Just days into the job, well-connected newbie Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is in the power circle.
Before he had a chance to prop up his feet on his new desk, Lara, the new Assemblyman for the notoriously troubled city of Bell and surrounding areas, was appointed by Assembly Speaker John Perez to the Committee on Higher Education and the chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
Perez is at the center of Lara’s circle, a close friend and long-time political connection. Perez isn’t the only one, however.
Perez and Lara go way back. When Lara and Perez were poised to compete for the same Los Angeles district in the 2008 election, Lara backed down after a talk with Perez and his cousin, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“We had a conversation,” Lara recalled. “(It was) John or the Speaker, and I chose to step down and support him because I thought he would be the better fit for that community,” Lara said.
Lara had been working as the 46th District Director for then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Nunez hand-picked Lara to run for the 46th District. But when Lara eventually stepped down, there was a spot waiting for him on the powerful Los Angeles Planning Committee.
Villaraigosa made the appointment shortly after Lara stepped away from the 46th District race.
Now, Lara and Perez have a great working relationship, Lara says. “John – the speaker – and I have always been good friends. I’m very honored to serve under him.”
Lara built his career by serving under a number of past political power players as a long-time staffer and campaign aide. Those connections now are paying off.
It started at San Diego State, where he became the first in his family to graduate from college and was elected student body president at the sprawling campus.
Shortly thereafter, a young Lara worked as chief of staff to Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, D-South Gate, where Lara was exposed to what he describes as the seething culture of corruption in South Gate and neighboring cities.
“When we were in South Gate things had been sweltering for some time and we were aware. Unfortunately, these issues are not new to the district,” said Lara.
“That’s why my first priority is to try to bring more transparency to Bell and bring confidence back to the constituency,” said Lara.
Bell made headlines this fall when city officials were exposed for raking in bloated six-figure salaries in the working-class city of industrial barrios.
“We need to make the necessary structural changes so that regardless of who gets in these local governments, folks can’t do what they did in Bell,” said Lara.
His first plan of action is to target voter awareness, said Lara.
“I want to use my office to spread awareness of voter rights. And that hasn’t been done before,” said Lara.
After working for Firebaugh, Lara went on to be the district director for then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Nunez drew criticism when he reportedly spent more than $800,000 of his campaign funds on personal expenses. Flames were fanned when he later defended his actions and accused his accusers of racial profiling.
“I think that was bad judgment on his (Nunez’) part, but I don’t know the details of that to make that assumption,” said Lara.
Before running for office, Lara, a journalism major, worked as communications director for Assemblyman Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, who has now gone on to the Senate.
Lara, like Speaker Perez and Lara’s past bosses and political teachers, is proud of his Latino family. His parents, Venustiano and Dolores Lara, both moved to California from Mexico independently. His father worked as a bracero in the fields while his mother painted houses. They met in Los Angeles, where his mother had worked her way up to become a seamstress. Now, she is retired and Lara’s father is a supervisor in a plastic factory. They put all five of their children through college.
“I’m very proud of them,” said Lara.
Lara said his family was very traditional but accepting of him and his brother, both openly gay men.
“My parents first and foremost love and respect all of their children and, you know, I was always different and my mom says she is the luckiest mom in the world,” said Lara.
At a young age, Lara feared his political aspirations could be jeopardized because of his sexual orientation.
“But I understand the need to just be honest about who you are. At the end of the day, people care about if you are an effective leader,” said Lara.
Lara also worked passionately on President Obama’s wide-sweeping “Yes We Can” presidential campaign.
“I was very inspired by that campaign,” said Lara.
Lara’s own campaign website poses an image of President Obama in the background of Lara’s own image, who is humbly looking down on the Obama campaign emblem on his t-shirt. In faded Americana lettering the words, “The American Dream,” decorate the website borders.
Lara laughed when asked if he plans on following in the president’s footsteps.
“No. I’m just focused right now,” said Lara.
Aside from his priorities in Bell, Lara talked about wanting to halt tuition increases in the CSU and UC systems. And while the hot-topic issues in Bell and higher education are multi-faceted and complex, Lara said he plans to use his appointments on the Committee on Higher Education and the Joint Legislative Audit Committee as crucial leverage for the battles ahead.
And just as the phone rang, Lara excused himself.
“Excuse me, the speaker calls,” he said.Indeed, he does.