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Column: May Jose Huizar’s fall be the end of the ‘Eastside politico’

Jose Huizar speaking at a microphone as people stand behind him
Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar, speaking at a press conference with housing advocates at Los Angeles City Hall in 2018.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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When news broke this week that former Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar was going to plead guilty to federal racketeering charges for his role in a corruption scandal that rocked Los Angeles politics, I immediately thought of “American Me.”

No, not the overwrought Edward James Olmos movie about the origins of the Mexican Mafia — I’m talking about the long-forgotten book published in 1948 about Mexican American life in and around the Eastside. Author Beatrice Griffith, a social worker in barrios like Happy Valley, Belvedere and Maravilla, penned the best-seller to document the travesty of what she saw: a community of good people cheated out of the good life by racism and charlatans.

It’s a powerful, beautifully written exposé of what Mexican Americans faced during the World War II era, alternating between short stories and street-level dispatches to address issues — police brutality, housing inequality, underfunded schools, drugs — that afflicted the Eastside then and sadly persist today.

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She rightfully pointed a finger at white supremacy as the culprit behind so many of the problems. But equally as villainous in her mind was one of L.A.’s quintessential archetypes: the Eastside politico.

In the fictionalized chapter, one José Villa smokes a pricey cigar and spits out bromides like “Un pueblo unido es un pueblo fuerte” (A united people is a strong people) while shaking down a shopkeeper who needed help freeing a wrongfully jailed son.

In the nonfiction essay, Griffith deemed Villa’s real-life counterparts “sell-out artists” who work “both sides of the tracks to their advantage” and thrive “on the fears, ignorance, poverty and political isolation of their people.

“Such an individual,” Griffith concluded, “quickly hops on the bandwagon and beats his chest about the plight of ‘my people,’ when it is to his advantage to do so.”

That describes many of the most prominent Eastside leaders in the 75 years since Griffith published “American Me.”

State Sen. Richard Polanco has used his savvy and his steely resolve to push the group’s political clout beyond the Eastside, taking it statewide. But his agenda draws critics as well as allies.

That’s Huizar. That’s Huizar’s successor, Councilmember Kevin de León. That’s De León’s former council colleague Gil Cedillo. That’s Cedillo’s Roosevelt High classmate, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. That’s Villaraigosa’s former political advisor Richard Alatorre and his friend Richard Polanco. And their friend, Art Torres.

Huizar, who pleaded guilty on Friday, and Alatorre, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to federal tax evasion for not reporting money he received from people trying to influence him when he was on the City Council, are the only ones to have faced criminal charges.

But they and others of their ilk are philosophical compadres. Almost to a man — and they’ve almost all been men — the Eastside politico has played an outsize, toxic role in L.A. Latino life.

For the record:

9:35 a.m. Jan. 21, 2023An earlier version of this column stated that Jose Huizar was the only one of several L.A. Eastside politicos to have faced criminal charges. In 2001, former L.A. councilmember Richard Alatorre pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion for failing to report about $42,000 he received from individuals trying to gain his influence while he was an elected official and sat on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

These native sons boast of rags-to-riches stories in front of media cameras and before audiences while amassing power that lets them enjoy bespoke suits, fancy dinners, campaign donations and other luxuries.

They cycle in and out of positions in City Hall and Sacramento — elected official, lobbyist, consultant, commissioner — that let them stay in the political game for life. They dangle opportunities — volunteer, canvasser, campaign manager, staffer — to idealistic upstarts, padding the youngsters’ resumes and sucking the reformist out of them.

Richard Alatorre
Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre, right, congratulates newly named Police Chief Bernard C. Parks in 1997.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Each cries a righteous cant of representation and selflessness that he trots out at public appearances and whenever people whisper that he’s lost contact with his roots. When one of their own does something wrong, Eastside politicos make excuses and justifications or stay silent. Anyone who opposes them gets slimed as a traitor and outsider. Their continued scandals and rival cliques have made generations of Latino voters cynical about democracy itself, which allows the Eastside politico to survive, thrive and replicate.

It’s not just Latino politicians who embody these traits, of course. But Eastside politicos always cast themselves as above the fray, as the way forward for a city that’s now majority Latino. So what have they brought to their constituents all these decades since Griffith so caustically called them out in “American Me”?

Neighborhoods that face the same issues of disinvestment and political ignorance she portrayed — but the oppressors now are Latinos, not whites.

No one embodied the rot of the Eastside politico more than Huizar — and no one better personifies why this political stock character must finally die.

Here is a look at former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar and the City Hall corruption case against him.

Huizar wielded a biography straight out of “The Great Gatsby”: a son of working-class parents who grew up in Boyle Heights, overachieved his way into prestigious colleges and became the first Mexican immigrant elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He was as comfortable at high-end parties in downtown Los Angeles as he was at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello for the annual banquets of the Federación de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California — hometown associations from Huizar’s native Zacatecas, the state where my parents were born and where hundreds of thousands of Angelenos have roots.

He used this background to shield himself from critics who claimed he was allowing downtown L.A. and Boyle Heights to gentrify, and to fight back against federal prosecutors who maintained that he took millions of dollars in bribes to let all this development happen. When the proverbial jig was finally up, he wrapped himself up in Catholic iconography like any smart Eastside politico would.

His travails loomed over the infamous L.A. City Council racist audio leak. Those on the recording — fellow Eastside politicos De León and Cedillo, politica-in-spirit and then-council president Nury Martinez and then-L.A. County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera — rationalized their peer’s illegal actions and patted themselves on the back for doing so.

“I never criticized Jose Huizar,” De León said, to which Martinez quickly replied, “That’s smart,” before adding, “What’s to say que Jose also didn’t have debt at his kids’ school, and trying to figure out how to pay for college[?]”

With Huizar’s guilty plea, their defense of him seems stupider than ever — and shows again that the one thing Eastside politicos defend above all else is their own.

Kevin de León
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, center, at the grand opening of campaign headquarters for his failed 2022 mayoral run.
(Gary Coronado /Los Angeles Times)

The progressive political winds now blowing across Los Angeles give hope that Huizar and his kind are numbered. De León is a political pariah for refusing to resign in the wake of the racist tape leak. The two newest Latino council members, Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez, ran as anti-politicos and have so far rejected the trappings of their predecessors: Hernandez favors woven Oaxacan bags instead of the Louis Vuittons that Martinez flaunted, while Soto-Martinez seems to favor his well-worn jacket instead of snazzy suits like Huizar.

I hope they and other young Latino elected officials continue down this humbler path. However, the demise of the Eastside politico is something this paper has proclaimed before — and always gotten wrong.

It happened in 2009, when then-Times columnist Hector Tobar wrote that politicos “wouldn’t be able to unite the Latino Eastside behind” a Cedillo congressional run. Tobar was right — Cedillo lost. But Cedillo, then a state senator, won his old Assembly seat the following year, while De León took Cedillo’s state Senate seat.

In 2002, the late Frank del Olmo opined that the ugly Council District 14 race that year between Villaraigosa and then-incumbent Nick Pacheco “may have sounded the death knell for a worn-out Eastside political ‘machine.’”

That was nearly the same sentiment Del Olmo expressed in 1987, when Gloria Molina defied the Alatorre machine and won a council seat, leading the legendary columnist to hope that “internecine political battles like the one between Molina and [her opponent]” wouldn’t become “routine.”

Sadly, they did.

Former L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar pleads guilty to racketeering and tax evasion, admitting he extorted at least $1.5 million from developers.

Villa, the fictional Eastside politico from “American Me,” got no comeuppance. In his final scene, Griffith describes how he sits in his downtown office with a picture of himself “in a Mexican sombrero and charro costume shaking hands with the fat mayor who is all soft and smiling.”

Villa leans back in his chair, smiles after once again fleecing a Mexican merchant and repeats, “Mi pueblo me mantiene.” My people sustain me.

This is something the Villas and Huizars and De Leóns of the Eastside have said for far too long, with little pushback. Now, Huizar faces at least nine years in federal prison, and a recall campaign against De León is in the works.

May the pueblo be ready to shut up the Eastside politico once and for all.


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