In a Burbank union hall, Democratic activists recently gathered on folding chairs to dole out coveted county party endorsements for the June election. In some races, candidates and their supporters worked the room for advantage. But in one of the most important local contests, to fill an open seat on the county Board of Supervisors, there was no candidate present, no need to woo the party faithful. Only one prominent, longtime Democrat was in line for the nod.
"Of course, we're recommending unanimously Hilda Solis," endorsement committee co-Chairwoman Diana Plotkin told the crowd, prompting whoops of agreement and an acclamation vote of approval.
The endorsement was a foregone matter, but also a homage to a groundbreaking Latina's rise from the political backwaters of the San Gabriel Valley to the upper echelon of Washington power. A daughter of working-class immigrants, Solis was the first Latina elected to the California state Senate and, as President Obama's first secretary of Labor, the first Latina to serve in the Cabinet.
To many L.A. Democrats and labor leaders, she's a role model, her stature reinforced by the East Los Angeles public school that bears her name.
The shadow of a federal inquiry into fundraising activities Solis allegedly took part in while in the Obama administration has hung over her campaign. New details of the probe were reported by The Times earlier this month, showing investigators had focused on allegations that she had solicited subordinates in the Labor Department to contribute to the president's reelection campaign or help stage a fundraiser. A spokesman said Solis believes she has done nothing wrong.
Barring criminal charges, several political experts said, she appears headed for an easy victory over two lesser-known opponents with a fraction of her campaign cash. Jaime Regalado, former head of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., says he expects a "slam-dunk" win for Solis.
"When you have a big name like Hilda — she has a lot of allies; she's built up a lot of goodwill," he said, adding that for her opponents, "It would be an uphill battle raising money, even for someone with a name."
Part of Solis' pitch in the lopsidedly Democratic and Latino 1st District, stretching from downtown to Pomona, is her back story.
Solis' parents, both factory workers, raised seven children in unincorporated La Puente. Her father worked at a battery recycling plant, where he was a Teamsters union shop steward. As a teenager, Solis recalled in an interview at her El Monte campaign headquarters, she helped translate workers' grievances over unpaid wages and a lack of safety equipment from Spanish to English.
Her father taught her "how important it was to have clean communities and justice for working-class communities, blue-collar communities," Solis said.
She took those lessons with her in a political career that began with a seat on a local community college board and proceeded on to the state Legislature and Congress.
At public events, she often recounts the story of a high school counselor who told her she was aiming too high by planning to go to college. The punch line is that he urged her to become a secretary, and she did — running the U.S. Department of Labor.
Solis, 56, resigned her Cabinet post early last year and announced her bid to replace Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is retiring due to term limits. With an early start to her campaign, Solis largely cleared the field. She'd raised $764,993 as of this month — more than seven times the amount raised by her best-known opponent — and has the endorsement of powerful labor and business groups, as well as local elected officials. Her supporters include Molina, who said she recruited Solis to run for the seat.
The other contenders are El Monte Councilman Juventino "J" Gomez — a former aide to county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich — and school police Officer April Saucedo Hood.
In contrast to the county district to the west, where eight supervisorial candidates are vying to succeed Zev Yaroslavsky and more than 20 candidate forums have been scheduled, Solis and her opponents have yet to face off in a debate. Gomez and Saucedo Hood made their pitches at an event at a senior citizens' home in Claremont last month, and criticized Solis for not attending, saying she regarded the election as a "coronation."
Solis said she had previously agreed to speak at a sheriff's candidates forum in Boyle Heights. She says she's willing to participate in debates — one is scheduled for the end of this month, just a few days before the election — and isn't taking victory for granted. Pointing to volunteers making phone calls and preparing materials for precinct walks at her campaign office on a recent morning, she said, "I have to earn this. I have to earn every vote, and I will work hard to do that."
If elected, Solis would replace Molina, a trailblazer who began as a community activist and went on to
serve in the state Legislature and on the Los Angeles City Council before becoming the first Latina to serve on the county board 23 years ago.
Solis often cites Molina as a role model and says she hopes to "continue in the spirit" of the current supervisor. Molina, known for her blunt and sometimes confrontational style, "has been a strong advocate in many, many ways," Solis said. "My style is very different," she added, declining to elaborate.
Solis is likely to be more collaborative, some observers suggest, as well as a more reliable vote for organized labor. Molina is a Democrat, but has often sided with the county board's two Republicans on labor relations and fiscal issues.
At a campaign kickoff event last month, Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents hundreds of thousands of public- and private-sector workers, described Solis as a "warrior for working people." The labor federation took the unusual step last year of endorsing Solis long before the deadline for candidates to join the race.
Solis says she will be able to say no to unions at the bargaining table, and notes she also has the support of business groups, such as the Central City Assn., that sometimes tangle with unions on economic and public policy issues.
Her priorities on the county board, she says, would include increasing investments in job training and placement, including brokering agreements between schools and businesses to tailor preparation programs to employers' needs.
She says she would focus on providing resources needed to implement reforms recommended by experts for the county's child welfare and jail systems. And she says she will be a "strong voice" advocating for the San Gabriel Valley, where residents sometimes feel ignored by the county bureaucracy, particularly on issues such as transportation funding and emergency medical care.
The federal inquiry involving Solis traces back to 2012, when she was Labor secretary. The Times reported this month that the Office of Special Counsel investigated allegations that she had solicited employees of the Labor Department to contribute to or help organize a Los Angeles fundraiser for the president. Cabinet members are prohibited from engaging in certain campaign activities.
The Office of Special Counsel closed its investigation when Solis stepped down from the Cabinet in January 2013. But by that time the agency had referred the matter to the Department of Justice for possible criminal investigation.
Earlier, The Times reported that sources said the FBI had interviewed state Sen. Kevin de León last spring about a phone call he received from Solis asking him to support the fundraiser. And a friend of Solis' who attended the event, Rebecca Zapanta, said she was questioned before a grand jury in Washington last June about her phone conversations with Solis.
Officials have declined to discuss the status of the FBI investigation, or even whether it remains active. Solis told The Times she didn't "have any clear idea of where things are right now" and that the inquiry did not play a role in her decision to leave the Cabinet. She declined to comment further. Her campaign consultant said Solis believes her participation in the fundraiser "was proper and does not believe that she has done anything illegal or improper."
Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who studies Los Angeles politics, said that without a strong challenger able to pick up and run with questions surrounding the inquiry, Solis may "just sit back and ride it out."
"It's a cloud over the Solis campaign," he said. "The question is, is it a thundercloud or is it just a cumulus?"