Election May Have Unplugged Alarcon’s Power


As the first Latino from the San Fernando Valley elected to the Los Angeles City Council and then the state Legislature, Richard Alarcon was expected by many to become a dominant political force.

But in the biggest test of Alarcon’s clout as a Valley leader, his handpicked council successor was trounced by a 2-1 margin in Tuesday’s election.

The lopsided victory by 26-year-old Alex Padilla, who Alarcon had dismissed as too young, has sparked talk by some that the state senator isn’t the power he was thought to be and is in danger of becoming politically isolated from the Valley Latino coalition he helped create.


The mantle of leadership may have passed to Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), who backed Padilla, his legislative aide.

Political consultant Leo Briones, who worked on Alarcon’s council and state Senate campaigns, said the election last week showed that Cardenas is the more effective mentor.

“[The election] certainly clarified who has a better political operation,” said Briones, who worked on the Padilla campaign.

Alarcon (D-Sylmar) remains a powerful and popular figure in the Valley, but it was Cardenas’ political operation that helped elect Alarcon to the Senate last year--and Sanchez didn’t stand a chance against it, even with Alarcon’s backing, Briones said.

Cardenas and Padilla both were once important parts of Alarcon’s camp. He enlisted Padilla last year to help run his Senate campaign.

The story of their estrangement has some of the plot twists of a political soap opera.

Alarcon had first asked Cardenas to run for his old council seat, but Cardenas declined. Alarcon then asked the assemblyman to join him in supporting his wife, Corina Alarcon. But Cardenas instead supported Padilla. When Corina Alarcon later backed out of the race, Alarcon passed over Padilla for Sanchez.

That split was just the start of an exodus of Alarcon allies who, when forced to pick between Alarcon’s candidate and the one backed by Cardenas, went with Padilla.

A former key political advisor, James Acevedo, and Alarcon’s estranged wife, Corina, both went over to the Padilla-Cardenas camp during the campaign. Mark Dierking, a former aide to Alarcon, also went to work for the Padilla campaign. And despite his past work for Alarcon, Briones said his ties to Cardenas made his choice to work for Padilla an easy one.

“A large percentage of the people at Alex’s headquarters on election day were people who started out with Alarcon,” said one prominent community leader and activist. “I think Richard is going to become more and more isolated.”

Briones said many people who started out with Alarcon have been put off by his short temper and “dictatorial” style. Others said they believe he allowed emotion to cloud his judgment in refusing to back Padilla after Cardenas refused to back his wife.

And last year, Alarcon showed political vulnerability when he won his Senate seat by only 29 votes in a dirty contest with former Assemblyman Richard Katz.

Asked if he feels any isolation, Alarcon said, “None whatsoever.”

“The Senate district is much larger than the council district. I have a broader constituency to deal with,” Alarcon said. Any differences he had with Cardenas and Padilla over the council election can be put aside, Alarcon said.

“We sat down early in the campaign and said whoever wins, we would agree to support the winning candidate and unify the community,” Alarcon said.

Cardenas said many Valley activists congratulated him after Padilla’s victory for demonstrating he has the muscle to get people elected.

“I’m flattered,” Cardenas said. “I appreciate those kinds of compliments, that I have the ability to help good people get elected. But the credit is not all mine.”

There is a fairly broad perception that the Padilla-Sanchez race was also a Cardenas-Alarcon contest, he said.

“People have mentioned to me that when Richard got behind Corinne [Sanchez] solidly, they thought it was some kind of contest between us,” Cardenas said. “To me it wasn’t me against Richard, but a lot of people look at it that way.

“I’m not going to lie and say things are perfect. We backed two different candidates in an important election, but we are working together,” Cardenas said.

Many said it is up to Alarcon to try to close the rift.

“He just needs to work that much harder,” said City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who backed Padilla. “If there are ill feelings caused by this and other issues, it is not anything that can’t be overcome.”

Xavier Flores, president of the Valley chapter of the Mexican American Political Assn., said Cardenas and Alarcon both remain power players. It would be ridiculous to think that any one politician could be a kingmaker in the Valley, Flores said.

Any new Latino candidate would be wise to touch bases not only with Cardenas, but also with Acevedo, Padilla and Alarcon, he said.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents much of the northeast Valley, said it’s premature to write Alarcon’s political obituary.

“Richard Alarcon is a very popular state senator,” Yaroslavsky said. “I don’t think anybody should judge his political clout based on one election.”

But Cardenas’ allies have little doubt what political lessons are to be learned.

“This election puts Cardenas as the top dog of the San Fernando Valley in Latino politics,” said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The federation backed Padilla, who turned out to be a bright spot for the labor group, which unsuccessfully opposed charter reform and whose candidate lost for an Eastside position.

Contreras had a close-up view of how effective Alarcon was against Cardenas, his one-time political understudy.

“In that council race, the question was: ‘Who had a more effective political machine--Alarcon or Cardenas?’ ” the union leader said. “That was answered clearly in the election.”

“My advice to Alarcon is: Make the peace,” Contreras said.