Real Issues--What a Concept

MAILANDER ON POLITICS - I asked the wizened City staffer about the race in Assembly District 39 in which Sacramento insider Raul Bocanegra is facing off against longstanding Angeleno pol Richard Alarcon.  He fumbled his cell and cleared his throat.  Then he offered a little ironic laugh.  And then he put it this way.

"With Richard and Raul, you're going to have a lot of slime going every which way, and it will all cancel out in the mail.  So that's even.  Then, you've got two Democrats running.

So there's nothing to choose between the two of them there either.  And finally, you've got two Latinos--nope, no race cards to play at all.  So with all this kind of cancelling all these factors out ..."

I finished the thought: "After all that, we might ironically see an Assembly race decided on ... real issues!"

"Exactly!" the wizened staffer exclaimed.  "What a concept!"

What a concept.  Six months ago, Raul Bocanegra thought he had a clear path to represent the North Valley in Assembly District 39, one of the State's hardest working blue-collar districts, a district composed of nearly equal measures of homeowners and renters, Latinos and Anglos, and quite a few African Americans too.  Alarcon's legacy as a civil rights advocate looms large in the district, but so do its recent troubles: its foreclosures and fragile local economics.

A Sacramento insider, Bocanegra, who hasn't distanced himself from big banks the way Alarcon has, easily fetched the backing of some key big-money unions and one key developer too: Mark Handel, whose back he had had many occasions to scratch while serving as Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes.

"My opponent thinks this race is for sale," a resurgent Councilmember Alarcon told me last Wednesday.

What Bocanegra didn't calculate is Alarcon's new-found popularity in the communities given to him in LA's recent redistricting round. Many who had never been represented by him before this year, and who had even expressed skepticism about him, are now spearheading his considerable boots-on-the-ground volunteer movement.

"Many parts of the district haven't seen this kind of hands-on representation before," the wizened staffer said.

When Councilmember Alarcon became the representative of Sunland-Tujunga after redistricting earlier this year, the initially skeptical, largely Anglo community was soon won over.  Alarcon sent volunteers and even staffers door to door to learn the community and to listen to the voices of the new constituents.  He actually knew how the city of Los Angeles worked.  It was such a dramatic change in style from downtown-driven Paul Krekorian that many of Alarcon's volunteers now come from the community he has represented only recently.

"Krekorian's was, like, 'Let's run this up the flagpole and see what happens," the wizened City staffer told me.  "That's not Alarcon.  Alarcon knows how everything in the city works.  That impressed people here, right away."

"And they're turning out for him," a volunteer at Alarcon's headquarters adds.

The slime element of the campaign will flood mailboxes soon enough.  With IBEW, teacher, and other union money behind him Bocanegra is trying to pass himself off in ads as a local college prof, even though he has no PhD and his media relations team has a 916 (area code Sacramento) phone number.  His campaign director, direct mail specialist Josh Pulliam, figures to hit Alarcon constantly on the issue Republican DA Steve Cooley has been trying to hit him on for two years now: living outside of his council district.  Ironically, the Council district has redrawn these lines twice during Alarcon's political career.

But Bocanegra has had some street hassles of his own.  While working for former Councilmember Alex Padilla, he was accused of being offered a sweetheart deal on a condo in a multiplex development on Osborne Place, and seemed to be moved to the front of 250 applicants to get in a position to grab it.  

"While completing a research project, it came to our attention that a former City employee, Raul Bocanegra, appears to have used his position as a public employee for personal gain – a personal gain that he is continuing to benefit from, given that it concerns the home that he purchased in 2005," the letter to the  City of Los Angeles Ethics commission from Antonio Sanchez began.

"This home purchase occurred while Mr. Bocanegra was working as a planning and housing deputy for then-Councilmember Alex Padilla. The condo that Mr. Bocanegra bought was part of a housing development that was built during Councilmember Padilla’s tenure with assistance of the Council office and Mr. Bocanegra. As the planning and housing deputy, he represented the office during meetings and in negotiations with developers and City staff."

Beyond the ethics complaint from when he worked for the city, Bocanegra has been linked to the team that tried to enable the redevelopment of the Verdugo Hills Golf Course without environmental review, a very controversial project in Sunland-Tujunga.  

Alarcon's long-ago re-purposing of the old General Motors plant continues to resonate in Panorama City and beyond, but the controversy around a quashed truck driving academy in Lopez Canyon may remind the newly-swooning locals that his land-use track record is not spotless either.

Land use and environmental issues figure to weigh more heavily than they typically do on the minds of voters in this race, especially in the kind of Latino-dominated district where machine politics often rule the day in LA.  Because of the presidential election turnout figures to be huge and voters motivated by many different factors, including name-recognition.

"We have a vast natural open space habitat in this Assembly district," the wizened staffer told me in the end, pointing to the fact that Krekorian won his own recent race by appearing to be more interested in keeping the North Valley green than opponent Chris Essel did.  "We don't have to make it that way, we only have to preserve it."  

After all the negativity, the candidate who seems most interested to do that may indeed find himself with an edge on Election Day.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at


Vol 10 Issue 78
Pub: Sept 28, 2012