tactics. “He would have been a great guy in L.A. when everything was done on the inside,” says Rudolfo F. Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, whose book, “A Community Under Siege,” chronicles the political awakening of East L.A. Acuna says Alatorre spends too much time raising money from and catering to special-interest groups, to the neglect of the community.
“Richard knows how to command power, to use power,” adds Councilwoman Gloria Molina, whose district adjoins Alatorre’s and who is considered to have a bright political future herself. “Richard’s style was pretty dictatorial; he had a tendency to be a bully.” But she says he has changed on the City Council. “I find him still persistent about things, but he isn’t as pushy as he was before. He’s changed as a person. I think he has softened up.”
That change may be a reflection of his coming to terms with the strains of his political life. His second marriage ended just recently. And, he revealed in answer to questioning, he is a recovering alcoholic.
“I have a drinking problem,” he said during a long interview in his office. His coat was off. The door was closed. He was seated on the couch, his feet on the coffee table. The question was posed because reporters in Sacramento had talked about what they considered Alatorre’s erratic behavior in committee hearings, where his moods would swing from anger to boredom to hilarity. A year ago, he sought treatment, he says, and since then he has been involved in a sobriety program.
“But, you know, I look at it from a positive. I’m happy I stopped. I never looked at myself as having a problem as it related to alcohol,” he says, “but I think it got basically to a point where it just didn’t work for me. And what I learned (is that) where other people have normal outlets for their rage, for their anger, for their hurt, I didn’t. I suppressed it all,” he says. “Not a lot of people can say they know me,” he continues. “And that worked for me. But it also became very destructive. You know, this is the type of profession that just takes a lot out of you. It is very demanding. There’s a lot of hurt and there’s a lot of pleasure. . . . It was easier to escape your own problems by dealing with other people’s problems. But that didn’t do any good for Richard Alatorre,” he concludes. “You know, I’m 46 years old and I’m still learning about Richard Alatorre.”
TO UNDERSTAND Richard Alatorre, it is necessary to understand where he came from. East Los Angeles, the gritty community where he was born and raised, reaches from the Los Angeles River, through Boyle Heights and City Terrace, out Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard and to Monterey Park, where Spanish store signs give way to those in Chinese and Vietnamese. Technically, it begins east of the big concrete flood-control channel formed from the Los Angeles River, but it really starts just west of the river, at the plaza near Olvera Street, where Los Angeles was founded on Sept 4, 1781.
The plaza, now as then, is an entry place for Latino immigrants. Many will eventually settle in Boyle Heights, Maravilla or Belvedere, where Latinos moved when downtown businesses displaced them from the plaza in the early 20th Century. Jews, Armenians, Japanese and blacks also lived in these East L.A. neighborhoods. A common history still links the groups that have passed through East L.A., and it is among them that Alatorre would have to forge new ties to win a citywide race.
The politics of East Los Angeles have traditionally revolved around two issues: civil rights and saving the neighborhoods from “urban renewal.” Neighborhood-saving has not been especially successful. Thousands of homes have been removed for the huge county hospital, county jails and the San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Pomona and Long Beach freeways, but the battle continues, with intense community opposition to a proposed new state prison and a county jail expansion. The battle for civil rights now involves enfranchising voters, and Alatorre is at the forefront. In addition to his efforts for reapportionment, he is a leader in the fight to force the Census Bureau to count non-citizens, which would eventually mean more political power for Latinos.
Alatorre grew up immersed in the neighborhood’s conflicts. He spent his childhood with his parents and his sister, Cecelia, in a small, brown stucco house near Michigan Avenue where his mother, Mary Alatorre, a widow, still lives today. Mary was born in a small Arizona mining town and moved to Los Angeles in 1925. Dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, she learned to be a beautician and in 1931 met Joe Alatorre, who’d come to L.A. from El Paso, Tex., while working in his sister’s beauty parlor on Brooklyn Avenue. He was a repairman at a stove factory.
A brief experience doing farm work taught Mary Alatorre the value of education. She remembers the growers: “They just pushed people around. They treated them just like dogs. All these things were embedded in my children. I told them there is nothing you can do but get yourself a good education. That was our whole goal, my husband and I.”
They succeeded with Richard. “I figured out real early, manual labor and I had a falling out,” says the councilman. “If I wasn’t good with my hands, I had to use my head, and my head was pretty good. I was the oddball of the group. I was a student body officer or class officer every semester from junior high school through high school. . . . The girls thought I was God. The guys, they always respected me.”
Cultivating that respect was his key to surviving in the neighborhood: He had to fit in with, if not belong to, the gangs, honing a kind of diplomatic skill that has served him well in politics. “It’s a very tough area,” Alatorre says during a drive along Michigan Avenue, near Eugene Obregon Park. “I always ran around with older guys. When I started junior high school, they were graduating into high school. Those were my friends. And obviously, because of that, I was well protected.”
In high school he joined the debate team, and, with his father’s encouragement, he took an interest in politics. A vision of his future crystallized when he heard John F. Kennedy give a campaign speech at East L.A. College on a rainy night in 1960. “He seemed to be the first presidential candidate reaching into my community and asking for our help. That represented hope to me,” Alatorre says. So he handed out leaflets for Kennedy and also got involved in the campaign of Leopoldo Sanchez, who became one of the first Latinos elected to a judgeship in Los Angeles. Sanchez’s victory inspired him: “I felt one day I would love to represent my community,” he says.
He was one of a handful of students in his graduating class to go to a four-year college, eventually earning a graduate degree in public administration from USC. He went on to teach sociology at Cal State L.A. and at UC Irvine and night courses in government at the federal prison at Terminal Island.
FROM THE outset, Alatorre’s political career moved on two tracks. One was the liberal community politics of the growing Chicano movement, which was beginning to focus on poor education in East L.A. schools. The second was the more partisan politics centered on the Democratic Party and raising money to finance campaigns. Alatorre thrived in both worlds. One day while in court on a collection case for the jewelry store, Alatorre befriended a young attorney who had been elected to the Assembly. Walter Karabian represented another part of the East Los Angeles world, the newer subdivisions around Monterey Park. He was good at raising money from the developers and other businesses in the area and was the majority leader of the Assembly.
Alatorre also hooked up with somebody from the more radical side of East Los Angeles politics--Montez, who was then executive director of the Foundation for Mexican American Studies. When Alatorre came to that office to get information for a college paper, Montez liked him and offered him a job. Alatorre became known as the “the kid who hung around Phil Montez.”
What he learned from Montez was to play his own game, not his opponent’s. “We were meeting with Wilson Riles the superintendent of public instruction, to discuss changes in the texts they were using in L.A. city schools that would be more favorable for Hispanics,” Alatorre recalls. “Montez told me that this guy was a real scholar, an intellectual, and if you confront him as a gentlemen, he’ll dance you all over the floor. So I basically went in there and hit him in the knees, by using profanity and being outrageous. So I was able to bring the argument into my arena, and I won.”
In 1970, Karabian hired him as a staff assistant in the Assembly. Then, in 1971, when Assemblyman David Roberti was elected to the Senate, Alatorre ran for Roberti’s Assembly seat. He lost the first time in a special election. Rifle shots were fired mysteriously into the home of an underdog opponent, and the publicity helped give the opponent the victory. But Alatorre won in the regular election six months later.
Quickly finding more friends and mentors, he became a force in the Legislature and continued to beat the big boys, the Anglos, at their own game. The outgoing Alatorre was accepted by the top social strata, a bipartisan group that included Democrats such as Willie Brown, Mike Roos and the late Jack Fenton and Republicans Bill Campbell, Bob Beverly and Ken Maddy. “We were all the same age, we all liked to travel, we all liked the good life,” says Brown. They had dinner at Frank Fats, the Capitol hangout. They traveled together to Jamaica. And all the while, Alatorre listened and learned.
As his friends rose through the legislative ranks, Alatorre’s influence grew. His work on the farm labor law and reapportionment made him a star among the state’s Latino politicians. And political plums began coming his way. After the reapportionment, Brown named Alatorre chairman of the Government Operations Committee. This is a “juice” committee, so called because it has jurisdiction over the kinds of businesses--race tracks and liquor and beer interests--that can be squeezed for campaign contributions. A look at his campaign contributions reports tells the story: Quarter Horse Racing Inc., Santa Anita, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Pacific Racing Assn., the Miller Brewing Co. and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California were among the donors. During this period, he led high-profile but unsuccessful efforts to legalize off-track betting as well as to weaken rent control and begin public financing of state elections.
While Alatorre relished his status in the Legislature, he wanted more visibility. “To tell you the truth, I got tired of telling people that as an assemblyman I didn’t work for GM,” he says. “No one knows what an assemblyman does.” Los Angeles City Hall, he thought, was full of opportunity. For one thing, television stations cover almost every meeting of the council, while no local stations cover Sacramento regularly anymore. So, in 1985 he ran for Los Angeles City Council. With a campaign financed substantially with special-interest contributions he had received as a powerful legislator, Alatorre was elected to represent the 14th Council District, which reaches from the Latino immigrant neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, through Asian and Latino Lincoln Heights and working-class Glassell Park up to the expensive homes in the hills of Eagle Rock. He is Bradley’s main defender on the council in the investigations of the mayor’s finances. He also played a key part in persuading the council to drop a plan to fight a federal suit and agree to a city reapportionment that made possible the election of a second Latino council member.
Alatorre may look bored at meetings, but he is a power on a City Council that is more divided than it has been in years. The council is a place of shifting alliances. When two longtime Bradley allies left, Alatorre stepped into the vacuum. “Richard kind of forced things with the mayor, saying, ‘Do you want help or not?’ ” one council aide recalls.
Even before Bradley’s financial dealings got him in trouble, Alatorre was helping him fight off political challenges. Last year, he nagged Bradley’s aides into supporting a Police Department expansion, which helped weaken an attack on the mayor by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, then a mayoral hopeful.
Alatorre’s alliances and his mastery of political strategy have made him an effective councilman, but another side of his street-level, back-room political style raises questions even in his Latino base. “He’s probably the closest thing to Jesse Unruh we have,” says Acuna, recalling the late Assembly speaker who pioneered modern legislative political fund-raising. “As a politician, he has no equal for making the deals, for putting it together.” It is the nature of some of his money deals--going back to his “juice committee” relationships with special-interest groups in the Legislature--that concerns those around him.
In 1986, Alatorre agreed to pay a record $141,966 to settle a lawsuit filed against him by the City Attorney for failing to disclose the source of campaign contributions to his City Council election campaign. Much of the money had been accumulated while Alatorre was an assemblyman, and the law required him to disclose the names of the donors. Alatorre said it was an oversight, but his critics have maintained it was a deliberate attempt to illegally use contributions raised while he was a legislative power. And last year, Alatorre paid a $2,000 fine for violating state conflict-of-interest laws. He admitted that he tried to steer a $722,500 contract to The East Los Angeles Community Union after it paid him a $1,000 speaking fee.
TELACU, in fact, generates much of the controversy around Alatorre. It was founded in the 1960s to stimulate East Los Angeles businesses, build low-income housing and provide jobs as part of the federal War on Poverty. From the outset, TELACU was development-minded. Opponents accused it of questionable use of federal grants and of running businesses that seemed to have little connection with East L.A. jobs.
Alatorre is firmly allied with TELACU in a strong political operation, and TELACU now hopes to get a piece of Alatorre’s biggest civic project, a proposal to redevelop a 67-acre area around Union Station into a neighborhood of commercial high rises in the next 10 to 15 years, which, opponents say, would destroy the essence of historic Olvera Street.
In answer to his critics, Alatorre says that his ties with TELACU and his work on city projects such as the Union Station-area redevelopment are evidence that he intends to shape East Los Angeles to meet community needs. “Why is it we do not open up opportunities for minorities and small-business people so they can do business with the city and with the state?” And as for his fund-raising, he says: “I believe in putting my money where my mouth is.”
TODAY, ALATORRE is a relaxed man on the turf he has occupied for many years. One Saturday, he stops for lunch at a hamburger stand he has been patronizing since he was a boy. The owners yell at him to get a street light for their Whittier Boulevard corner. “I can’t even get some stuff for my mother, man,” he replies. “Ask the mayor,” says one man. “No, no, it ain’t the mayor. If it was the mayor you’d get it,” Alatorre says, pointing out that the hamburger stand is in unincorporated territory under the jurisdiction of the county. “I got to talk to this other guy (County Supervisor Ed Edelman). I’ll bring him down here.”
Clearly, he’s at ease and in control of his own territory. But Los Angeles history is filled with warnings to ethnic politicians looking for influence outside their communities. Take, for example, the painful experiences of Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.).
In 1949, the liberal Roybal was elected to the City Council. The following year, he cast the only vote against an ordinance requiring Communists to register with the police and forbidding them from owning guns. Even more annoying to the city’s business leaders, he opposed plans for massive development in East Los Angeles, of the type that later leveled poor residential neighborhoods on Bunker Hill and in Chavez Ravine. In 1958, Roybal ran for county supervisor in a district that was mostly Anglo. He lost, but many East L.A. old-timers believe Roybal was the victim of election theft. After Roybal finished 393 votes ahead on election night, the county registrar discovered a 12,000-vote counting error. Roybal went on to become one of the nation’s first Latino congressman and is regarded as a father figure by many up-and-coming politicians. But the point is, even a widely respected figure like Roybal couldn’t manage to go beyond his own district.
Today, however, a Latino politician such as Alatorre might face fewer obstacles. The business and union leaders who backed Bradley are looking for a new champion--and Alatorre is sympathetic to their development policies. Aware that their population is shrinking compared to Latinos, some black politicians seem willing to support a non-black who is sympathetic to their concerns. And Alatorre, because of his work with the NAACP, is the Latino with whom they’ve forged the strongest ties.
“He was able to establish the kind of rapport with the black community that a lot of other people can’t,” says Montez. “That’s . . . street smarts. “
But that may also be Alatorre ‘s great handicap: He may be too much from the streets, too tough in his pursuit of power. Montez has a warning for his friend: “Richard has to be careful he doesn’t get the omnipotent feeling (that his TELACU allies) can do anything they want. That’s the one blind spot Richard has. And he’s got to watch it. Richard has a very, very large constituency that is his if he just continues to develop it and stops playing the old boy network. That is vitally important to Richard’s future.”
The competition among ethnic candidates in the 1993 mayoral election may well be fierce. With the growing number of Latino voters, strong Latino contenders are expected. One of them may be Molina, a strong voice for community redevelopment. Others might be Sen. Art Torres, a longtime friend and ally of Alatorre, and Dan Garcia, an attorney and former City Planning Commission chairman. Appealing to the growing number of Asian voters might be Councilman Michael Woo, an urban planner who represents the Hollywood area.
As well as any of them, Alatorre knows the difficulties of an ethnic politician’s moving up. “The increase in Hispanic voters makes it more viable,” he says. “But you can’t rely on the Hispanic community to be elected.”
Still, he adds, “As a Hispanic, I think Los Angeles is where it’s at politically, because of the change in the demography in the city.” Alatorre won’t say that he is considering running for mayor three years hence, but he clearly believes that his future is here. “I may have questioned my decision (to move to Los Angeles) at first because I was adjusting, but now I think it is the best decision I have made--personally, as well as politically.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.