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SUPERVISORIAL ELECTION : Campaign Reflects Split Among Latinos : Politics: Four major contenders bring varied backgrounds in quest for 1st District seat on powerful county board. Election is Tuesday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are two men and two women, leading candidates in a historic election Tuesday that will make one of them perhaps the most powerful and visible Latino politician in California.

Although they share a common goal--to become the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this century--their dramatically different careers and campaign styles say much about the cultural and political divisions within the Latino community.

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) is a seasoned political warrior who cut his teeth during the heady days of the 1970s Chicano Power movement. Sarah Flores is a registered Republican and a career civil servant.

State Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) has made his political career in the suburban San Gabriel Valley, while Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina has tried to build a constituency in the impoverished, immigrant-dominated communities near downtown Los Angeles.

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Last year, a federal court judge ordered the special election in a newly redrawn 1st District after finding that the all-Anglo Board of Supervisors had drawn the old district boundaries to discriminate against Latinos. The court battle has focused national attention on the election, with Time and Newsweek magazines profiling the candidates.

“The person who wins this is catapulted into stardom, not just here in California but throughout the nation,” said Joseph Cerrell, dean of Los Angeles political consultants. “The winner will be a potential candidate for U.S. Senate and for statewide office, including governor.”

Three candidates are members of an elite circle of powerful Latino Democrats whose careers have crisscrossed for the last two decades. The story of their rise to the threshold of political stardom is filled with tales of feuding and broken friendships.

Of the four major candidates, Torres began his political career first, winning election to the state Assembly in 1974. In Sacramento, he has built a reputation as one of the Legislature’s top orators, a skill he said he may have picked up from the Spanish-language Baptist services he attended as a child.

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“Once you have that spiritual faith . . . it’s like a magnet,” said Torres, 44, who also attends a Roman Catholic church. “You always come back to it and it holds you.”

Reared in East Los Angeles and Montebello, Torres is the son of a Mexican-American butcher. As a law student in the early 1970s, he was a lobbyist for California Rural Legal Assistance and United Farm Workers. He says the Chicano movimiento , with its demands for political empowerment of Mexican-Americans, shaped his political vision.

“That history . . . is something I have an absolute duty to pass on to the next generation,” said Torres, a divorced father of two. “Those experiences aren’t around today.”

After 16 years in the Legislature, Torres has apparently learned to temper his liberal rhetoric.

“The greatest challenge to the next supervisor,” he said, “is to achieve empowerment for those who have been traditionally outside of the power structure without destroying the dreams of empowerment (of others).”

Torres’ promising career suffered a setback in July, 1987, when he almost crashed his state-leased luxury sedan into a parked Sacramento police car. The state senator was arrested and pleaded no contest to drunk driving charges. He issued a public apology, but was arrested in 1989 and pleaded no contest to a second drunk-driving charge.

In October, 1989, Torres told The Times he was a recovering alcoholic.

“Most people are not given the opportunity to deal with their personal problems in full public view--and I’m grateful for that opportunity,” Torres said in a recent interview. “Jan. 22 will determine whether people can forgive and accept the past.”

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Molina, the 42-year-old mother of a 3-year-old girl, also traces her political roots to the Chicano movement. In August, 1970, Molina was a 22-year-old legal secretary and one of 20,000 Latinos protesting the war in Vietnam who gathered at an East Los Angeles park for the Chicano Moratorium.

On the City Council, Molina has developed a reputation for independence that has earned her the support of dozens of young, progressively minded Latino activists.

She regularly appears at press conferences in her district’s impoverished neighborhoods, railing against what she calls the city bureaucracy’s neglect of her Latino immigrant constituents.

Molina’s first experience in “mainstream” politics came in 1974, when she joined Torres’ Assembly campaign. Like Torres, Molina also worked for Richard Alatorre in his early races for the Legislature.

After Torres was elected to the Assembly, she became his Los Angeles field representative.

“There were a lot of us in that time who pinned our hopes and aspirations on Art,” Molina said. “I saw him as eventually having the opportunity to be the first Latino governor of this state.”

But when Molina ran for an Assembly seat in 1982, she was opposed by Torres’ close friend and mentor, then-Assemblyman Alatorre, who was supporting Richard Polanco. Within days of declaring her candidacy, Molina concluded that the nascent Latino “old-boy’s network” would refuse to support any Latina’s campaign.

“All of a sudden, they were saying, ‘No, you can’t run, we’ve already got our person,’ ” Molina said. “ ‘You’re not going to be able to get the money, a Hispanic woman can’t win, you should step aside.’ ”

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With support from Westside women’s groups and others, Molina defeated Polanco, becoming the first Latina elected to the Assembly.

Calderon, a 40-year-old attorney and divorced father of two, hails from a racially mixed Montebello neighborhood. He is the only leading candidate who does not speak Spanish.

A self-described moderate Democrat, Calderon has declared himself the candidate of the San Gabriel Valley. Molina and Torres, Calderon says, are political liberals loyal only to their inner-city constituencies to the detriment of suburban communities such as Monterey Park.

Unlike Torres and Molina, Calderon claims no past activist credentials. As a teen-ager at Montebello High School, while thousands of young people joined the Chicano movement, Calderon says he clung to more conventional ideals--he dreamed of becoming a lawyer and state legislator.

“Starting back when I was even in elementary school, I wanted to be a lawyer,” Calderon said. “The family always used to make jokes, ‘Well, here comes the lawyer.’ ”

In 1968, Calderon volunteered in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He remembers when the senator’s motorcade passed through Montebello.

“He reached over and shook my hand. And, you know, it just passed something to me,” Calderon said.

Like Torres and Molina, Calderon volunteered in Alatorre’s early Assembly campaigns in the 1970s. He walked precincts for Torres. As a college student, he worked in Alatorre’s Assembly office. When Calderon won election to the Assembly in 1982, Alatorre was among his principal supporters.

“Richard was a different person in those days--more idealistic, more public-policy and public-interested oriented,” Calderon said. “So was Art. Now they’re simply more political.”

Calderon proudly claims in a campaign mailer that he is not “a professional politician.” Still, he has run in five elections since 1988--including primaries and special elections for the Assembly, state Senate and, now, county supervisor.

In Sacramento, Calderon is best known as a member of the erstwhile Gang of Five, a group of moderate Democratic assemblymen who revolted against Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

The Gang of Five joined Republican legislators in pushing through legislation opposed by the liberal Speaker, including a measure requiring prostitutes to be tested for AIDS.

The assemblymen also sided with the insurance industry on key legislation in 1988--Consumers Union listed Calderon among the top 12 recipients of insurance industry contributions.

Did the contributions influence Calderon’s vote?

“I’m not even going to get into that,” Calderon answered. “That’s fecal matter of a bull variety.”

Molina, Torres, Calderon and Alatorre have all battled in recent years to expand their influence in the Eastside and San Gabriel Valley, supporting opposing candidates in a variety of Assembly, school board and city council races.

Torres and Alatorre supported school board member Larry Gonzalez against Molina when she ran for the Los Angeles City Council in 1987. In the 1990 Democratic primary for the 59th District Assembly seat, Calderon backed his aide Marta Maestas against the winner, Xavier Becerra, who was supported by Torres.

Only one of the leading supervisorial candidates, Sarah Flores, 53, has avoided this Democratic Party infighting.

For 34 years, Flores had no greater political ambitions, she said, than to be a good county employee.

She joined the county as a stenographer at 17, and later worked as a behind-the-scenes secretary for five supervisors, including Frank Bonelli and Pete Schabarum.

Reared by a single mother who worked in a garment factory, Flores said she had to give up on her childhood dream to become a teacher because her family could not afford to send her to college.

In her county jobs, Flores said, she always took to heart her mother’s work ethic. She recalls her mother’s advice: “If you’re going to dig a ditch, make sure yours is the best. Or if you’re going to write a letter, make sure that you’re proud to sign your name to it.”

By the time Schabarum became supervisor in 1972, Flores had held a variety of county jobs. She became Schabarum’s chief deputy and loyally served the supervisor for 18 years.

Frustrated, she said, by her inability to rise within local leadership of the Democratic Party, Flores became a Republican.

“My mother thought I was a traitor,” Flores said. “It was like I had changed my religion because I was born a Catholic and born a Democrat.”

When Schabarum announced last year that he would retire, Flores decided to run for his seat. With support from conservative supervisors Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich, her campaign took off.

As the only Latino Republican in the race, Flores raised more money than any of the 10 candidates. She finished first in the nonpartisan June primary, with 35% of the vote, and qualified for a runoff. The result was invalidated by a federal court judge, who ordered a new election within redrawn district boundaries.

By her own admission, Flores has not yet developed the political savvy of the other three major candidates, who have extensive experience in election campaigns.

At campaign appearances, while Calderon, Torres and Molina rattle off lists of legislation they have authored in Sacramento, Flores often responds with personal anecdotes about her friends and relatives.

“I know (Gov.) Pete Wilson,” she said at one candidates forum. “I went to school with some of his friends and relatives. I was involved with Pete Wilson and I know him by a first name and I can open the door and make sure that he (does what he) says . . . and he’s going to deliver it.”


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