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A Bittersweet Conclusion to Alatorre Era at City Hall

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TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre leaves office today, the Eastside will lose a powerful representative whose vast network of contacts and long political history made him a potent force.

A consummate insider and key deal-maker in City Hall, Alatorre was a savvy lawmaker who counted on his array of personal connections to deliver for his allies. He is leaving after 28 years of representing the Eastside, first as state assemblyman, then as city councilman, all but ending a pioneering era of Latino leadership he helped launch.

Alatorre, who said he is not contemplating another run for public office, has accepted a $100,001-a-year job as a member of the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board--a plum appointment by his old Sacramento colleague, state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco).

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The man who some thought would one day be Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in modern times is departing the City Council under a shadow of scandal after a series of articles in The Times revealed that Alatorre is the target of a federal corruption investigation and that he recently tested positive for cocaine.

But in an interview, Alatorre said he does not regret the brand of fierce personal loyalty he brought to the job, even though, he admits, it cost him politically.

“I will not turn my back on the people I grew up with,” he said over breakfast at a Boyle Heights restaurant Tuesday. “Maybe I’m loyal to a fault. But that’s me. Have I regretted it? I would have regretted it if I wasn’t.”

Alatorre acknowledges that he has made mistakes and that his judgment was at times clouded by his longtime struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. That battle, Alatorre said, almost destroyed him, but also helped him come to terms with the person he is--someone he thinks few others know.

“I guess one of my shortcomings was not being able to help people define Richard Alatorre,” said the 56-year-old lawmaker, known for his expensive suits and profane language. “Everyone got caught up in my style, in the way I dress, the way I talk, not what I believe in . . . my enjoyment in helping others.”

The controversies swirling around his departure have not dimmed the admiration many in the community have for the son of an East Los Angeles beautician and a repairman, who rose to become one of California’s most powerful Latino lawmakers.

Although some complain that his 14th District, which stretches from Eagle Rock to Boyle Heights, has declined on Alatorre’s watch, others say that the councilman has consistently delivered for community programs, local activists and his supporters.

His presence “gave those of us who were activists in the community a lot more power and leverage,” said Tammy Membreno, who runs a youth and family center in El Sereno. “Making the system work for the Eastside is part of his legacy.”

Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said Alatorre’s powerful position “meant for people like us, we always knew we had an effective voice we could call on. That will be sorely missed.”

In his new state job, which he will begin immediately, Alatorre said he will work out of Pasadena or downtown Los Angeles, hearing disputes between workers and their former employers.

Alatorre was strongly recommended for the post by organized labor and was endorsed by some business organizations, said Burton, head of the Senate Rules Committee, which voted for the appointment last week.

The end of Alatorre’s career at City Hall marks the close of a dramatic chapter in the history of Los Angeles’ Latino politics, when as one of the few elected Latino officials, Alatorre helped open the door for others.

While an assemblyman, the former bill collector gained political experience as a member of then-Speaker Willie Brown’s inner circle and oversaw the 1982 redistricting that increased the number of Latinos in the Legislature, laying the foundation for the election of a Latino Assembly speaker.

When Alatorre came to the City Council in 1985, there had not been a Latino on the panel in more than two decades. He helped engineer a reapportionment plan, leading to the creation of a second district likely to elect a Latino.

“I think the community felt that all of a sudden, City Hall was available,” said Frank Villalobos, head of Barrio Planners, an Eastside architectural firm.

Power is now diffused among various Latino leaders, and incoming Councilman Nick Pacheco is one of many recently elected officials who diverges from the old-style politics Alatorre embodies.

However, even those who have been critical of Alatorre and his approach say his departure is bittersweet.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a longtime rival, presented Alatorre with a commemorative scroll Tuesday during an uncharacteristically warm exchange between the two lawmakers.

“It’s sort of a sad time,” she said. “I’m glad that the wheeling and dealing will be gone . . . but at the same time, there’s a lot of things I think we’re going to miss. Richard offered the Latino community political power that it never had.”

His departure also shakes up the power balance in City Hall, where Alatorre was a staunch supporter of Mayor Richard Riordan, who credits the councilman’s endorsement in 1993 as “a huge boost to my campaign.” Once elected, Riordan, a political novice, relied heavily on Alatorre for help in moving his legislative program through the council. “He was my point man,” Riordan said. “He would lobby other members to get them to go along, and get their thoughts. He was an incredible resource.”

Alatorre also was instrumental in paving the way for Bernard C. Parks to become the new Los Angeles police chief. He wielded great clout as a key member of the MTA and an expert on the city budget process.

Despite his influence downtown, some opponents complained that the councilman neglected his district in recent years, providing instead for his friends. During the recent campaign, Pacheco strongly criticized Alatorre for ignoring the needs of the area, as did candidate Alvin Parra, who came in third. In 1995, an outspent Parra nearly forced Alatorre into a runoff by focusing on similar themes.

Alatorre dismisses criticism that the district has suffered, although he admits he has been distracted by the controversies of the past year, along with recent health problems.

Last summer, he was consumed by a bitter legal battle over the custody of his niece. During the course of that trial, the judge ordered him to take a drug test, and he failed.

“That judge . . . saved my life,” said Alatorre, who went into drug rehabilitation. Battling his addiction is a daily struggle, he said. “I wake up with it, I live it. I thank God at the end of the day that I’m clean and sober.”

But Alatorre blames the bulk of the turmoil in the last few years on a series of articles in The Times detailing allegations of his financial improprieties and drug use.

“I would wish the same level of scrutiny [be focused] on somebody else,” he said. “Why just me?

“I didn’t establish the rules of the game,” he added. “I just learned them well and know how to apply them. . . . Yet they write about how sinister that is.”

In the end, for the sake of his family, Alatorre said he decided not to seek another term, a move he began considering more than a year ago.

“It would have been the ugliest campaign, but I would have killed any of [the other candidates],” he said. “But the price was too high.”

The former Garfield High School student body president says he looks back on his 28 years of representing the Eastside with pride, and has little trepidation about the future.

“I was very fortunate to grow up in East Los Angeles and to learn what I consider my greatest attribute,” he said. “I know how to survive.”

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Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.


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