Latino Politicians Wave the White Flag

Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.

Los Angeles' large Latino community has been in a state of political upheaval for some time, but in the past week it saw two fierce feuds settled with remarkable cooperation.

The more publicized settlement was the one that calmed the internal dispute that threatened to tear apart the nation's premier Latino civils-rights group, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Los Angeles-based organization's board of directors voted to retain Antonia Hernandez as executive director, reversing the executive committee's decision last month to fire her and hire former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya. After a tense, day-long meeting, Hernandez and her chief critic, board chairman Eric Serna, appeared together at a press conference to demonstrate that their public bickering was over.

The more intriguing settlement was ironed out with little fanfare, when the city's top Latino politicians agreed to end a long-standing series of feuds and rally behind a single candidate for the 56th Assembly District in East Los Angeles, which was represented by Gloria Molina until her election to the City Council last month.

In both instances, the community leaders and activists involved said that the decisions marked the beginning of a new era of peace and cooperation among local Latinos. Pardon me if I don't share that upbeat assessment. Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased with the outcome of both controversies. It's just that I can see many factors that could unbalance both agreements in the future.

There is bound to be lingering distrust and resentment between Hernandez and the 14 members of the MALDEF board who wanted her out (18 voted to keep her in the job).

The political truce could be even harder to maintain, because there will always be new elections and no shortage of ambitious candidates affiliated with the two big political cliques on the Eastside--the one focused around State Sen. Art Torres and City Councilman Richard Alatorre, and the other built around Molina and Rep. Edward R. Roybal.

Once Molina was elected to the council by defeating Larry Gonzalez, who was supported by Alatorre and Torres, it was widely assumed that she would pick a close associate to run for the Assembly vacancy. It was also assumed that Alatorre and Torres would promote a candidate of their own, and the favorite was Gonzalez, who had given up his school board seat to run against Molina. That would have been the fourth time in as many years that the two Eastside factions had faced off.

But it won't happen, because a compromise candidate suddenly emerged when Roybal's eldest daughter decided to run for Molina's job. Lucille Roybal is acceptable to Molina, who wants a Latina to replace her in Sacramento. And Roybal is acceptable to Alatorre and Torres because, while she has been active on the Eastside, she is not strongly identified with the Molina faction.

In short, nobody has negative feelings about Lucille Roybal, which could not be said about Gonzalez or any of Molina's aides who might have run.

Clearly, Gonzalez is the odd man out, but he's putting up a brave front, telling people that he bowed out of the Assembly race to promote unity. He has, to his credit. But the real test of political unity will occur when Gonzalez runs for another political position on the Eastside, as he almost surely will, and looks for Molina to back him. I'll be convinced that Molina has gotten over the bitterness of her council campaign against Gonzalez when she is willing to endorse him. And only that will convince me that the city's Latino political leaders have found common ground.

Still, no one should underestimate the importance of the agreement to jointly back Roybal. It almost guarantees her election, and will also temporarily end the wasteful campaign spending that has irritated many of the Latino community's business people and professionals.

Above all, it has provided a hopeful, constructive counterpoint to the bitter feuding in MALDEF. For all the criticism that they've had in the past from Latino professionals, the politicos did settle their differences more quickly, quietly and amicably than the prominent attorneys, educators and business people on the MALDEF board. In fact, before the pivotal board meeting that saved Hernandez's job, one person who was busy nudging both sides toward compromise was Richard Alatorre.

Good for him. And good for Molina and the rest of the politicos. They may yet convince me that the professionals who are so quick to criticize have under-estimated them. I'm already convinced that the professionals over-estimated themselves.

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