Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Column: The People’s Daughter? May Imelda Padilla live up to a ranchera classic

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It’s one of the most beloved rancheras in Mexico, a ballad as simple as it is profound, as much of a boast as it is a warning.

El Hijo del Pueblo” — “The People’s Son” — by Vicente Fernández played over the speakers at Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral in Sun Valley as I enjoyed a carne asada dinner about an hour before Imelda Padilla’s election night party.

The 35-year-old hadn’t yet arrived — she was making last-minute calls to undecided voters in her bid to win the special election runoff for Council District 6. That’s the seat long held by Nury Martinez, whose career imploded last fall after the leak of a recording capturing her and others uttering racist remarks.

It’s my pride to have been born / In the humblest barrio,” begins “El Hijo del Pueblo.”

Away from the bustle / of a fake society.

The Padilla campaign never chose a theme song, but it might as well have been this.

The song, written by José Alfredo Jiménez, is a paean to those who stick with the working class and have no desire to join the powerful. A woman of the people is how Padilla, 35, cast herself against opponent Marisa Alcaraz.

Supporters cheer at an election watch party.

Supporters cheer for Los Angeles City Council District 6 special election candidate Imelda Padilla at her election night party.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t have the disgrace / of not being the people’s son.”

By the time Padilla showed up to Chiguacle to thunderous applause shortly after the polls closed, she was up by 13 percentage points. (Election officials are expected to release the next batch of results on Friday.)

“What a great start, right?” she said, sincerely gobsmacked by the adulation. “Thank you for coming. Let’s mingle!”

The race was expected to be close, because the candidates are so similar. They are Valley natives who left home only to attend a University of California school and returned to make Los Angeles better — Alcaraz as a staffer for Councilmember Curren Price, Padilla as a community organizer in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Both are Democrats who fall on the moderate side of the L.A. liberal spectrum. Both worked for council members who eventually fell into scandal — Alcaraz served as a deputy for Richard Alarcon, whose conviction for voter fraud was overturned by an appeals court in 2016, and Padilla was a deputy for Martinez.

Their only real difference was where they decided to focus their careers. Alcaraz chose City Hall, Padilla stuck with the neighborhoods of the Valley. Their contrasting knowledge of the district they sought to represent was obvious when I interviewed them on the same day in Plaza del Valle, the massive shopping center in Panorama City where each based her campaign office. The plainspoken Padilla told story after story about each tenant, each street, in equal parts English and Spanish. Alcaraz, a self-admitted policy wonk, was painfully unfamiliar with her surroundings.

The mood at Chiguacle Tuesday night was less victory party and more homecoming — a San Fernando Valley version of “This is Your Life.”

There were nonprofit leaders like Mayra Todd, who runs an organization that helps domestic abuse survivors. She bear-hugged Padilla while the two did a happy dance. “Imelda is the person that our community is waiting for,” said the Van Nuys resident. “We want to work with her to remind her of the promises she made. I don’t think she’ll be a fraud, because she’s lived our lives.”

Community activist Severiana Pablo Reyes has known Padilla for 19 years and recalled the time that she called 311 to complain about mosquito-infested puddles at Rosa Parks Learning Hills in North Hills. Padilla — then working for Martinez — showed up in 15 minutes. “She never says, ‘It can’t be done,’” the Panorama City resident said. “She always says, ‘Let’s see how it can be done.’”

Alex Reza, the legendary San Fernando High government teacher whose former students included U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, Martinez and other Valley Latino leaders, embraced Padilla as she inched her way across Chiguacle’s vast dining room and patio. She attended a different high school, but the two organized youth leadership conferences for Latino teenage boys for years.

“She knows what it is that ordinary, hardworking families go through,” he said. “Boy, Imelda has that ‘sí se puede’ spirit.”

Former opponents came to pay their respects. Rose Grigoryan finished fourth in the April primary, then sided with Padilla, especially after a pro-Alcaraz mailer sent to Armenian households used a photo of Grigoryan to imply an endorsement.

“Once I got to know Imelda personally, I didn’t just make the right choice, I made the beautiful choice,” she said. “The council is not a position for her; it’s a mission.”

Lalo Lopez originally supported third-place finisher Marco Santana but went with Padilla after the two met for lunch and she “won my heart.” The businessman not only organized a successful fundraiser, he used his connections to get the candidate on Don Cheto’s popular Spanish-language radio show the morning of the election.

“She’s the choice, bro,” Lopez said, before heading to the bar. “La campeona del pueblo.”

The people’s champion.

Imelda Padilla gets a hug at a crowded party.

Supporters greet Los Angeles City Council District 6 candidate Imelda Padilla as she arrives at her election night party at Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral in Sun Valley.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

How many millionaires / would like to live my life?

That lyric especially stuck with me as I saw the political class approach Padilla like lords jockeying to kiss the ring of the new queen.

Valley Congressmembers Brad Sherman and Tony Cárdenas. Councilmembers John Lee, Traci Park and Marqueece Harris-Dawson. L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath and State Treasurer Fiona Ma. There were young campaign strategists who seemed to all wear the same uniform of sport coat, jeans and fancy sneakers. And Enrique Vela and James Acevedo, godfathers of the Valley’s Latino political machine a generation ago. Acevedo wore a perfectly ironed, blindingly white guayabera that made him look like a Chicano Albert Schweitzer.

It wasn’t just people power that helped Padilla build an early, commanding lead. Campaign finance reports through June 21 showed she slightly outraised Alcaraz but trounced her in independent expenditures, $639,000 to $480,000. One mailer pasted a photo of Alcaraz next to a smiling Alarcon, an image taken from a column I wrote earlier this year. A door hanger featured a portrait of a smiling Padilla on one side, along with a picture of Price and Alcaraz surrounded by references to the recent felony charges brought against Price.

“I write my songs / so the people may sing them.”

The party atmosphere at Chiguacle was so vibing that most in the audience didn’t stop talking when a short program began around 9:30. They ignored Cárdenas and Sherman and didn’t react when Father Walter Paredes of Mary Immaculate Church in Pacoima recited the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, lingering on the line “Deliver us from evil” before offering Padilla a blessing.

The room still didn’t quiet much when a tired but grinning Padilla finally stood on a stage no bigger than a coffee table. She admitted to being “a little nervous and overwhelmed” but gained her composure when noting that the circumstances of the special election was “not something the community was excited about.”

Instead of offering a vision, she wanted to give thanks — to the pueblo. To the unions who bucked the powerful Los Angeles Federation of Labor after it endorsed Alcaraz. Her family. Her political team, which swarmed the small stage until Padilla nearly disappeared. Her pediatrician, who was in the audience and had cured Padilla’s childhood case of rickets.

Armenians. Salvadorans. Sikhs. A group of middle-aged Latinas who knocked on doors for hours every day and whom she pronounced “the most chingonas [badass women] in the world.”

“I think we can now enjoy the celebration!” Padilla concluded, as everyone roared.

Imelda Padilla receives a blessing from a priest.

Father Walter Paredes of Mary Immaculate Church in Pacoima blesses District 6 candidate Imelda Padilla at her election night party.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Before she returned to her well-wishers, I asked Padilla how she felt.

“Very tired but honored,” she replied, stopping to smile for someone’s selfie. She won’t have much time to rest. If she maintains her lead, she’ll take her seat as soon as the L.A. County Registrar of Voters certifies the election and the city council accepts the results. After that, she has to start campaigning again: the District 6 seat is up for a regular election next spring.

What did the adoring masses before her mean?

“It means I have a strong base to get the work done.”

Finally, how would she stay in this positive moment? How would she fight off the temptations that have snagged too many political newcomers like her, who campaigned on reform only to join the City Hall swamp?

She didn’t pause or flinch. “I just need to stay engaged with everyone who helped get me here.”

Padilla thanked me and disappeared into the crowd, pulled in every direction. I thought about the the final line from “El Hijo del Pueblo,” the one stanza that she should hang in her new office, a prediction of a future I hope she never meets:

“And the day those people fail me

That day, I’m going to cry.”

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