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Molina makes surprise decision to challenge L.A. Councilman Huizar

Molina makes surprise decision to challenge L.A. Councilman Huizar
Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina announced that she will challenge City Councilman Jose Huizar in next year's election, dramatically rearranging a contest that looked like an easy one for the incumbent. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Friday that she will run against City Councilman Jose Huizar in next year's election, dramatically rearranging a contest that looked like an easy one for the incumbent.

After serving more than two decades as a supervisor and with less than three months before she is termed out, Molina said she isn't ready to end her work as a public servant. The 66-year-old said she is concerned about the level of city services being provided in parts of Huizar's district, which stretches from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, and voiced alarm over the lack of female politicians at City Hall.

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"I am concerned that there is only one woman on the [15-member] City Council," said Molina, who served on the council from 1987 to 1991. "When I left, that wasn't the case at all."

Molina, who spent nearly three decades living in Mount Washington, said she moved into Huizar's district — a requirement for candidates seeking the seat — a few weeks ago. She has separated from her husband, business consultant Ron Martinez, and purchased a three-bedroom home in El Sereno. She also has hired political consultant Fred Register, who handled her first campaign for the state Assembly in 1982.

Huizar, a councilman for the last nine years, is expected to be a formidable candidate. Last month, he reported that he had raised more than $648,000 and drawn support from business and union leaders. Unlike some incumbents at City Hall, he is used to reelection challenges.

In 2007, he defeated one of his former aides, Alvin Parra. Four years later, he beat back a challenge from businessman Rudy Martinez, a former friend turned fierce critic.

Molina has not yet filed the paperwork needed to raise money for a campaign. She also has not experienced a competitive race since 1991. Nevertheless, her candidacy "automatically makes the race more competitive, there's no question about that," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

"Jose is very close to [Council President Herb] Wesson, so it will be a battle royal if it plays out," Regalado said, adding: "My goodness, this kind of floors me."

Molina has been a major political presence on the Eastside, representing a sprawling district that stretches from East L.A. to Claremont on the county border. During a lunchtime interview in El Sereno, Molina said she was concerned about the financial health of the city. She also argued that parts of Huizar's district, particularly Boyle Heights, have not received enough attention from city officials.

That difference can be seen, she said, when driving from the East L.A. section of her supervisorial district into the Boyle Heights portion of Huizar's. "Certainly quality-of-life issues aren't his issues," she said. "He's very much a downtown guy and very special-interest-oriented."

Huizar spokesman Rick Coca responded with a statement from the councilman touting his work in the district, which includes El Sereno, Monterey Hills, part of Highland Park and most of downtown.

"From revitalizing Broadway and helping create thousands of jobs downtown, to building new parks, to championing groundbreaking pedestrian-, bike- and business-friendly policies that are the model for the entire city, the service to Council District 14 constituents has never been higher, and I look forward to continuing to serve as their council member for the next four years," Huizar said.

Hours after Molina announced her campaign plans, she picked up the endorsement of county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the board's most politically conservative member. "As one who has worked with her for a number of years, there have been times we have agreed and other times we have disagreed," he said in a statement. "I have always found her to be an honorable person."

The upcoming campaign comes as Huizar, and the city's lawyers, have been fending off a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Francine Godoy, his former aide. Godoy said Huizar punished her for refusing to provide sexual favors. Huizar acknowledged he had an extramarital affair with Godoy but called her harassment claims false and malicious. Trial is set for November.

Molina said any payment by the city to settle that case would probably become an issue in the race. She would not address the matter further. "I'm not running on his scandal stuff, which would be easier. That's his issue and he's going to have to deal with it," she said.

Three other people have also disclosed plans to run for Huizar's seat: social worker Nadine Diaz, who lives in Boyle Heights; Alex San Martin, an advocate for the disabled who lives downtown; and Mario Chavez, a community organizer who lives in Boyle Heights. So far, none of them has raised a significant amount for a campaign, according to city records.

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Molina was the first Latina elected to the state Assembly, joining the Legislature in 1982. Five years later, she became the first Latina to join the City Council. She has spent the last 23 years on the Board of Supervisors, serving as the first Latina on that panel as well.

The Times asked Molina earlier this year if she was interested in running for Huizar's council seat, and she said no. At that time, Molina talked about her interest in civic activities, volunteer work and the quilt-making group she is involved in. Over the summer, one of her staffers, school board member Monica Garcia, recommended she run for school board next year.

Molina said she looked into it and decided it wasn't the right fit. She decided instead to run for Huizar's seat, saying she is more interested in improving neighborhood services.

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