Power Play in East Valley

Los Angeles
July, 2002

Mulholland Drive has long acted as a real border in this city of invisible boundaries. Beyond it was The Valley, the domain of John Wayne (pre-lung cancer and pre-Orange County) and the Brady Bunch, of loyalty parades and a sea of shingle roofs. As Los Angeles became more ethnic and cosmopolitan, the Valley happily lagged behind as a mythologized enclave of white suburbia.

Anyone who still subscribes to the old image -- the Valley as bland suburb -- needs to get out more. "Few places in America over the past quarter century have undergone as profound a change in ethnic character...the result of immigrants from such diverse places as Mexico, El Salvador, Iran, Israel, Armenia, Vietnam, Korea, India, and China," Pepperdine's School of Public Policy reported this spring. "The Valley today is not only as diverse as the rest of Los Angeles, but in some ways more so. [It's become] the epicenter for much of ethnic Southern California."

This demographic tremor is profoundly reshaping the city's political profile. The Valley is more liberal than it used to be and regularly turns out about half the voters in local elections. The most dramatic trend, though, is coming out of the precincts east of the San Diego Freeway. The East Valley never truly fit the suburbia stereotype -- its landmark communities of San Fernando and Pacoima were settled after the Civil War, not World War II -- and the area now qualifies as the rising center of Latino political power in Los Angeles.

A new generation of homegrown Latino leaders call the East Valley home. State senator Richard Alarcón grew up in Sun Valley, near the El Silencio barrio, where his father settled in 1924. State assemblyman Tony Cardenas and city council president Alex Padilla played on the same rough Pacoima streets. Padilla's parents and those of Cindy Montañez, the 28-year-old mayor of the independent city of San Fernando, came to the Valley from Mexico to join the American middle class.

The social shift behind the East Valley's emergence is easy to see. Suburbs that were the core of the backyard and ranch-style culture of the postwar years -- North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Panorama City -- long ago became majority Hispanic. Padilla's seventh council district is the city's most overwhelmingly Latino partition. As the Valley's population grows, East Los Angeles and other traditional Latino strongholds are waning. "It's clear there is an influx into the East Valley," says Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein.

He calls the critical mass forming there comparable in significance to the migration of African Americans from Central Avenue to the Crenshaw district in the 1950s and '60s. That geographic swing put blacks alongside liberal Westside Jews and led to the merger of interests that resulted in Tom Bradley's election in 1973 as the city's first African American, and longest-serving, mayor. If secession does not render the discussion moot, the first Latino mayor in more than a century could come from the Valley (although city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, an Eastsider, may have something to say about that).

Population trends, while important, don't tell the entire East Valley story. One also must credit a 50-year-old ex-Brown Beret who some call -- not altogether fondly -- the Godfather of Valley politics.


Hunched over a bowl of oatmeal with raisins in a booth at Jerry's Famous Deli in Encino, James Acevedo doesn't come across as the godfather of anything. He's burly and mustachioed, and his style is blunt, yet his conversation glides easily between his newly renovated home south of Ventura Boulevard, his kids' parochial school in Santa Clarita, and his mission to secure power for Latinos.

For certain, Acevedo has been the cultivator who plants the seeds of power and nurtures them to ripeness. That's a metaphor he prefers to Godfather, which he claims is offensive. As a film studies graduate of Cal State Los Angeles, he admits to admiration for the Corleone family stories as object lessons in the practice of power but nothing more.

Past friends and allies disagree, saying that he savors being regarded as a ruthless and intimidating kingmaker. Will he settle for being called a tough competitor and a master at exciting voters to get up and turn out? "What matters is who wins," he shrugs.

That the Valley became his turf was a fluke. He grew up in East Los Angeles and cut his political teeth as a teenager in the Chicano movement. After high school he turned away from politics, taking a second degree in communications at USC and working as a hospital administrator. In his early thirties he got back in the game through a fellowship at the Coro Foundation, an unofficial Democratic training ground.

Out of the Coro stint came a job as district deputy for Richard Katz, who was the assemblyman for the East Valley. Doing fieldwork for Katz in places like Pacoima and Sylmar, Acevedo realized that the Latino families congregating there presented an opportunity to begin what he now calls his life's work. "My agenda is to get Latinos elected -- nothing more clandestine than that," he says. Despite having roots in street activism, he came to accept that the ballot was the way to power. "We couldn't stay on the fringes. We had to get into mainstream politics."

His first target was the Los Angeles City Council seat from the seventh district. The incumbent at the time, Ernani Bernardi, was from the line of white Valley politicians who remain in office, often for decades, by keeping the home folks happy but who never quite amass serious clout in city hall. (Joel Wachs, who served the adjacent second district for 31 years and recently retired to New York, is exhibit A.) Acevedo joined forces with Bernardi for the veteran's final campaign in 1989, looking ahead four years to position a Latino for the next race.

Acevedo teamed with Richard Alarcón, an electoral novice who was a young deputy to Mayor Bradley. Acevedo saw in him an articulate ex-schoolteacher who had held his own replacing Bradley's popular longtime Valley deputy, Dodo Meyer, and who would not seem threatening to white voters yet to elect a Latino to anything. Community activists needed to be convinced that Alarcón had the chops to take on Lyle Hall, a city firefighter with many city hall friends, but Acevedo was persuasive: "I thought Richard would be the best first candidate to be accepted in the Valley."

The race was close. White voters still held the majority, and in Van Nuys and environs there were pockets of resentment toward immigrants that would later spur passage of Proposition 187, the measure to deny public services to illegals. With Acevedo guiding the operation, the campaign registered 6,000 new Latino voters, and the Valley gained its first Hispanic-surnamed council member by 29 votes.

After his protégé joined the council, Acevedo received a desirable post on the Board of Zoning Appeals. He successfully ran realtor Tony Cardenas for the assembly seat that Katz vacated because of term limits. And he helped elect candidates to the council in heavily Hispanic San Fernando, the symbolic heart of the Latino East Valley. His new friends on the council there paid Acevedo $25,000 to be the city's lobbyist in Sacramento.

To win power for Latinos meant, inevitably, going to war with other Democrats. In 1998 Acevedo orchestrated a bare-knuckle, friendship-busting primary election brawl that earned Alarcón a seat in the state senate. The scarred opponent was Richard Katz, his old mentor, but Acevedo was unapologetic. Politics is a rough game, he says. "It' s not for the squeamish." Acevedo's reputation spread.


Emerging immigrant communities such as the East Valley "need people like James Acevedo to coordinate and centralize the power that is there," says Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount. "They play a very crucial role at the beginning." Acevedo, however, wasn't satisfied with election triumphs.

He served as president of a community nonprofit, Neighborhood Empowerment and Economic Development (cofounded with Cardenas and others), that received city funds but was criticized for being slow to repair apartment buildings damaged in the 1994 Northridge quake. He also took heat for his involvement in real estate deals that came before the council in San Fernando. As Acevedo grew more controversial, rifts opened.

The first sign of revolt came when Alarcón, newly installed in the senate, endorsed his then wife to replace him on the Los Angeles City Council. Acevedo pushed instead a 25-year-old Cardenas staffer who had pitched on the San Fernando High School baseball team. The youngster, Alex Padilla, was a Coro alum like his campaign mentor. Tall and attractive, he also had a compelling personal story. The son of hardworking Mexican immigrants (father a cook at Du-par's, mother a housekeeper), Padilla was a Pacoima rarity: an MIT-trained engineer.

He won and ascended rapidly to president of the council. His adviser's clout grew as well. Acevedo served on the fire commission during the Riordan administration, was hired to help candidates around the state, and floated Cardenas, by now chair of the assembly's budget committee, as a candidate for secretary of state. For the first time, Acevedo and friends were the target of whispers that they constituted an East Valley political machine with grand ambitions.

In last year's mayoral clash, the machine signed on with James Hahn over the first serious Latino contender for mayor in a century, Antonio Villaraigosa. They argued that Hahn would do more for the East Valley, but there was a history of clashes between Villaraigosa loyalists and Acevedo's men. Cynical minds suggested it was a play for greater sway in city hall.

Sure enough, after Hahn won he appointed Acevedo to the Board of Harbor Commissioners, and not for any proven expertise in port operations. A post on the harbor commission is one of any mayor's plum political rewards because of the many lucrative contracts it approves and the international trade trips its members take.

Back in the East Valley, the decision to side with Hahn exposed a widening chasm. Alarcón had supported Villaraigosa, who won more votes than Hahn in the Pacoima area. Then in this spring's elections, the rival East Valley camps went head-to-head. In the second council district, Acevedo and Padilla pulled out all the stops, hoping to elect Cardenas and add to their bloc in city hall. They also ran a young Cardenas staffer, Yolanda Fuentes, for the assembly seat he was giving up. Both candidates lost.

The assembly-seat primary went to Cindy Montañez, who received the endorsement of Democrats and newspapers all over the city -- and praise for standing up to Acevedo, her onetime strategist. She will likely be a rising Latino star when she wins the November general. Studio executive Wendy Greuel won the second-district seat by 225 votes, with backing from Montañez and Alarcón. At Greuel's election-night party in North Hollywood, a majority of the incumbent council members came to celebrate, some of them grousing that Padilla and Acevedo had tried to throw too much weight around.


What all this means is that, with Cardenas losing his assembly seat at the end of the year, Padilla will be the lone Acevedo ally still in office (and his council presidency is tenuous). That has prompted talk, possibly premature, of a political obituary for the so-called Godfather. Alarcón suggests that Acevedo's time has passed. "In some ways James Acevedo has been instrumental in helping empower Latinos," Alarcón says. But, he adds, "I believe there was a certain kind of arrogance that developed as a result of that success. And that arrogance does not serve him well today."

If the backlash is real, no one should be too surprised, says Guerra of Loyola Marymount. As communities mature, factions form, and the first seed planter often gets passed by. "It is the story of American politics," Guerra says. "It means the community itself has become that much more powerful." In this case, the immediate beneficiary of Acevedo's losses would seem to be Alarcón.

He represents more Valley territory than any other Latino right now, and this familiarity gives him standing to be considered the best chance of turning into the first strong mayoral hopeful from the far side of Mulholland since Sam Yorty, who presided in city hall from 1961 to '73. "The San Fernando Valley is coming of age," Alarcón says. "People recognize that the future leadership of the San Fernando Valley is going to be Hispanic."

To which city the Valley will belong after November, though, is an open question. With secession probably on the ballot then, Alarcón is the first elected officeholder to cover his bets by offering to run for mayor of the new city, even while he professes no position on the breakup. It's a risky stance, given the potential to both confuse and anger voters and campaign contributors.

Acevedo, for one, isn't impressed. "Richard's dream was to build a political machine. I told him that's not what it was all about," he says of his former ally. He acknowledges that phase one of his job in the East Valley is over. He plans to devote more time to his business interests -- he's a developer, too -- but stay active in politics. "I would like to take Councilman Padilla to the U.S. Senate, and take some of these other guys to the U.S. Congress." His ultimate goal: "I would like to see a Latino be president of the United States before I meet my maker."

©Kevin Roderick 2002

Not for publication without permission