As departing Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina was being honored last week for her 23 years in the office, she paused to reminisce about her rocky beginning.
"Everything seemed like a battle in those early years," she told gathered family, friends and county workers at her final Tuesday board meeting at the Hall of Administration downtown. But over the years, she said, she and her colleagues learned to work together for their 10 million constituents.
"It's been a challenge, but it's been a great, great opportunity. And I'm so proud of the work we've done together."
That might understandably have been taken as a political epilogue from a 66-year-old official forced out the door by term limits.
But Molina isn't slipping quietly into retirement. She hopes to add at least one more chapter to her political career by unseating a younger, better-funded incumbent on the Los Angeles City Council. Her challenge of Councilman Jose Huizar in the district covering downtown and Northeast L.A. will be the toughest race Molina has faced in many years — but not unfamiliar terrain for a political trailblazer.
In 1982, she ran for the state Assembly against another candidate who had the blessing of a cadre of Latino politicians with whom Molina had previously been allied. She won, becoming the first Latina elected to the Legislature.
"From that point on, she kind of relished taking on the machine, the old boys' network, as she would call them," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.
Molina went on to become the first Latina elected to the Los Angeles City Council and later to the county board, where a Latino-majority district was created in response to a successful voting rights lawsuit. That campaign in 1991 was another bruising contest against her former boss and political mentor, state Sen. Art Torres.
"There's this expectation that you're going to do what people want you to do, and I just resist that," Molina, whose last day in office was Sunday, said in an interview. "It's part of my nature, and I don't know why.
"My parents wanted me to grow up and be a very traditional Latina, you know, go out and work for a couple of years, marry someone, have tons of children. I just never have been exactly what everyone wants me to be."
Lou Moret, a prominent Eastside political operative who befriended Molina in the 1970s — and had a years-long falling out after he failed to endorse her Assembly run — said her willingness to pick risky fights was a hallmark. One early example was her crusade as a state lawmaker to stop a prison from being built in East Los Angeles. Almost every other leader assumed the prison was a done deal, Moret recalled.
She won that battle. But Moret said Molina never cared if she was on the losing side of a vote. "Doesn't even faze her."
At the county, she was stymied in an early, bitter fight over the size of L.A. County-USC Medical Center. The hospital had to be rebuilt after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and Molina wanted a 750-bed facility. But her board colleagues, wary about costs, approved only 600 beds, prompting Molina to publicly accuse the three white supervisors of racism. County officials now are considering expanding the hospital to add the extra 150 beds to relieve chronic overcrowding.
Molina proved to be more fiscally conservative and more hawkish on public safety issues than many initially expected.
"I think we both surprised one another in developing a cordial relationship and a productive relationship," said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the most conservative county board member.
She could also be unusually hands-on for an elected official representing a district of 2 million people. After getting complaints about dead grass at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, her staffers recalled, she went out to the site and started turning on sprinklers.
County staff also recalled that before the new County-USC hospital was built, she went door to door asking people to sell their houses so officials could avoid condemning properties.
As part of a crusade to get children out of homelessness in the mid-2000s, she drove through skid row looking for families with children. When she found them, she would call the county's Department of Children and Family Services, seeking to get the families connected with services — and also, in some cases, to have the children removed.
"You might disagree with her style, her method, her priorities, but you can't accuse her of not caring," said Edgar Cisneros, who oversaw Molina's East Los Angeles field office.
Huizar's campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, said the councilman and Molina have very similar levels of name recognition and favorable impressions based on early polling for the March election.
But Molina's long county board record leaves her with more to defend, he said. During her tenure, the county has had high-profile scandals involving abuses in the county jails and breakdowns in the protection of children in the foster care system..
"People are aware of the failures of the county," Skelton said.
Molina's style could be off-putting. She developed a reputation for publicly shaming county government staff she believed had fallen short.
Behind closed doors, her ire could be even harsher. Assistant county Chief Executive Officer Jim Adams recalled a couple of closed-door meetings where the verbal lashing was so severe he "crawled out of there."
"I never questioned her motives," he said. "They were always pure and with the best of intentions, but her delivery at times is kind of frightening."
Former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who worked for Molina when she first took the county seat, voiced a sentiment echoed by many others: "Believe me, if I'm ever in a fight, I want Gloria on my side."
Gloria Chavez, a longtime community activist in the East Los Angeles community of City Terrace, said Molina is a strong woman, although "not always the most likable."
But Molina brought new services to the area, including light rail and the new East Los Angeles Civic Center, Chavez said. "We don't want someone who's going to come and hug us. We want a leader who represents us."
Molina acknowledged her reputation for being "very rough in how I hold people accountable." Her intent, she said, is always to improve the way the county provides services and remind staff and colleagues "how it's affecting people" when they make missteps.
Some community groups found her autocratic. She backed a crackdown on taco trucks in unincorporated county areas and banned a pair of East Los Angeles youth football leagues from playing in county parks after adults associated with the two leagues got in a fight that ended in a fatal stabbing.
One of her biggest clashes with constituents came when she voted against allowing 126,000 residents of unincorporated East L.A. to decide whether to form a new city. Molina said cityhood wasn't economically viable and cited improvements made in the area by the county, including the East L.A. Civic Center.
"Big golly gee, you got a building — you still don't have representation," said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who backed the cityhood effort. "I admire her as an individual. I admire her independence … but I do not admire stepping on constituents and denying them rights under the law, including having the people themselves decide their own electoral outcome."
Romero also criticized Molina's decision to run for office again. "People need to know when to walk away," she said.
Molina said she was prepared to leave public life and turn to volunteering, educational activities and creative pursuits. She was planning a cruise in May with members of her quilting group. But she said L.A. residents and supporters — including her 27-year-old daughter — appealed to her to run for the council because of unhappiness with the level of city services in the district.
"I know all of the issues — 'She's old, she doesn't want to give these things up,'" Molina said. "But the point is, I'm not done yet. I get up every day and look forward to what I'm doing."
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.