PROFILE : RICHARD ALARCON : Bradley Trains New ‘Eyes, Ears’ on Valley
When Richard Alarcon was appointed three weeks ago to the influential position of Mayor Tom Bradley’s liaison in the San Fernando Valley, a resounding “Richard who?” echoed through much of the West and south Valley.
But in the East Valley--in such communities as Pacoima, Mission Hills and Sun Valley--his name struck such a familiar chord that a group of community activists began planning a welcome-home party for their colleague.
In a staff change that Deputy Mayor Ed Avila said was orchestrated by the mayor to inject a dose of “aggressive community participation” into the Valley, Alarcon was selected to serve as Bradley’s chief envoy “over the hill” largely because he is viewed as a youthful, grass-roots activist.
“I come from the ranks of community-based organizations. That is my forte,” said Alarcon, 36, who served as Bradley’s Valley campaign coordinator in 1989.
The appointment took civic and neighborhood leaders throughout the Valley--as well as Alarcon himself--by surprise, because he is replacing a fixture in Valley politics, Doris (Dodo) Meyer, Bradley’s longtime and trusted aide.
Three weeks ago, Alarcon was working as a mid-level city bureaucrat, the No. 3 man in the mayor’s quiet office of Criminal Justice Planning, which develops programs to help address the city’s gang and graffiti troubles.
Over the last three years Alarcon had immersed himself in numerous organizations such as United Way, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a church group that assists the homeless and the poor. He was moved to volunteerism on crime and social issues by the death of his baby son in a traffic collision in 1987.
Since the accident, he has also renewed his involvement in St. Ferdinand’s Catholic Church in San Fernando. As a result, he said, his family ties have tightened and he has “never felt closer” to his wife, Corina, and his four children, ages 5 to 17.
Now, a swirl of activity has swept away the relative calm of his life.
“It’s amazing how quickly life can change,” he said.
Alarcon has found himself moving files out of his City Hall cubicle and into the wood-paneled Van Nuys City Hall office long occupied by Meyer, 64, who was known as the Mayor of the Valley, popular for representing Bradley in business and social circles.
“I was surprised because I didn’t expect Dodo to be moving,” Alarcon said. “I don’t have any naive notion that I’m coming into this job with the knowledge that she does. But I do have a broad view of Valley issues and I do know the city bureaucracy.”
Grass-roots community and Latino activists--leaders of groups that deal in crime, poverty and health issues--said they view Alarcon’s appointment as a sign that their concerns will find a sympathetic ear in the mayor’s office.
“I hope this is a signal that people in the East Valley who have never been close to the mayor in terms of resolving issues will be better connected to city resources,” said East Valley activist Irene Tovar.
Ray Magana, an aide to East Valley Councilman Ernani Bernardi, described Alarcon’s appointment as a “welcome recognition by the mayor that there’s a growing Latino population in the Valley. He chose someone who has exposure in the Latino community and that’s very important.”
In the throng of congratulatory greetings these past two weeks, Alarcon said the most memorable message came from his mother’s plumber.
“He said how glad he was that ‘one of us’ had finally made it,” Alarcon said. “This is from a man from a North Hollywood barrio whom I have known all my life.”
Those who have worked with him on agency boards describe Alarcon as a sharp, articulate negotiator who can bluntly cut to the heart of a sensitive discussion.
“Richard has acted as our conscience and brings to us an understanding of what the real community needs are,” said Dorothy Fleisher, a director of the North Los Angeles region of the United Way.
Others, notably in West Valley business circles, although reluctant to criticize the mayor’s new appointee, are clearly disheartened by the loss of Meyer.
“Dodo was responsible for a lot of the mayor’s support, she is an activist on social and cultural levels,” said Bradley supporter James R. Gary, president of Warner Center-based James R. Gary Ltd., a real estate firm.
“As to what happens with the contact that the mayor has enjoyed with the business and society leaders in the Valley, I don’t think that this appointment is going to create quite the smooth communication with the mayor that Dodo provided,” Gary said.
Robert L. Glushon, an attorney and president of the Encino Property Owners Assn., said most people he had talked to were “reserving judgment” on Alarcon until they have an opportunity to work with him.
“I think he is going to have to take a crash course on issues that concern homeowners,” Glushon said.
Glushon, who is also on the board of directors of Project HEAVY, a youth services group, met Alarcon while working on a project that was seeking city funding for Valley programs.
“Let me say this, I am encouraged by the kind of commitment he has shown at least in regard to juvenile justice matters,” Glushon said.
The Valley liaison job was metaphorically described by Deputy Mayor Avila as “the eyes and ears” of the mayor in the Valley and a position “powerful in that it brings Valley issues to the mayor’s office.”
Alarcon and Avila said that they will be meeting this week to devise a work agenda. One of Alarcon’s immediate goals is to study the Valley’s development and transportation issues, areas that he admits are weak spots.
One goal, Alarcon said, is to establish an “open door” policy for his office.
“There is a perception that we are not accessible, and out of touch. Whether that is true is not important,” said Alarcon. “I am going to be accessible.”
Speculation abounds in the East Valley as to whether the high-visibility post will position Alarcon to run for City Council office in Bernardi’s East Valley district in 1993. Many political observers believe that the 78-year-old Bernardi will not seek reelection.
During City Hall’s 1986 reapportionment debate, Alarcon, as president of the Mexican American Political Assn.'s Valley chapter, urged the consolidation of Valley Latino neighborhoods into one council district.
Eventually, a sharp redrawing of boundaries rendered Councilman Ernani Bernardi’s new 7th District 43.7% Latino. Bernardi’s seat is now viewed as the most likely to produce the Valley’s first Latino Los Angeles City Council member.
“Richard was part of the group seeking to put together a growth district for Hispanics in the Valley,” said Al Avila, now a top deputy to Councilman Richard Alatorre but formerly a legislative aide to the late Councilman Howard Finn.
It was during the redistricting controversy that Alarcon privately told friends that he was interested in running for a council seat.
But Alarcon--without forswearing a run for a Valley council office someday--said seeking political office is no longer on his mind.
“I’m focused on what’s happening now,” he said. “I don’t have time to focus on that and it can distract me from my ability to solve problems. But if the opportunity of running ever presented itself, I would not run away from it.”
Alarcon lives in Sepulveda in Councilman Hal Bernson’s district.
“I certainly don’t have any intention of running for Bernson’s seat. That would be suicide,” Alarcon said. Bernson’s district mainly encompasses the predominantly white, middle-class northwest San Fernando Valley.
Accepting the appointment as Bradley’s Valley coordinator also brought on some soul-searching for Alarcon. Prior to his appointment, he had agreed to work in his spare time as a paid consultant for the San Fernando Valley Leadership Foundation, a think tank that brings together Valley Latinos to address social problems.
“But I have notified the foundation that I don’t intend to be paid for it,” he said. “I ought to be developing ideas for free, not for pay, now that I am the mayor’s Valley coordinator.”
Alarcon was born Nov. 24, 1953, in Sun Valley. His parents were divorced when he was 4. His father, Anthony, operated a Sun Valley upholstery business and his mother worked as a grocery store clerk. He was raised with two older sisters and has two half-sisters and a half-brother on his father’s side.
“I can’t say I grew up in poverty, but there were times when we were on welfare,” Alarcon said. “But I grew up with attitudes that come with the experience of being poor. I would say that is an appreciation for what you have and for whatever you are able to accumulate.”
He ran his first political campaign at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in 1971, winning the office of student body president. Later, he majored in political science and Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge.
Alarcon worked his way through college as a supermarket box boy and a telephone operator, supporting a family, including two young sons.
He met his wife, Corina, an insurance agent, 13 years ago while “nightclubbing” and within two months they were married.
His first job out of college was as an elementary schoolteacher at Mary Immaculate school in Pacoima. In the late 1970s through the mid-1980s he worked in various community-based social service organizations, such as Project HEAVY and Community Youth Gang Services Corp.
He began his career as a city bureaucrat in 1984, turning to government employment in part because it offered him job security and good benefits for his family.
From 1984 to 1988, he worked as an analyst in the city’s Personnel Department, assisting in drafting police promotional examinations and an earthquake-preparedness manual to mobilize city staff in an emergency.
In 1988, he was hired as a “senior management analyst” in the mayor’s office of Criminal Justice Planning, serving as the mayor’s spokesman on gang-, graffiti- and drug-related problems in the city. He managed city contracts for crime education programs and worked with community organizations by planning special events, such as “Anti-Graffiti Awareness Day.”
Alarcon said work with crime and victims’ rights issues has been close to his heart since the 1987 death of his 2-year-old son, Richard Anthony Alarcon.
A speeding car on Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood careened into a car driven by his wife’s grandmother, killing his son, his wife’s grandmother and seriously injuring his wife’s aunt. The driver was not drunk, he said, “but we didn’t know if he was on drugs.”
“The death of my son changed my life,” he said. “I appreciate my life and my family more than ever before.”
After Dodo Meyer removed dozens of pictures of Tom Bradley from her office, Alarcon hung photos of his family on the wall. The largest is directly above his chair, a montage he made of snapshots of his son.
“I do want people to know that he is always in the back of my mind,” Alarcon said.