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Racing to Be Century’s 1st Latino Supervisor

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The list of interested Latino politicians grew with each passing week: Sarah Flores, Gloria Molina, Art Torres, Charles Calderon.

And small wonder so many were attracted. Whoever wins the prize will become the first Latino in this century to sit on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, one of five members who wield extraordinary political power.

The seat up for grabs is in the brand new 1st District drawn up at the order of U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon. He ruled June 4 that the Board of Supervisors intentionally discriminated against the county’s Latinos when drawing district boundaries in 1981.

Last month Kenyon ordered a Jan. 22 special election, sending potential candidates scurrying to organize last-minute campaigns, line up endorsements and raise money. The most visible candidates for the officially nonpartisan seat were the so-called “Big Four”:

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* Flores, 52, formally announced her candidacy at a press conference outside the Board of Supervisors’ hearing room in downtown Los Angeles. A former assistant chief deputy to retiring Supervisor Pete Schabarum, Flores went to work for the county at age 18 as a secretary and worked her way up.

Her candidacy has the support of supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana, as well as an endorsement from Sheriff Sherman Block.

“This election is between those candidates who believe that politics should be controlled by the political bosses and a candidate who believes that the people should make the decisions,” said Flores, a Republican.

* Los Angeles City Council member Molina, 42, was flanked by U.S. Reps. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) when she declared her candidacy in Pico Rivera.

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“This is a historic opportunity for the people of our communities,” she said. “For the first time, we will have fair representation in the decision-making processes of county government.”

Molina, a Democrat and a feminist, is an outspoken public official who has called her City Council colleagues “wimps.” A former aide to State Sen. Art Torres and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, she won an Assembly seat in 1982.

She was elected to the City Council in 1987 in a new district carved out by the council to settle a voting rights lawsuit similar to the one filed against the county.

* Democratic state Sen. Torres, 44, announced his candidacy at Montebello High School, where he graduated in 1964. Elected to the Assembly in 1974 and to the Senate in 1982, he has chaired the Senate’s toxics and public safety management committee.

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“For the first time this century, the checks and balances of our government have opened the door for someone like me to walk through and compete fairly and honestly for the post of supervisor,” he said.

Torres entered the race acknowledging his “past mistakes,” among them arrests for drunk driving in 1987 and 1989. His campaign has the backing of liberal Kenneth P. Hahn, an influential county supervisor since 1952, and Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre.

* State Sen. Calderon (D-Whittier) joined the race with the support of U.S. Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), who said he decided against running after a meeting with Calderon. As a member of the state Assembly two years ago, Calderon was one of five members, collectively known as “The Gang of Five,” who unsuccessfully sought to topple the leadership of Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

Calderon positioned himself as a voice for the San Gabriel Valley, which is more conservative than the East Los Angeles power base of Torres and Molina. Calderon’s entry is expected to cut into the conservative support for Flores.

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“They sought their political fortunes on the Eastside of town,” Calderon said of Molina and Torres. “I’ve established my public service over here in the San Gabriel Valley. I am more of a moderate. They are clearly more liberal than I am.”

Also in the race are: Joe Chavez, a computer analyst for the county; Louis Anthony Chitty III, an educator; Khalil Khalil, a county engineer; Jim Mihalka, a paramedic, and Gonzalo Molina, a frequent candidate who is not related to Councilwoman Molina.

When Torres threw his hat in the ring, his candidacy delivered a fatal blow to whatever hopes Molina had entertained to avoid competition among the more liberal Latino Democrats.

As candidates jockey for advantage, people in the bustling district of 1.78 million residents are far less interested in behind-the-scenes political maneuverings than in the range of possibilities suddenly at hand.

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They see the real possibility of Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors, a bastion of inner-circle Anglo politicians.

"(Latino officials) can see the needs of the poor because they have seen these problems first hand,” said Josie Ganivet, personnel manager at El Piojito, a discount store popular with Central American immigrants near MacArthur Park on the far western edge of the new district. “It is a very good day for the Latino people, whoever the winner.”

Flores finished first in the June primary in a race to succeed Schabarum in the old 1st District, and she was favored to defeat the second-place finisher, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory O’Brien. But she ironically became a victim of a lawsuit filed to correct past discrimination against Latinos.

The U.S. Justice Department, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had sued the county for discriminating against Latinos in the way it drew district boundaries.

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In August, Kenyon threw out the June primary results, and approved new district boundaries that dramatically realign political representation for many of the county’s 8.5 million residents. In adopting the plan proposed by plaintiffs, Kenyon rejected a map offered by the board’s three-member conservative majority, calling it a “nonsensical distortion” of districts that was “insensitive” to blacks and Latinos.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Kenyon’s decision. On Nov. 30, the county asked the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the election. The request, presented to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and referred by her to the full court, was rejected without comment. The court did not announce whether it will hear a requested appeal on the merits of the case.

Latinos make up a third of the county’s population, but no Latino has served on the board since 1875. For the last decade, the county board has been controlled by conservatives Dana, Antonovich and Schabarum.

The sprawling new district is 25 miles long and runs from crowded, tiny apartments just west of downtown Los Angeles, to five-bedroom homes on the affluent northern edge of unincorporated Rowland Heights. Within the district’s boundaries are such communities as Highland Park, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Rosemead, El Monte, Pico Rivera and Montebello.

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UCLA demographics expert Leobardo Estrada, brought into the case by MALDEF and the ACLU, created the district on paper. Under his boundaries, the newly created district has a population that is 71% Latino, contrasted with 49% in the old district. Latinos represent 51% of the registered voters of the redrawn district.

The old district was 50% Democratic and 41% Republican and tended to vote for conservatives; the new 1st District is 66.5% Democratic and 23.3% Republican.

A candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote on Jan. 22 to be elected. Otherwise, a runoff will be conducted Feb. 19 between the two top vote getters.

As the field of Latino candidates grew, political observers in the Latino community bristled at suggestions that too many were competing for the office.

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“If there were 10 white males running, they would all probably be told they are civic-minded,” said Carmen Perez, an aide to Hahn and a national vice chair of the Democratic Party. “You get 10 Latinos and they’re told they are diluting the vote. That’s not so.”

Rodolfo Acuna, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, said a large field of Anglo candidates is called “democracy.” But when more than one Latino runs for office “they call it factionalism,” he added.

Although the January election may well write a historic chapter in county politics, it is a chapter some say was written a generation ago--and fraudulently erased.

In 1958, Roybal seemingly won victory by a narrow margin for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Several days later, however, a mysterious 12,000 votes were found in a recount, turning Roybal’s victory into defeat.

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Roybal went on to become one of the nation’s first Latino congressmen, but that county election has been a festering sore for him and the Latino community ever since.

Times Staff Writer Hector Tobar also contributed to this story.


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