Becerra Has a Lot of Explaining to Do

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

To understand just how tough U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra’s political life will be from now on, this quote from Joe Benites, former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, pretty well sums it up: “Xavier [Becerra] will never have another bowl of menudo in this town.”

Benites and a lot of other people in the Latino community are angry at Becerra over a sleazy tactic used in last April’s primary that the district attorney has traced directly to Becerra’s mayoral campaign. And the tactic didn’t even do Becerra any good--he barely got 6% of the vote. So he could use a lot of that menudo-- the popular Mexican tripe stew that is known for its restorative powers. But Becerra had better be worrying about more than nursing his own wounds. He’s got a lot of explaining to do to get back in good stead with his community.

Last week, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steven Cooley determined that Becerra’s campaign staff had been responsible for some phony, last-minute telephone calls attacking Antonio Villaraigosa, who is now in the June 5 runoff against James K. Hahn.

The automated telephone calls featured “Gloria Marina"--a name used in an obvious attempt to confuse voters into thinking the caller was County Supervisor Gloria Molina--alleging that Villaraigosa had voted against state laws to toughen criminal penalties for rapists and child molesters. Supervisor Molina, a Villaraigosa supporter, is a popular figure in the Latino community and it’s a mistake to get her angry.


Some recipients of the phone calls knew they were fake right away. But Molina got enough calls from constituents that she asked the D.A. to investigate. Last week, Cooley said that a seven-week probe found that the script attacking Villaraigosa was linked directly to Becerra’s campaign staff. No charges will be filed, but the damage to Becerra’s political fortunes is already clear.

Cooley added that the smear calls were sent out by a community telephone bank linked to City Councilman Nick Pacheco, another Villaraigosa opponent. The D.A. said he hoped that those responsible would be taken to task in “the court of public opinion.”

Which is where Joe Benites and his menudo crack comes in. Benites is a typical of this city’s Latino activists. In his younger days, he was a leader in LULAC, the nation’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights group. Now a businessman, he occasionally donates money to political candidates. In the mayoral primary, he wrote checks to both the Becerra and Villaraigosa campaigns. Now he says he’ll never support Becerra again. And you can multiply Benites’ anger and disillusionment by the hundreds, if not the thousands.

For the record, Becerra has publicly apologized to Molina and Villaraigosa, though he insists he had no knowledge of what his campaign staff was doing. Pacheco makes the same claim, going so far as to tell the Spanish-language media that the scandal came to light only because he urged a member of the staff to come clean to the D.A. The letter from Cooley to Molina recounting the investigation, and subsequent revelations that Becerra had been warned about political trickery before the April primary, suggest that these protestations of innocence are so much political tripe.


Smart as Becerra is, he will never again be able to pass himself off as a Stanford-educated Boy Scout.

That’s bound to hurt. And just when he could use that comforting bowl of menudo, he may not be able to get it.