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Boosting the Northeast Valley’s Political Stock

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Tony Cardenas made the rounds at Los Angeles City Hall last month to promote his candidacy for City Council, he was guided by an intense man with a walrus-style mustache who knows well how to navigate the halls of power.

He was James Acevedo--San Fernando Valley political operative, lobbyist, government contractor, developer, power broker.

Acevedo, 49, finds himself at the center of an expanding Latino political coalition that reaches into City Hall and Sacramento.

From his office in San Fernando, Acevedo strategizes with Assemblyman Cardenas of Sylmar and Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla of Pacoima. The triumvirate is well on its way to focusing Valley political influence in its own backyard.

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“The northeast Valley has more power than it has ever had before,” said Acevedo, beaming with pride.

Acevedo started as a grass-roots organizer, working with the Brown Berets to empower the Chicano community of the 1970s. He also joined the campaigns of Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Ernani Bernardi before stepping onto the ground floor of a burgeoning Latino political movement in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

He played key roles in the elections of Richard Alarcon, the Valley’s first Latino city councilman and state senator; Cardenas, the Valley’s first Latino assemblyman; and Padilla, city councilman just elected council president.

His personal fortunes have also grown. He recently moved from Sylmar to an $850,000 home in Sherman Oaks.

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Along the way, Acevedo has collected a string of critics who say he can be ruthless and does not readily share power. Other critics say he takes advantage of his close ties to lawmakers to boost his own development projects.

Acevedo has also taken some calculated risks, and so far he has wound up on the winning side.

Acevedo, Padilla and Cardenas broke with other Latino leaders this year and backed James Hahn for mayor over Antonio Villaraigosa. Although Acevedo helped coordinate Hahn’s field operation, Padilla stumped for the candidate in heavily Latino areas of the city.

Although Villaraigosa won most Latino strongholds in the city, including Padilla’s own Pacoima, pundits believe the margin of victory might have been much greater without the credibility given Hahn by Padilla and other Latino leaders.

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Hahn has appointed Acevedo to a coveted position on the city Harbor Commission, which oversees the busiest port in the country and millions of dollars in contracts.

In addition, Hahn has named Felipe Fuentes, a former Padilla deputy who worked with Acevedo on Hahn’s election campaign, as the mayor’s top aide for the San Fernando Valley.

Padilla’s election as council president last month boosted the coalition’s political stock even more.

With Acevedo serving as strategist and Padilla an endorser, Cardenas is considered a leading contender to fill the 2nd Council District seat that Joel Wachs will vacate Oct. 1.

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“Latino political fortunes are at more of a takeoff stage in the Valley than in the rest of Los Angeles,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs.

A few Democratic activists outside Los Angeles have taken note of their victories.

State Democratic Chairman Art Torres, who hired Padilla as an intern several years ago, said Acevedo has a reputation as a “very smart strategy guy,” who is making a name for himself in Los Angeles but has not yet registered with many on the state stage.

Acevedo’s specialty is marshaling ground forces. He showed during Padilla’s first campaign that he can mobilize large numbers of young volunteers to blitz a district and turn out voters. That was the role he also played for Eric Garcetti’s election to the City Council in June.

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Acevedo and Padilla are close friends--they socialize together. Sometimes Padilla stops by Acevedo’s home to help him in the garden and talk politics.

Acevedo’s drive to local prominence has not been without detractors.

Among his critics is former Assemblyman Scott Wildman, who ran against Garcetti this year. Wildman said he complained to Padilla that Acevedo implied to a potential contributor that his development projects could be at risk if he made good on a donation to Wildman.

“I would never do that,” Acevedo said of Wildman’s criticism.

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Union activist Benny Bernal said he dropped plans to challenge Padilla’s reelection this year because potential contributors did not want to cross Acevedo and the incumbent.

Former Padilla aides said Acevedo was a fixture in the councilman’s office, where he often gave orders to staff members.

“He is a friend and an advisor,” Padilla said.

Broadening His Influence

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Acevedo and his wife of 14 years, who is a teacher, moved with their two young children this summer from Sylmar to a four-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks.

The strategist, who wears cowboy boots most days and loves ranchera and country and western music, said his move from the working class of the northeast Valley is not a sign that he is abandoning his roots.

But Acevedo is clearly broadening his influence.

Recent committee assignments by Padilla have put his allies in control of key panels controlling housing and community development funds that Acevedo hopes to obtain for his own projects.

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As chairman of the nonprofit Neighborhood Empowerment and Economic Development Inc., Acevedo has, since 1993, overseen the receipt of about $10 million in city funds used to construct nearly 300 low-income Valley apartment units.

The agency is building an eighth housing project and is about to break ground on a ninth. A 10th project, planned by Acevedo’s for-profit development firm, Grapevine Development Partnership, has applied for city funding and state tax credits.

The nonprofit agency reported assets of $4 million and annual revenue of $237,000 in its last financial statements, covering 1998.

More than 600 people live in Neighborhood Empowerment apartments, a source of constituent power that Acevedo mobilizes to support other nonprofit projects during City Hall meetings.

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Acevedo’s goal is to tap into a proposed $100-million trust fund for affordable housing to build two projects a year and to branch into more for-profit development.

In the meantime, he receives no salary from the nonprofit agency, drawing income instead as a political consultant, including $5,000 per month he was paid during much of this year to advise Padilla.

Acevedo’s political consulting firm also received a $50,000, no-bid city contract last year to work on the U.S. census, work awarded after a motion sponsored by Padilla. Acevedo said he was paid $33,000 for the job. In addition to working for Cardenas, Acevedo is a paid strategist on the campaign of 4th Council District candidate Fares “Ferris” Wehbe and has signed up to do four Assembly campaigns next year. He also works as a lobbyist, representing among others a firm pitching waterless urinals to the city and school district.

Active in Chicano Rights Movement

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Acevedo said he became politically active at the age of 16, when he joined Brown Berets, a Chicano rights group. He recalled organizing high school walkouts in East L.A. He graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education.

Padilla and his allies have infuriated rivals in the Valley’s old guard, most recently by removing Councilman Hal Bernson from the chairmanship of the council’s planning panel and from the Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency that is considering secession. Acevedo denied having had a role in that decision.

Still, the symbiotic relationship between Acevedo and Padilla has unsettled Phyllis Hines of the Lake View Terrace Improvement Assn.

“He helped get all of them elected, and now they are paying him back,” Hines said.

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Hines’ group recently tried but failed to block a city-financed Neighborhood Endowment proposal to build 56 units of affordable housing in Lake View Terrace after Padilla’s office intervened with city engineers to relax costly requirements for grading and a sidewalk.

Padilla denied showing Acevedo favoritism.

“If anything, he jumps through extra hoops, because we know there will be extra scrutiny,” the councilman said.

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Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this story.


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