Richard Alarcon faces tough campaign in bid for Assembly seat

For nearly two decades, winning political office has come easily for veteran San Fernando Valley lawmaker Richard Alarcon. Until now.

As the termed-out Los Angeles City Councilman attempts a return to the state Assembly, he finds himself in an unexpectedly tough fight.

Alarcon, 58, trailed his opponent, political unknown Raul Bocanegra, by nearly 10 percentage points in the June primary, with 2,500 votes separating them. Yet, as the campaign rolls into the final weeks before the November ballot, Alarcon has made headlines as he tries to fend off felony charges of perjury and voter fraud.

Seeking a new seat while being prosecuted “obviously does not bode well,” Alarcon acknowledged.

His campaign is wagering that many of his supporters didn’t show up in a primary where 16% of eligible voters cast ballots. With the higher turnout that comes with a presidential election, he thinks he can pull off a win. “I’m hopeful the voters will view me as innocent until proven guilty and judge me based on my record,” he said.

Hoping to burnish a damaged reputation, Alarcon in recent months has rolled out several initiatives popular with voters in his northeastern San Fernando Valley district. He’s tapped community redevelopment funds to pay for $1 million in sidewalk repairs and he is pushing improvements for equestrian trails.

He’s backing a city lawsuit against banking giant Wells Fargo that alleges discriminatory lending practices.

His biggest splash, though, came with a proposal to provide dual-use library cards for illegal immigrants that would serve as debit cards as well as a form of identification. That move brought praise from anti-poverty advocates who say it would save illegal immigrants from being scammed but criticism from opponents who say it would encourage more illegal border crossings.

Whether those moves will help him close the gap Nov. 6 is questioned by Bocanegra, 41, Alarcon’s challenger and chief of staff to the district’s current officeholder, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes. Bocanegra, who also teaches at Cal State Northridge, called Alarcon a “career politician” who has paid little attention to his constituents until recent months.

“Now, finally, he’s paying attention to the neighborhood?” Bocanegra asked. “It’s too little, too late and it’s time for change.”

Alarcon, first elected to the City Council in 1993, is a familiar name to voters in the Assembly’s 39th District, which includes the communities of San Fernando, Pacoima, Mission Hills and Sunland-Tujunga. But his primary finish suggests that might not help this time, said Stuart Waldman, executive director of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn.

“When you have an elected official that the electorate has known for close to 20 years and … the electorate votes against that person, that sends a message,” he said.

Both candidates grew up in the northeast San Fernando Valley and served as political aides before running for office. Both are also Democrats, facing each other in the general election as a result of the state’s new top-two primary system. Bocanegra is running for office for the first time. Not so for Alarcon, who served as a state senator and, briefly, an Assembly member, before giving up that seat to return to the City Council representing the 7th District.

Since January, Alarcon has received $216,000 in contributions, has spent $323,000 on his campaign and said he expects to raise a total of $500,000 by election day. Much of the giving has come from organized labor, including public employee groups that have come under fire for rising pension costs. He’s unapologetic about unions’ support.

“My opponent is taking contributions from banking, insurance, payday lenders, alcohol, tobacco money,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Bocanegra will stand up to those institutions that have given him hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Bocanegra has raised $290,000 from a wide range of businesses and industry groups, including the banking, insurance and healthcare sectors. He has spent $570,000. Trained as a public planner, Bocanegra said he’s had to work hard to raise his profile because he’s not as well known as Alarcon and “campaigns are very expensive.”

“I have to talk to folks every day to raise money so I am able to communicate,” he said, adding that he is using lawn signs, mailers and coffee klatches and even walking door-to-door to meet voters. An independent group supporting Bocanegra’s candidacy has sent out more than a dozen attack mailers painting Alarcon as a liar and out-of-touch career politician.

Adding to Alarcon’s campaign woes was an incident in which one of his staffers was charged last month with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter after striking and killing a transient while driving a city car in North Hollywood. But the councilman’s own preliminary hearing continued to make headlines this month.

In 2010, a grand jury indicted Alarcon and his wife, Flora Montes de Oca Alarcon, on 24 charges alleging that they lied about where they were living so that he could run for his council seat.

The charges were thrown out by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge this year but were refiled by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s Public Integrity Division. Alarcon is in the midst of a hearing before Judge M. L. Villar de Longoria to decide if there’s enough evidence to set the case for trial.

“I wish the legal issues were resolved and behind me,” Alarcon said. “But we are absolutely confident we will win.”