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The Chosen One

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

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.

Long-shot local: Downey Councilman Luis Marquez
Long-shot local: Downey Councilman Luis Marquez

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"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.

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