The Chosen One

How the labor-Latino political machine decides who serves in Sacramento

By Gene Maddaus

published: June 03, 2010

Nobody outside of professional politics knows his name. But to the hundred young staffers crammed sweatily into downtown's J Lounge, he is already a superstar. Chants erupt — "Ri-car-do! Ri-car-do! Ri-car-do!" — as Assemblyman Kevin de León introduces the next assemblyman from the 50th District.

"This man has toiled in the field," de León says, referring not to an actual field but to a legislative field office. "All of us are ambitious. But at times, you've got to cut your teeth, and you've got to pay your dues. This man has paid his dues."

Ricardo Lara steps forward from the throng of supporters. At 35, with soft features that make him look even younger, Lara has been anointed leader of the next generation of the state's Latino politicians. He gives de León a hug, smoothly takes the microphone and thanks the crowd.

In many ways, this moment during the state Democratic Convention in April is a throwback to an earlier time in California politics, when bosses like legendary power broker Artie Samish and Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh controlled who was in and who was out, and used that leverage to run the state. Term limits tossed out the last old bulls two decades ago, along with their ability to handpick candidates who owed them fealty.

In Los Angeles, however, the death of the old party machines merely opened the door for a new one — an alliance of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and the city's Latino leaders that now routinely decides who will represent voters in elective offices across the region. The federation's get-out-the-vote machine is almost unbeatable in low-turnout primaries, which is where most competitive races are now decided.

"It's the closest thing you have to an omnipotent political machine anywhere in the state," says Dan Walters, a Sacramento Bee columnist and a longtime expert on California politics.

At the controls are Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and labor-federation leader Maria Elena Durazo.

"She has the big finger," Walters says. "She points, you win."

In this case, the big finger pointed at Lara, a fresh face born to Mexican immigrants in Boyle Heights. Lara studied at San Diego State, where he became the first in his family to get a college degree and was elected student-body president. From there, it was a short hop to a staff job in Sacramento.

He spent the following years slogging through campaign after campaign on behalf of other candidates, shining the reputations of the state's top lawmakers but never seeking public office himself.

Instead, he waited his turn.

When it came, he was parachuted into the 50th Assembly District, based in the postindustrial barrio of South Gate. He lacks roots there, but he is the favorite to win next Tuesday's Democratic primary against two better-known local candidates. And in the heavily Democratic district, winning the primary is an automatic pass to the Legislature.

If he is elected, Lara's allegiance will be to the labor-Latino alliance that nurtured his career, just as surely as it would have been to Assembly Speaker Unruh a half-century ago. To see how this alliance operates and how the secret bargains it makes shape the future of state government, one needs only to examine Lara's candidacy.

Lara arrived in South Gate by a circuitous path that ran through Getty House, the mayor's official residence in Windsor Square.

When then–Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez was about to be termed out of the 46th District in 2008, he looked for a successor and settled on Lara, his then-33-year-old district director.

In an interview with the Weekly, Lara recalls a conversation with Núñez. "He told me, 'You've put in your time. You know the issues.' He gave me the confidence to do this."

But there was a problem. Villaraigosa also had a handpicked candidate for the seat — his cousin.

John Pérez, then 38, had been regarded as a political prodigy since he was a teenager. For a decade, he had been the political director at UFCW Local 324, helping others run for office and waiting for a turn to run on his own.

In Pérez's view, 2008 was his turn.

Complicating the situation further, Eastside Sen. Gil Cedillo had a staff member who wanted the seat. Arturo Chavez, Cedillo's district director, had close ties to Villaraigosa as well. The mayor is his son's godfather.

The situation had the potential to destroy relationships. "It would have been very ugly," Chavez says.

The key to the race was the federation's endorsement. Núñez was a former Fed political director, but he was on the outs with Durazo over tribal gaming compacts that lacked an important labor objective, a "card check" provision that makes it easier for unions to organize workers. Núñez's split with Durazo put Lara at a disadvantage.

According to a friend of Lara's who asked not to be identified by the Weekly, the three candidates were invited to sit down for a secret meeting at Getty House. Initially, Lara wasn't sure whether to go. He didn't expect it to be a friendly visit.

At the meeting, Villaraigosa offered a deal. They would all support Pérez. In exchange, Lara would run two years later in the 50th Assembly District, with the Fed's backing.

Lara knew what that meant. The Fed had been the most powerful force in Los Angeles politics for a decade. If Lara went against the Fed and lost, he might never get its support in the future, and that could mean the end of his political career.

Lara declines to discuss with the Weekly any details of the Getty House bargain, but he confirms that the meeting occurred and that he said, "I'm willing to wait."

In quick succession, he and Chavez dropped out of the race. Pérez launched his campaign the following month with a clear field.

"He's paid his dues," Villaraigosa said publicly of Pérez at the time, meaning that he had put in his time on behalf of the labor-Latino alliance. "He's ready. And he's gonna go to Sacramento and be an important voice for working men and women."

For the mayor, the maneuver was a familiar one. Villaraigosa has used his powers to clear the field for other favored candidates, including one shortly after his first election. After City Councilman Martin Ludlow resigned from the post to take control of the Fed, Villaraigosa cleared the field for Herb Wesson to win Ludlow's seat by offering a potential challenger a job as a special adviser.

He had something for Lara as well: a spot on the city Planning Commission.

As for the Fed, it has done a superb job of building a prolabor power base in Sacramento. The Fed has helped elect three Assembly speakers in a row, including the current one: mayoral cousin Pérez. It has been so successful in some parts of L.A. that in endorsement interviews the federation's executive board has to choose between several equally prolabor candidates. A prolabor candidate who fails to win the Fed's backing may drop out and wait for some other race.

For the voters, that means that Democrats generally come in only one flavor: prolabor. Elsewhere in the state, voters might be offered a choice between a labor candidate, a probusiness candidate and an environmental candidate.

In L.A., the choice is often already made for you, if there is a choice at all.

To be sure, the labor-Latino machine's power can be overstated. It does not have a perfect record of wins. With elections going on all the time, it has to choose which races to target. Its influence also decreases the farther you get from East L.A.

In the 53rd District, which covers the South Bay, the Fed is backing Deputy City Attorney Nick Karno. But the race is wide open, and Karno is not considered the favorite.

Opponents of Lara hope that South Gate will prove similarly resistant.

Chief among those opponents is Hector De La Torre, the termed-out assemblyman in his final months representing the 50th District. A self-described "cheap progressive," the lanky De La Torre is running for insurance commissioner. Though first elected with the Fed's backing, he has shown an independent streak.

In 2008, he was feuding with Núñez. De La Torre had criticized the speaker for handing out "golden handshakes" to senior Assembly staffers. De La Torre ran to succeed Núñez as speaker, lost and was punished by having a committee chairmanship stripped.

So it is not surprising that De La Torre was left out of that meeting at Getty House. From his early and outspoken opposition to Lara's campaign in the 50th, it appears he wasn't happy about having his seat reassigned behind closed doors. He also resents having a candidate plopped into his district from Boyle Heights.

"We're not part of East L.A.," De La Torre says. "We're not a colony of any other jurisdiction. We are a group of independent cities and a couple unincorporated areas. It's a community that has unique issues that need to be addressed by people from that district."

Those unique issues have roots in two radical changes that have swept the 50th District over the last 100 years. First, the area went from bean fields to working-class industrial suburb where poor whites toiled in a Firestone tire plant or on a General Motors assembly line.

The second change saw the population transform from nearly all-white to nearly all-Latino, a 40-year shift hastened by a ban on racial housing covenants, a policy of busing, the Watts riots, immigration reform and a series of plant closures in the early 1980s.

The Firestone plant is now a learning annex. New immigrants study English in the old factory offices. The city has a museum, where you can see the first tire to come off the production line in 1927, and the last one, from 1980. But it is seldom visited. It seems to belong to another town, one that no longer exists.

That discontinuity is a central fact of the area's political life. Voter turnout in the 50th District is among the lowest in the state. No civic groups have offered to host a debate. Before De La Torre, the last assemblyman who actually came from South Gate was Floyd Wakefield, an antibusing Republican who served in the 1960s.

"It's just a seat that people walk into and try to purchase," says Ricardo Monroy, the campaign manager for Lara's top opponent, Luis Marquez.

Anybody who wants to run for office in South Gate would be well advised to visit Henry Gonzalez, who worked for years at the city's General Motors assembly plant, rising in the ranks of the United Auto Workers. In 1982, Gonzalez was the first Latino elected to the South Gate City Council.

In the early 1990s, he discovered a young man named Albert Robles, who had just moved into town and wanted to run for office. Gonzalez introduced him at Rotary meetings, and helped him get elected. As Robles moved to take control of the city, he and Gonzalez had a falling out.

Robles directed city business to favorable contractors, and kept power with the help of anonymous smears. One night, as Gonzalez was coming home from a council meeting, he was ambushed and shot in the back of the head. He survived.

"They say all Mexican-Americans are hardheaded," Gonzalez says.

The businesses of Robles' opponents were firebombed. Robles threatened to take De La Torre's predecessor, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, to Tijuana and have him shot in the head. Firebaugh had to have extra security when he visited the district.

South Gate endured several years of Robles' corrupt and thuggish rule until the citizenry rose up and recalled him in 2003. That moment was like a refounding of the city, as the immigrant community asserted itself for the first time. Robles is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for his deeds.

Gonzalez, who still serves on the council, says that about four years ago, he was paid a visit from another young man interested in running for South Gate City Council: Lara.

At the time, Lara's goal was to establish himself on the local level before running for the Assembly.

"I said you ought to stay in your own district and run there," Gonzalez says. "He's a carpetbagger. Everything that man's doing reminds me of Albert."

Lara decided not to move to the district. But he did know the area, having cut his teeth working for Firebaugh, first as his communications director, then as chief of staff. Lara managed Firebaugh's 2006 campaign for state Senate, which ended when Firebaugh died from complications of a liver ailment.

In Lara's campaign office, on Tweedy Boulevard, a sign reads, "Marco Firebaugh, 50th DIST," and a photo shows Lara outside Firebaugh High School.

At Lara's campaign kickoff, Firebaugh's mother, Carmen Garcia, gives her blessing to Lara's campaign. "Marco is here with us," she says in Spanish. "Ricardo is the only person who can follow Marco."

Eastside L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar is there, too, and he gives a rousing pep talk to the assembled volunteers.

"¿Listos para caminar?" he asks. "¿Listos para llamar? ¿Listos para ganar?"

With bursts of applause, the crowd signaled they were ready to walk, call and win.

Assemblyman de León was there, too. An elder statesman at 43, he narrowly lost the speaker's job to Pérez last year. An old friend of Núñez's and a former California Teachers Association organizer, he is Lara's current boss. He promised that they will be working together in the Legislature, though he said that he would be on "el otro lado de la frontera" — the other side of the border, in the state Senate.

That's because, in the kind of nifty shell game that is a function of term limits and machine control, de León is running for Cedillo's Senate seat and the termed-out Cedillo is running for de León's Assembly seat.

Cedillo has no opponents, thus he has no reason to run a campaign.

If you play the game well enough, you can cut the voters out of the equation entirely.

Lara wasn't as lucky as Cedillo. The young pol has two opponents, both better known in the district than he is: Marquez, a Downey councilman, and South Gate City Clerk Carmen Avalos.

A former teacher, Avalos made her name in city politics by standing up to the nefarious Robles. For this she earned considerable praise and widespread name recognition. But last year, she lost her reelection bid for the Cerritos Community College board, and she has raised little money.

The funding she does have comes mostly from independent expenditures from EdVoice, a deep-pocketed advocacy group that supports charter schools and seeks to counter the influence of teachers' unions. The group has poured $165,000 into Avalos' campaign, in hopes of establishing itself in Sacramento with an upset win.

Marquez works in Sen. Alan Lowenthal's district office as a transportation deputy. He helped on the campaign to recall Robles, and managed De La Torre's Assembly campaign in 2004. He began rounding up endorsements from fellow council members a year ago, not long after winning the Downey council seat, and has put together a credible challenge to Lara's campaign.

While Marquez and Avalos were fighting each other, both agreed that in Lara they face a machine candidate and a carpetbagger.

"I take it as a slap in the face to our communities and our residents," Marquez says. "This guy moved in three months ago, and they think we're not sophisticated enough to notice."

In fact, Lara moved into the 50th District in April 2009, about a week after the L.A. Times reported he was raising money for the campaign while still serving on the L.A. Planning Commission. Since planning commissioners have to live in L.A., and no part of the city overlaps with the 50th, Lara had an obvious problem. He resigned from the commission and relocated to an apartment in Bell Gardens.

He had work to do. A poll commissioned early this spring by EdVoice showed Lara dead last, even trailing a Libertarian party-switcher. Lara's campaign disputed the results, but they seem plausible. Nobody had told the voters that he was the favorite.

Another round of bad press came in March, when EdVoice sued over Lara's ballot designation. He had listed himself as a "Consumer Affairs Commissioner," referring to a county commission that he served on but had not attended in more than a year. Lara, who is de León's spokesman, agreed to change it to "Communications Director."

Despite those hiccups, Lara still has many advantages. For fund-raising, he has Dan Weitzman, who raised money for Núñez.

"Ricardo's an amazing guy," Weitzman says. "He's the hardest-working candidate I've seen out there."

With Weitzman's help, Lara has amassed a war chest of over $400,000, compared with Marquez's $130,000. There is no ideological coherence to Lara's contributors. As the anointed favorite in the race, he draws support from everybody — unions and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, Indian tribes and card clubs, drugmakers and attorneys and insurance companies. Southern California Edison hosted a fund-raiser for him at a Lakers game.

About the only interest group that withheld its support was the environmental lobby, which backed Marquez. So Lara took money from energy companies and then paid to be on the Californians Vote Green slate mailer.

When asked for an introduction to supporters at the state Democratic Convention, Lara did not go looking for some councilman or a local party activist. Instead, he walked over to the hotel bar and found Dustin Corcoran, the CEO of the California Medical Association, which contributed $7,800 to his campaign last fall.

Corcoran's shaved head and expensive suit suggest a man who would be happier on Wall Street than in Sacramento. In an interview with the Weekly, Corcoran praised Lara's readiness for office.

"Ricardo represents a generational shift for Sacramento," Corcoran says. "He's a fresh face with a fresh vision."

The J Lounge party that greeted Lara with chants of "Ri-car-do!" is held on the convention's first night. It is a celebration of the party's rising stars. Three other guests join Lara on the bill: Henry Perea, 32, an Assembly candidate in Fresno; Roger Hernández, 34, running for a seat in the San Gabriel Valley; and Michael Rubio, 32, running for the state Senate in Kern County. All are heavily favored to win.

The drinks are on the law firm of Sheppard Mullin. De León introduces an assemblyman from Norwalk: "Here's a young man who happens to be my landlord — I won't say he's a slumlord. No, I'm kidding with you! In a couple years he's gonna run for state Senate a little south of here: Tony 'El Tigre' Mendoza!"

While Hernández is being interviewed about his platform, his cousin grips a reporter's shoulder and drunkenly declares, "I support Roger, he's my cousin, what he says is true," several times before stumbling onto a young woman who is trying to pass by.

Everyone in the room seems to have known Lara for years.

"He'll clearly win," says Long Beach Councilman Robert Garcia, who has known Lara since their student-government days.

Garcia, who is openly gay, is backed by Honor PAC, a committee that advocates for LGBT Latinos. Lara, also openly gay, is a founding member of Honor PAC, and if elected would be the second openly gay Latino lawmaker in the Assembly, after Pérez.

Lara is at the convention to seek the party's endorsement. He and the other candidates speak briefly in a small conference room before the delegates submit their ballots. It is a draw. Though Lara wins the most votes, he doesn't clear the 60 percent threshold needed to win the endorsement.

In a low-turnout race, the party endorsement isn't as important as the one from the Fed. And Lara won that one in a unanimous vote.

At the Fed's endorsement interview, Marquez said he was asked only two questions — "Isn't Downey fairly anti-union?" and "How much money have you raised?" — before he was thanked for his time and shown the door.

"I'm as good for organized labor — or better — than Ricardo," Marquez says. "I'm a pro–working family candidate."

Gonzalez, who is backing Avalos, says she wasn't given the chance for an interview. He says he confronted Durazo and accused her of fixing the endorsement for Lara.

"Maria Elena told me, 'No, I didn't cut no deal,'" Gonzalez says. "Well, you lied to me. You're telling me I'm a damn fool."

Gonzalez is just as angry at Villaraigosa, whom he sees as meddling in a race that should be none of his business.

"It's a good old boys' club," he says. "They do nothing but play musical chairs. He's gonna get a surprise in South Gate."

A few weeks after the convention, Lara sits for an interview at Tierra Mia Coffee, a slice of Silver Lake on Firestone Boulevard in South Gate. He says one of his proudest moments in politics was getting the Fed's endorsement.

The only time he ever saw Firebaugh nervous was at his Fed endorsement interview in 2006, Lara says. "To him, the labor fed was the most important endorsement. He said, 'Win or lose, I want to have the labor fed behind me. ... He said this is going to make us or break us."

Lara learned some other lessons from that campaign as well. Firebaugh was getting sicker, and would cough in endorsement interviews. Opponents were whispering about his ability to serve. Part of Lara's job was to downplay the issue.

"Politics is ruthless," Lara says. "We did a great job of hiding what was going on."

There came a point where it couldn't be concealed any more. In March, Lara was called to Firebaugh's bedside at UCLA Medical Center to say his goodbye. His last responsibility in the campaign was to announce that his boss had died.

"The toughest thing to do was to go home and write the damn press release."

Lara is charismatic, but not in a fiery way. Instead, he absorbs the energy of his audience and reflects it back. He listens. He asks questions. He's easy to like.

Walking precincts in Downey on a recent Saturday morning, Lara makes a pitch that blends his uplifting biography with concern for the top issue of the day: jobs.

"My name is Ricardo Lara," he says, at house after house. "I'm the first in my family to graduate from college, and I want to give kids the same opportunity. I also want to bring jobs back into the community. I would love to have your support on June 8."

He approaches the exercise with the efficiency of an old hand. He has been walking precincts in just about every election since college.

A lot of people aren't home. Lara leaves his campaign literature — it features his picture in front of an Obama "Hope" logo — with a personalized message. Those who are home don't seem to know there was an election coming.

Back in his Ford pickup, Lara has MGMT in the CD player. On the drive back to South Gate, he mentions that he was about to finish a master's degree at USC in executive leadership. The courses taught him that people generally don't listen to you unless you appeal to their core values and use storytelling. He has been trying to apply that lesson to politics.

One of his instructors was Kevin Starr, the California historian.

"He was talking about the future of the state," Lara says. "He said Mexican-Americans are about to inherit a broken state."

A few days later, Marquez walks precincts in a quiet neighborhood in Bellflower. He wears a shirt with the Downey city seal on it. His delivery is a little clumsier — without Lara's polish.

"The reason why I'm running is to make government work for us," he tells voters. "I'm about true local representation. It's about having someone that's from here representing us."

Marquez is not an ideal homegrown candidate. He moved to the district from L.A. in 2002. Still, he took offense that Lara could swoop in and presume to understand this community and its issues.

"He has to buy the election," Marquez tells one voter. "He's going to sensationalize who he is. I'm just coming out and meeting you and I'm just going to let my record speak for itself."

Part of the problem in taking on Lara is that local elected officials couldn't decide whether to back Avalos or Marquez. There was talk that one of them should drop out. Avalos' supporters say that Marquez is just using the Downey council seat as a stepping stone to higher office, while Marquez's supporters argue that Avalos can't raise money and is out of her league.

Avalos says Marquez has offered to drop out if he can run her campaign and be her chief of staff, provided she wins.

"I've never been one to be controlled," Avalos says. "I'm very proud of the fact I owe nobody anything."

The man with the clout to settle it is De La Torre, but he is close to both candidates and for most of the race he has refused to take sides. Then, three weeks before the election, he threw his support behind Marquez, who he says has shown greater viability.

The endorsement is a big lift for Marquez's campaign, and it has prompted another fence-sitter to come onboard: Tony "El Tigre" Mendoza.

More volunteers have shown up to walk precincts. The battle lines are now more clearly drawn: Villaraigosa and the Fed backing Lara on one side, and on the other a collection of local and state elected officials backing Marquez in a fight against encroachment from L.A.

"The city of Los Angeles is all-powerful, and what the mayor wants up there, he has enough influence to get," says South Gate City Councilman Bill De Witt. "By getting the 50th Assembly District in his pocket ... it gives the city of L.A. more power at our expense."

The proof that Lara is taking this seriously came a couple of weeks ago, when his campaign unleashed a mailer that attacked both Avalos and Marquez. As such pieces often are, it was a cynical manipulation of voters' own cynicism. It accuses Avalos of missing meetings of the Cerritos Community College board, and slams Marquez for taking money from Downey city contractors.

Lara is just as guilty, if not more so, of both charges. He has missed a year of meetings at the Consumer Affairs Commission and has taken money from all kinds of vested interests all over the state.

But this is politics, and it's ruthless.

Things might have been different if he had gotten a clear field, like Cedillo or Pérez. But the deal didn't work out that way. Too many people were outside the tent. Now it's just a straight-up battle, my guys versus your guys, and may the best one win.