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Richard Alarcón's human touch

: Councilman Richard Alarcón is not afraid to mix it up with his peers--nor to confess how much he liked the mayoral style of Tom Bradley. He sees housing as a civil right and, while mastering City demographics as well as any Councilmember, puts a human face on his constituency.

It's one of Richard Alarcón's busiest days of the new term in Council. He's up and down in his chair immediately to the right of the president's rostrum; he doesn't have the votes to block the issuing of a controversial City contract that affects an Animal Services site in his district, Council District 7, the district that wraps around the City of San Fernando like a badly-shaped donut. He's also watched a painful bus bench contract dispute unfold all morning--a dispute that puts his daughter, Board of Public Works president Andrea Alarcón, front and center in the debate.

Despite the tension of the proceedings, when Alarcón finally finds a moment to talk to us, he is happy, cajoling, even glad-handling--"Hey, can we take this room--Joe's here," he tells an aide to Councilman Paul Krekorian, inadvertently busting in on the Councilman, looking for a spot for his communications director Becca Doten, Debbie Cortez Lopez and I to sit.

Finally, we find an unremarkable room right behind the Council chair--and there are no tables in it.

"I see your career as two-pronged," I begin. "There's a longtime civil rights legacy, and then there's a lot of work in housing..."

"Really?" he asks. "How so, the housing?"

I remind him of his efforts on behalf of mortgage defaulters, his association with Habitat for Humanity...

"Oh. No, it's all one in the same," he says. "The civil rights issues go hand in hand with the housing issues."

"Councilmember," Becca interjects. Within two minutes of sitting down with us, the Councilman has to go again. The long discussion on the Animal Services structure and the Best Friends contract is drawing to a close. The next day, the story of Council's actions and Alarcón's opposition to the awarding of the contract will be the above-the-fold banner story of the Valley's top voice, the Daily News.

Alarcón proceeds to make two fiery speeches on the Council floor. In one vote, he goes down 8-4. In another, it's 11-1. His constituents and the group in Chamber who opposed the contract award generally feel satisfied that he represented the district's interests as best he could. Council takes steps to redeem the bid process.

Now he comes to us, to sit with us in Chamber. Now we sit in the front pew.

"Is there--the Mayor brought in a lot of people from out of town," I begin. "I wonder if this isn't a way to control key department heads? Our last Animal Services person was also from out of town, and yet we have so much talent right here in LA..."

"Well, we need to keep an eye to talent across the country," Alarcón says. "Of course there's talent here. But I'm confident in this appointment. She's done well, it's just that this contract seemed to slip through without due diligence."

"Would better access to the Mayor's office help?"

It's a presumptuous question, but Alarcón doesn't back away from it. And this is what you take away from a visit with Councilmember Alarcon most of all: while he's anxious to listen, he won't shy away from his opinion on how things should be.

The Councilman tells us that he believes that Tom Bradley set a high standard as Mayor, especially with regards to access.

"He's the model," he says. "Nobody's come close since."

I recall that Alarcón also was the lone vote opposing Jan Perry's nomination as Vice President of Council the first day of the new term. Was there something going on that wasn't evident?

"I thought that people who are declared candidates for Mayor shouldn't be in that position on Council," Alarcón says. "It was mainly an administrative concern--we'd have to fill the position if she was obliged to vacate."

Back to housing. The CRA has had a few dragged-out episodes in his district. I bring up a couple of sites that seem like lost opportunities, but he dismisses them.

"I think I set the pace for single family residency," Alarcón reminds me. "My district is something like 58% single family dwellings."

After Alarcón rattles off a few such telling statistics, I ask him where he acquired his special interest in demography.

"Oh, I don't know," he shrugs. "I had a class at Cal State Northridge, Human Geography. It was a favorite." He names the professor.

"Councilmember," Becca says again, as Council prepares for yet another debate, and yet another vote.

Alarcón gives the impression that this kind of thinking--translating demographics into human terms--comes to him by rote; it's simply second nature to him. And it puts him on the small end of quite a few votes. But he's rising again to try his luck with another issue--on a very busy August afternoon, a busy afternoon for all.