The Man Driving the Latino Machine


One day last summer, state Sen. Richard Polanco was probably about as close to heaven as a machine politician can get in California.

With Gray Davis as the first Democratic governor in 16 years, a patronage feast was underway.

And the man in charge of the seating was a young lawyer-lobbyist whom Polanco recommended for the job.


Polanco had a staffer place a call to the man, Dario Frommer, whose assignment was to vet Davis’ potential appointees.

Three minutes later, Frommer called back. Two hours later, he showed up at Polanco’s door.

Polanco shut it. “This one is private,” he told a reporter following him for a day.

The incident was a small but telling indicator of just how powerful Polanco, a Democrat from northeast Los Angeles, had become.

Not long ago, Polanco and other Latino lawmakers in Sacramento were a few isolated souls fighting the system.

“Now,” said someone long active in Latino affairs, “they are the system.”

There are many reasons for this: statewide demographic changes, voter registration drives, the perceived anti-immigrant bias of former Gov. Pete Wilson coming back to haunt Republicans.

But Polanco has been the catalyst.

He has done more than anyone else to organize the unprecedented surge to statewide clout that Latino elected officials enjoyed in a decade that will be recorded as a milestone in an ethnic community’s political history.

Largely because of Polanco, Latinos, though still a minority of California’s population, today constitute a larger share of the state’s Legislature than of its electorate.


“I sometimes tease him,” said his longtime, on-again, off-again political consultant, Richard Ross:

“I say, ‘Polanco, you’re the father of the nation.’ ”

Those who know Polanco say they are not surprised.

Polanco is so aggressive that he has been known to go to another guy’s barbecue and take over the cooking, remarking, as an associate quoted him, “It’ll be the best.”

So aggressive that he marched into a 1991 board meeting of the Metropolitan Water District, an agency that shouted white power structure, and told members, in so many words, that they were a bunch of crooks. “Good afternoon,” he began his speech to the small sea of ancient bobbing white heads. “I am here to talk about sweetheart contracts, shadow lobbying--and the general underhanded way this agency operates.”

So aggressive that, beginning in the early 1990s, he hung out his own shingle as a political entrepreneur.

He recruited would-be Latino Democratic lawmakers from around the state, raised millions from special-interest groups to fund their campaigns, and helped run many of them himself.

Victories by candidates he sponsored helped triple the size of the Democratic Latino legislative caucus, which became, with 20 members, the Legislature’s largest potential voting bloc outside of the political parties.


More importantly, from the standpoint of taking the reins of state government, alliances in the caucus served as foundations for broader coalitions that installed Latinos in legislative leadership posts for the first time.

Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former legislator from Los Angeles, said he and other Latino elected officials began working on this kind of “architecture” of Latino empowerment in the 1970s.

Polanco, he said, will be remembered for having completed it.

“He is at a moment of great historical opportunity,” said his state Senate colleague, Tom Hayden, another Democrat from Los Angeles, “and he is turning the wheel.”

Polanco, who is known in empowerment circles simply as “the architect,” is a personally ambitious, practical politician who builds from the top down, not a civil rights leader, who builds from the bottom up.

He has the determination of a John Henry: “Tell me it can’t be done,” he says. “Tell me we can’t find a way. We go out and find a way.”

As befits a man building a machine, Polanco’s great insight was mechanical. It was that no one could stop him if he wanted to bulldoze past long-standing Democratic Party protocols that called for legislative leaders to raise money only to fight Republicans.


Polanco was willing to do that. But he also wanted to raise money to help Latino Democrats beat non-Latino Democrats in primary contests for open legislative seats.

His attitude was: “[After] I fulfill my obligation to the party, don’t tell me I can’t play.”

He became a fund-raising force. Occupying a safe Democratic seat, which meant he needed little money to run his own campaigns, he raised millions for others and helped allies raise untold more by urging donors loyal to him to contribute directly to them.

Fund-raising is difficult for lots of politicians. They find it awkward to ask for money without promising anything specific, and they are not supposed to promise anything, because a promise turns a campaign contribution into a bribe.

But Polanco suggests it is relatively easy. He learned how to vault this hurdle as a child selling oranges door to door.

“Would you like to buy some nice, fresh, juicy oranges?” he says he would ask with a smile on the porches of East L.A.


“What kind are they?” the customer would inquire.

“Whatever kind you would like them to be,” the little boy would manage to convey.

Polanco laughs at the memory. He loves his work.

He bounds through the Capitol’s halls with uncommon zest and good cheer. There is hardly a wrinkle on his 48-year-old face. Round and boyish, it sports a dimpled smile that can seem as wide and bright as a crescent moon. He is a man of whimsy. “Jiminy!” he will occasionally exclaim.

But there is also something about him--the intensity of a pile driver; the hard body of an athlete under a spreading paunch--that says, “Watch out--he is tough.”

“If you’re in the fight of your life, you want him on your side,” Torres said.

Asked if Polanco is an idealist, one of his oldest friends seemed momentarily taken aback. Yes, he finally answered. About one thing: Latino empowerment.

Assembling the Machine

Polanco first hung out his shingle as a political entrepreneur in 1992, fighting hard for a slate of Latino candidates in Democratic primaries in Los Angeles County.

Because of retirements and other factors, Polanco found himself the only returning Latino Democrat in the Assembly that year. He scrambled to recruit future colleagues.

One he went after was Diane Martinez, daughter of Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park).


He finally reached her by cell phone an hour before the candidates’ filing deadline.

She was standing in an unemployment line.

She told him, he recalled, that she did not even have enough money to pay the filing fee for the San Gabriel Valley seat, much less bankroll a campaign.

Polanco told her it didn’t matter. If she would just get to the county registrar’s office right way, he would meet her later and cover her check.

“Why?” she wanted to know.

Why did he want her to run so badly?

His answer suggested a philosophy:

“Because you can win, Diane,” he told her. “You can win.”

Polanco was a good handicapper. Martinez and three of his four other candidates won in the races in which, as he puts it, he “played” in 1992.

But although the victories might have been nice for Polanco’s ego and budding machine, they were arguably inconsequential for Latino empowerment. All of his candidates that year were squared off against other Latino candidates associated with another Mexican American political camp, headed by county Supervisor Gloria Molina. In other words, a Latino candidate would have won anyway.

Polanco’s big contribution to empowerment came later when, emboldened by his 1992 victories, he backed a series of Latino candidates who triumphed over non-Latino contenders in Democratic primaries around the state.

The first of these was Cruz Bustamante of Fresno, now the lieutenant governor. As Bustamante told an audience at UC Berkeley recently, Polanco’s “gift” was that he “de-ghettoized” Latino politics.


“Richard helped us believe a Latino could run anywhere and win. He helped us bust out of East L.A.”

Polanco discovered that moderate Latino candidates can do well in districts where there is ethnic diversity, even without a heavily Latino electorate.

With Polanco’s help, Bustamante became the first Latino outside of Southern California to serve in the Legislature in this century. State Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) won in a district where the electorate was only 13% Latino; Dean Florez (D-Shafter) won in an Assembly district where, as Bustamante put it, he “represents Buck Owens.”

The Man in the Middle

Polanco, like many of the candidates he backs, styles himself as a pro-business moderate. He is, for example, an environmentalist as long as the economy is OK. His basic message to non-Latinos is, in effect: Relax. Latinos want the same things you do--a shot at the American Dream.

One of his major thrusts as a legislator has been to improve access for Latinos to do business with government, a traditional first step for minority groups toward making The Dream come true.

He has pushed for more government procurement and job opportunities, not only in state government. He has also targeted vast regional agencies in charge of water, transportation and air quality in Southern California, over which he has worked to get some influence, and certain local governments in Los Angeles County, where he also has some sway. He has also involved himself in Los Angeles Unified School District affairs, where he has been a supporter of embattled Supt. Ruben Zacarias.


Polanco spends significant time, aides say, as an opportunities broker, referring seekers who approach him to others he knows may be able to help.

There are two broad views of his activities: selfless and selfish.

Dionicio Morales, head of the Mexican American Opportunities Foundation, one of the nation’s largest private social service agencies, applauds Polanco as “a very sophisticated political boss” who has provided “the immediate key” to placing Mexican Americans in policymaking positions “in corporate America.”

Critics acknowledge his efforts to empower Latinos, but believe that helping the Latino community as a whole has been incidental to helping himself to political power and selected friends to wealth.

“The way to understand Richard is to understand that he is really about personal power,” said a longtime observer who would not be named. “He is an empire-builder . . . a deal-maker . . . the ‘90s iteration of the old East L.A. good old boy, business-government contracts network. . . . He builds loyalty and patronage and people beholden to him.”

“He wants economic empowerment,” said Henry Barbosa, a municipal attorney long active in Los Angeles County Latino politics, “but he wants it for his friends.”

His friends include people associated with TELACU--The East Los Angeles Community Union, a nonprofit community development corporation with profit-making subsidiaries, for whom he once worked.


When TELACU has trouble getting support for a housing project, Polanco meets with local officials standing in the way. TELACU and its officers have given Polanco $85,000 in the past decade.

When Alfred R. Villalobos, a Republican associated with TELACU, tried to get a contract worth $750,000 for persuading the state pension board to make a certain $100-million investment, Polanco touted the investment to the board and lobbied individual members hard.

Former state Treasurer Matt Fong was taken aback at how hard. “In my four years there, this was the worst steamroll I’ve ever seen,” said Fong, who voted against the effort. Villalobos got the deal anyway, and it has turned out to be profitable for the state.

A Power Play

Polanco thinks big.

He tried, for a while, to become the effective leader of both houses of the Legislature.

He had success in the Assembly, where he was the prime force behind the rise of Bustamante, who became the first Latino speaker, then the first Latino to be elected to statewide office this century.

But Polanco’s own bid to become leader of the state Senate fizzled, in part because he was seen by fellow Democrats as too willing to meddle in the Assembly and as too fierce a Latino partisan, who might put ethnic interests ahead of the party’s.

As some lawmakers said privately, they didn’t trust him and they feared him. They relegated him to the secondary post of majority leader.


As a legislator, Polanco has been peripatetic. Scattered, some say.

Many lawmakers specialize in one or two issues. Polanco has introduced 659 bills in the last decade--261 of which were signed into law.

“He’s always delving into some issue,” said his frequent Capitol adversary, Don Novey, head of the state prison guards union. “ ‘Got something going?’ ” Novey parodied. “ ‘I’ve got 30 minutes. We can do something.’ ”

Polanco is a bit of a bomb thrower. He gleefully mocks inefficiencies in the Department of Corrections, whose prison industries section manages to lose money even though both its work force and its markets are captive.

And he is the leading advocate of legislation allowing the state to contract with private prison corporations. Private prison companies, new to the political contribution scene in California, gave him $17,000 last year.

He says he can’t understand Gov. Davis’ desire to build a prison for $335 million in public funds, when a new one built by a private firm for $100 million is sitting empty in the Mojave Desert.

“Duh!” Polanco says. “Come on!”

He is fond of the grand idea.

He was watching television during the last drought, an aide said, when he saw firefighters struggling to put out a blaze near parched Santa Barbara.


Suddenly, the camera panned left. There was the ocean. Why not use that? he thought. He asked his staff. Why not use it to drink? his staff suggested. Before long, Polanco had a bill calling for desalination.

The Metropolitan Water District, which imports water into Southern California, lobbied against it, even when he said desalination would not be required unless it was cheaper.

Polanco was miffed. He really wanted this bill. He saw in an article that the water district spent more on lobbying than any other public entity in the state. He assigned a trusted staff member to look into it. Bill Mabie, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, was outraged by what he found. He included this line in Polanco’s speech: “Digging for improprieties at the MWD is like drilling for oil in Kuwait. You can’t miss.”

The MWD board members laughed at him when he delivered the speech.

A mistake.

Polanco did not succeed in his initial plan to make them subject to direct election. But he studied the arcane way they were chosen--through appointments by local elected officials and indirect elections--and put some of his own candidates in the mix. “The face of the place changed after that,” said Mabie. “They got a little color real quick.” Today, Polanco’s brother-in-law, financial consultant Jorge Castro, is among his allies on the board.

Sometimes, when Polanco has been frustrated getting legislation passed, he has found solace in the state budget.

For four years, he tried to get centers established to help millions of California’s mostly Latino, foreign-born legal residents, and its 1.7 million undocumented immigrants who had been granted amnesty, to become citizens. But Gov. Wilson said no.


As an end-around, Polanco found a veto-proof way to insert money for the centers in the state budget.

The centers have helped set a state record: Nearly 1.5 million new citizens have been sworn in this decade, more than doubling the size of the state’s Latino electorate.

Questions of Influence

The California Political Almanac suggests that Polanco, as a legislator, has “rarely risen above the pedestrian” because “his major pieces of legislation have been tainted by special-interest sponsorship.”

Polanco dismisses this as “their opinion.” “If the notion is, is there a tie between how and what I legislate and a contribution, the answer is no,” he says.

He holds himself out as a problem-solver. If someone has a problem that government can address, he may help them get organized, and introduce legislation on their behalf. If they want to give him money, that is “their choice.”

A little known barber and cosmetology trade group he helped organize for legislative action, for example, has given to only one legislator--him. It gave him $10,000, spent $6,000 with a Polanco political consultant-protege and expended $14,000 on the services of Polanco’s chief fund-raiser, his sister-in-law. Polanco is carrying a bill sponsored by the group to reestablish a trade oversight board abolished by a cost-cutting Legislature in 1994.


He has gotten big money from the newest of California’s nouveaux riches, Native Americans who own and operate casinos. Pursuing an agenda of expanded gambling on reservations, Indian tribes in recent years have given him $300,000, second among legislators only to the $400,000-plus they have given his protege and Sacramento roommate, Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar).

Polanco says he supports the tribes as a matter of principle: They should have the right to run casinos as part of self-determination.

But other Democrats, siding with organized labor, oppose the Indians’ efforts because, they say, the Indians are battling a union that wants to organize casino workers.

Polanco has long been a friend of some unions--most notably of the one trying for 30 years to win better deals for California’s largely Mexican American farm workers. He was one of the few politicians whom legendary United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez trusted, said Chavez’s son, Paul.

But in the garment industry, Polanco has carried legislation on behalf of small, mainly Asian-owned manufacturers who have been campaign donors, to block money for a state program aimed at curbing wage and hour violations. He says the program is inefficient and costs jobs.

Polanco is a do-gooder.

For several years, he has been among the most outspoken advocates of limiting guns, carrying legislation to ban manufacture and sale of Saturday night specials. He has carried bills to help people with AIDS. And he is among the few lawmakers carrying bills to help the severely mentally ill.


He traces his interest in delivering better services to the mentally ill to childhood, when his mother had what he describes as “a breakdown” and he had to run for help to the pastor of the Protestant church she attended a mile away.

He said there are still 18 counties in California that have no psychiatrists. So he wants to allow more plentiful psychologists to do many of the things that psychiatrists--who are medical doctors--do, including prescribing certain drugs. Not surprisingly, psychologists are among his stable of donors.

Polanco hails from a rough neighborhood.

“He comes out of a background where, someone f---s with you, you shoot them,” said a friend from teenage years who is now a professional person and did not want to be named.

Polanco was raised in the Maravilla barrio of East Los Angeles, where his father was a baker and his mother, for a time, plucked chickens for a poultry vendor. Both were born in this country. But neither spoke English. He was the fourth of eight children--six boys and two girls. Two cousins also lived with the family.

An athlete, Polanco was point guard on the Garfield High School basketball team and a junior Golden Gloves boxer with exceptionally fast hands.

“He was feared on the block,” said Frank Amador Jr., who lived two doors down. “You didn’t mess with him growing up because he knew how to use his hands.”


But where they grew up, on Arizona Street in the 1960s, hands weren’t always enough.

“I’ve been in his house when people were cowering because people were driving by yelling gang names,” said the friend from teenage years.

The readily accessible world was only four blocks. That was the territory controlled by the local gang. Polanco was not a member, people from that era said. But it helped defined him.

Polanco himself tells of someone firing a shotgun blast from the street that shattered his living room window. “I know what it is like,” he said, “to be in the living room watching TV and have the window blown out, and not knowing, what the hell? And then having the detectives come in and pull the [shotgun] pellets out of the wall.”

Four boys who lived on his street were shot and killed.

Polanco’s political epiphany appears to have occurred after the shooting death of one of them--an athlete who, like him, appeared to have a future beyond the neighborhood.

He and his friend from teenage years talked all night. “It sounds trite,” said the friend. “But I think that was a turning point for Richard.”

The thrust of their conversation, the friend recalled, was Polanco asking, “How many more got to go like this?”


Polanco’s thought, the friend said, was that creating opportunities could be an antidote. The idea was: “If we have [opportunities], people don’t have to shoot each other in the head over nothing.”

The Seeds of Activism

Polanco became a gang counselor.

It was a time of social upheaval in East L.A. and the nation. Cesar Chavez’s grape pickers’ strike had inspired feelings of Mexican nationalism. High school walkouts, in which students, including Polanco, demanded more Mexican American teachers and teaching, had taken place in 1968, the same year that saw the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The walkouts were followed by antiwar protests, fueled by a realization that disproportionate numbers of Chicano youths were dying in Vietnam. Polanco had a high number in the draft lottery and was not called.

The big development locally was the United Auto Workers starting TELACU. Its first director, future congressman Esteban Torres, proclaimed that Mexican Americans in East L.A. were like Third World residents, exploited by a colonial system.

TELACU’s focus was self-determination.

Among its early projects was redeveloping a decrepit housing project.

Any redevelopment stoked deep suspicions in the wake of the experiences of Mexican Americans in Chavez Ravine, who lost their homes for Dodger Stadium. TELACU tried to involve residents to calm fears. Polanco helped.

He worked at the time for Casa Maravilla, a social service agency run by David Lizarraga, who would soon become director of TELACU and, eventually, a major Polanco political and financial backer.


One of Polanco’s jobs was helping to negotiate a peacekeeping agreement with neighborhood gangs. The gangs promised not to deface the new project.

When the project was expanded to include Polanco’s adjacent neighborhood, TELACU helped put together a panel of residents to advise the redevelopment agency, and Polanco, at age 21, became the panel’s full-time director.

Polanco read government manuals and prided himself on learning the rules better than anyone.

He had to. If something went wrong, the neighbors would know whom to blame.

Before you knew it, things went right. Housing was improved; the meat processing plant next to the elementary school--with the blood in the gutter that the little kids had to step across--was gone.

Failed Attempt at Cityhood

Emphasizing self-determination, TELACU pushed for cityhood for East L.A., an unincorporated part of the county.

Polanco ran for City Council on a TELACU-backed slate and won.

But he was a councilman without a city. Cityhood lost amid homeowner fears that it would result in higher taxes.


Polanco stayed around politics, working for county Supervisor Ed Edelman, Gov. Jerry Brown and then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, and helping TELACU start a health center.

Polanco made a bid for the Assembly in 1982 but was beaten by Gloria Molina, who defeated him with the help of a vicious, eleventh-hour mailer that accused him of not having paid child support for his son from a prior marriage.

The mailer especially stung, Polanco said, because when it hit, his son was living with him and his mother. He blamed it for his defeat. (Polanco has since remarried and has two more children.)

Polanco made a second Assembly bid in 1986, when Alatorre stepped down to join the City Council.

Alatorre had been expected to endorse a school board member. But the school board member dropped out.

An Eastside political activist who wondered why recalled asking Art Torres at the time.

Torres’ answer was said to have consisted of three words: “David wants Polanco.”

It was a much simpler time in Latino politics. David was David Lizarraga of TELACU, who did not respond to an interview request for this story.


Again, the two main rival camps squared off. Molina backed a Highland Park activist whose family operated a bail and immigration bond business, Mike Hernandez, now a Los Angeles city councilman.

Hernandez’s mailers accused Polanco of being a tool of “the TELACU machine.” TELACU had been the subject of a government audit and unfavorable articles in The Times, which suggested that its operators had used an anti-poverty agency to get rich. Its defenders accused The Times of a fundamental misperception. TELACU was not an anti-poverty agency, they said. It was a community development corporation, doing what corporations do in America--make money.

Polanco attacked Hernandez as someone in the business of letting criminals loose.

Polanco had learned an important lesson from his 1982 defeat, said his friend, Miguel Contreras, now the top AFL-CIO official in Los Angeles County. “He learned that if the other side had a pit bull, he better have a pit bull too. That’s when he got Richie Ross.”

Ross said he served as a consultant to Polanco’s campaign as an operative of a close Alatorre ally, then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

When Polanco won, Brown immediately--it appeared--called in his chit.

He did so in a rather harsh way--by putting Polanco in a spot where the values of self-determination and ambition were bound to clash.

He put him on a committee considering the governor’s plan to locate a prison near East L.A.


The plan had stalled and Polanco’s campaign had issued a statement against it.

But three hours after being sworn into office, Polanco reversed himself and provided the extra vote in committee to get it to the floor.

His vote set loose a major grass-roots protest. People on the Eastside who felt burdened by too many freeways and toxic dumps drew a line against the prison.

Molina latched on to the movement. It made her a folk hero.

It made Polanco a goat.

The common perception was that he voted against his community to repay a political favor to Brown. “I think he did what he felt he had to do,” said Steve Kasten, president of the Lincoln Heights Chamber of Commerce, who was active in the anti-prison movement but was one of the first to forgive Polanco. “People to this day have not forgiven him.”

Polanco insists that he did not compromise his independence. He insists that he betrayed no one, that he had no deal with Brown, that his vote was his own and that he does not remember having issued the campaign statement against the prison.

He said he voted the prison bill out of committee because he felt it could bring economic benefits in the form of procurement opportunities and jobs to the Eastside, and he had not realized that opposition to the prison--to be built in a district adjacent to his--would become so intense.

Later, he said, he became convinced he had made a mistake.

“I misread the community,” he said. “I was wrong.”

He takes credit for killing the prison in the end. It was built in Lancaster instead. “I created it and I ended it,” he said.


‘More Ambitious Than Brown Expected’

Polanco had a contentious relationship with the flamboyant Brown, now mayor of San Francisco.

“Richard was more ambitious than Willie Brown ever expected him to be,” summed up Polanco political strategist Saeed Ali, a native of India and former advisor to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Brown was accustomed to crowning kings in the Assembly. But Polanco wanted to crown his own.

He chose Assembly hopeful Bustamante, a moderate with potentially broad appeal.

Bustamante had been an aide to a retiring white Assembly member and had gotten the Democratic caucus’ endorsement to succeed him.

But then, as Polanco told the story:

“Some of the liberal women go to Willie [Brown] and squeeze him, saying they want to withdraw the endorsement [because] a woman could win this race.”

Polanco stood by Bustamante, setting up a session at which both candidates were questioned by Democratic lawmakers.


The woman went first.

“Where are you on ‘choice?’ ” she was asked. She turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian, against abortion rights.

The liberal women were aghast. Polanco was thrilled. He made a beeline for Bustamante, waiting in the hall. “I go out and tell Cruz: ‘You are pro-choice.’ ”

“Why?” Polanco remembers Bustamante asking.

“Anything and everything--you are pro-choice.”

“Why?” Bustamante tried again.

“Because she just blew it.”

Polanco paired Bustamante with Ross, the consultant, and won the election.

Polanco next tried to make Bustamante minority leader.

Brown again became an obstacle. The Democrats had by then lost control of the Assembly and Brown was leaving to run for mayor of San Francisco. But he wanted to pass the baton to one of his closest lieutenants, Richard Katz, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley.

Bustamante campaigned for the post by day and debriefed with Polanco by night. It was “a painful process for Cruz,” Polanco recalled. “A lot of disrespect occurred.”

Polanco tried to build a coalition with African American members but said that Brown, who is an African American, blocked him.

So he decided to win friends for Bustamante at the polls.

So much for self-determination.

Polanco succeeded most notably in a South Los Angeles race, in which Assemblyman Willard Murray, an African American Democrat, was running his daughter, Melinda.


“We engaged in Murray’s daughter’s race,” Polanco said.

Polanco met with the Rev. Carl Washington, an aide to county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

“We met [with him] at the Plum Tree Inn in Chinatown,” Polanco recalled. “Cruz, me, [state Sen.] Martha [Escutia, D-Whittier],” a close ally whom Polanco recruited for the Legislature. “The guy walks out with about $10,000 for his campaign.”

Washington denied he walked out with that much. But however much it was, Polanco and Bustamante had a new friend.

When the Democrats crushed Republicans and retook the Assembly in 1996, with Katz as their leader, they were in position to select a new speaker.

Washington was among those who seconded Bustamante’s nomination.

“How sweet it is,” a beaming Polanco proclaimed as Bustamante ascended to the speaker’s dais.

Much later, Polanco got a chance to get back at Katz, who, like Brown, had stood in his and Bustamante’s way.


“If you show any disrespect for Richard Polanco, he is going to remember it and he is going to wait and he is going to f--- you,” said Ross, the consultant. “He hated Katz. . . . Katz killed his bills.”

When Katz ran last year for the Democratic nomination for a state Senate seat in the San Fernando Valley against a Polanco-sponsored Richard Alarcon, Polanco contacted Ross.

“OK. I’m in for the 135 [thousand dollars for Alarcon’s campaign].” Ross said Polanco told him. “But we’re going to do one other thing. . . . We’re going to do an independent expenditure on this asshole.”

Ross wrote a letter whose effect was a big lie. It linked Katz to Republican efforts in Orange County--that he had nothing to do with--to frighten unsophisticated Latinos away from the polls. It also linked him to Gov. Wilson, who had become the bete noir of Latino politics. It was particularly misleading because Katz had been among Wilson’s most bitter foes, and was an avid opponent of Proposition 187.

Polanco signed the letter as head of the Latino caucus, and it went out in a mailing to Latino voters.

Katz blamed the letter for his loss in a squeaker and sued Ross and Polanco for libel. Polanco wouldn’t comment on the letter, other than to deny revenge as a motive, because, although the suit was dismissed, an appeal is still pending.


Mulling Over His Options

Polanco is fast approaching a career crossroads.

Voter-imposed term limits that have, until now, been his friend--creating legislative vacancies he has helped to fill--may soon be his enemy. Polanco himself will be termed out in 2002.

Because he lives in the hills of Mt. Washington, in Mike Hernandez’s council district, the relatively easy option would be a run for Hernandez’s seat when Hernandez is termed out in 2001.

But Polanco has also started a longshot campaign to expand the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, with the idea of running himself for one of the few offices in California to which term limits do not apply.

He is also considering a bid to become California’s second statewide elected Latino this century, as either insurance commissioner, controller or secretary of state.

An identity crisis looms for him as he contemplates a statewide run.

Polanco has always had to forge coalitions with other ethnic groups. The electorate in his district was 35% Latino when he began; now it is in the mid-40s.

But he has never had to cross over to the extent that a statewide race would require. California’s electorate is still only 15% Latino.


Troublingly, the crossover problem is coming for him at the same time that his accomplishments as a Latino leader are being celebrated.

Aware of the problem, Polanco sometimes bristles at the Latino leader tag.

“Don’t peg me like that,” he says. “When I legislate, it’s not legislating for the Latino community. . . . [It’s] for everybody.”

His staff, which is well-regarded in Sacramento, is diverse, and he has backed white and black candidates as well as Latinos.

He even backed a white aide, Mabie, to succeed him in the Assembly when he moved on to the Senate. That move was psychically costly; it led to his being labeled a traitor by some Latino commentators.

But in retrospect, it appears important mainly because it showed that Polanco’s powerful urge to elect Latinos could be trumped by an even more powerful urge to build his machine.

Polanco’s friend of 20 years, the labor leader Miguel Contreras, said Polanco backed Mabie only after he asked Contreras and “a series of” other Latinos to run against a Latino from another political camp, and they turned him down.


Mabie lost to the rival camper, Antonio Villaraigosa, a former teachers union organizer who has become the state’s second Latino Assembly speaker and a major Polanco rival.

Polanco “has always been on the path to elect more Latino elected officials,” says Contreras.

He has been an enabler.

In a day and age when many politicians don’t seem to stand for anything, he has stood for stuff.

The stuff of government: Jobs. Procurement opportunities. Elective offices. Rules.

Three years from now, when he is termed out, he could even wind up “on a [bleeping] water board,” says the consultant, Ross. “It won’t matter. . . . He’s going to be in public life. He’s going to continue to get stuff for Mexicans. That’s what he does.”