City Councilwoman Gloria Molina and state Sen. Art Torres were headed for a runoff after a historic election Tuesday that will give Los Angeles County its first Latino supervisor this century and end a decade of conservative control of the board.
With all precincts reporting in the 1st District, Molina collected 34.8% of the vote but fell short of the majority required to avoid a Feb. 19 runoff against Torres, a fellow liberal Democrat who finished second with 25.7%.
Sarah Flores, the lone Republican among the leading candidates, polled 20.5%, followed by state Sen. Charles Calderon with 15.9%. The remaining vote was split among five other candidates.
Election officials reported that 21.3% of the new district’s 371,611 voters cast ballots in the special election that followed a short, hard-fought campaign overshadowed in the final days by the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf.
No matter who wins the runoff, a new liberal majority will take control of the governing board of the nation’s most populous county, which oversees a $10-billion budget and provides services to 8 1/2 million residents--a population that is greater than that of 42 states.
When Molina appeared before 300 supporters at United Auto Workers hall in Pico Rivera after taking an early lead, the crowd erupted into applause and broke into singing a song entitled “Viva Gloria Molina.”
“It is absolutely amazing that we have won, with so much money spent by other candidates that we are so far ahead,” Molina told the crowd.
Molina called for the formation of a broad coalition “to join us in bringing about a tremendous change in the county--an open government.”
About 200 Torres supporters milled about Stevens Steak House in City of Commerce through much of the night waiting for their candidate who remained secluded upstairs with consultant David Townsend and City Councilman Richard Alatorre.
“It’s a tremendous victory,” Torres told a cheering crowd as he emerged at 10:30. “Our working men and women know we can’t celebrate this evening. We’re going to celebrate on Feb. 19.”
Flores conceded her loss to a disappointed and dwindling crowd at about 11 p.m. With her husband, George, at her side, Flores thanked her campaign workers in English and Spanish and vowed to stay in politics.
“I’m not going to quit,” said Flores, a former aide to Supervisor Pete Schabarum. “I’m going to keep working for the people.”
Tuesday’s off-season election was ordered by a federal judge who ruled that the all-Anglo board discriminated against Latinos in drawing district boundaries. In response to a 1988 voting rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups, Judge David V. Kenyon redrew the 1st District to help a Latino succeed Schabarum, who is retiring.
Latinos make up one-third of the county’s population, but no Spanish-surnamed person has been elected to the powerful board since 1875. The only woman or minority person to serve in this century was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was appointed in 1979 and defeated in a subsequent election.
Whoever wins the runoff will automatically be seen as one of the most powerful Latino politicians in the United States, with a ready platform for seeking statewide or national office.
The winner also will form a new liberal majority with Supervisors Ed Edelman and Kenneth Hahn.
“I’m very pleased to have a Democrat elected to the board,” Edelman said Tuesday night. “I think we’ve had 10 years of control by the Republican majority and it’s welcome news to see a Democrat in there.
“The priorities could be different, how we approach problems . . . will change,” he said.
Sharon Grimpe Correll, general manager of the county’s biggest labor union, Service Employees International Union, said she looked forward to the arrival of a third Democrat on the board. “We’ve been confronted for the last 10 years with contracting-out of services,” she said. “We believe both of them will stop contracting-out and repair the damage caused by the board.”
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, joined by fellow conservative Supervisor Deane Dana at Flores’ campaign headquarters, refused to concede that Flores’ loss would end conservative control of the board.
Instead of a new 3-to-2 liberal-conservative split, Antonovich said, “It could be a 4-to-1 board with this new person in the minority. The current Board of Supervisors agrees on about 95% of the issues. We work well together. Unless they tone down their rhetoric somewhat, the new member will be at the short end of a lot of 4-1 votes.”
Dana said the conservative majority’s policies may well continue because of the “the cold hard realities,” of the county’s difficult fiscal condition. “There aren’t going to be any big liberal spending programs for many years,” he said. Judy Hammond, a spokesman for Schabarum, said, “Pete won’t be making any comment on the election.”
Richard Fajardo, head attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the voting rights case, said he was not surprised by the low turnout.
“The levels of participation in the Latino community are going to grow pretty dramatically,” he said. “This is one step on a long process of healing, of having the Latino community become a part of the political process in Los Angeles.”
The four prominent Latino candidates collectively spent more than $1.3 million trying to win over a tiny portion of registered voters interested enough to cast ballots.
The new 1st 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 in the San Gabriel Valley.
In East Los Angeles, unincorporated territory that relies on the county for services such as fire and police protection, the new supervisor will essentially serve as the City Council and mayor.
Molina portrayed herself as a political reformer and fighter for the little guy who will shake up the huge county bureaucracy. She was heavily backed by women’s groups and Reps. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).
Torres, with strong support from organized labor, raised more than $500,000 to lead the other candidates in fund raising. A skilled orator, Torres highlighted his legislative experience and saw the election as a test on whether voters would forgive him for his 1987 and 1989 drunk-driving arrests, which were spotlighted by Calderon in a last-minute mailer. Torres aired television commercials on CNN during the height of the Persian Gulf coverage.
Calderon, a self-described moderate Democrat, targeted like-minded voters in the San Gabriel Valley, contending that he was politically closer to their political thinking than liberal East Los Angeles politicians Molina and Torres.
Flores, a career county bureaucrat backed by Antonovich and Dana, took every opportunity to strike a pose as the only non-politician in the field.
Flores was the top finisher in the June primary in the old, conservative-voting 1st District, but the results were thrown out by the judge who ordered a new election.
In an unusual twist Tuesday, Flores was unable to vote for herself because she lives in the old 1st District, not in the new one. The judge earlier ruled that residents of the old 1st District could run in the new one, so long as they moved inside the district boundaries if elected.
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers John H. Lee, Frederick M. Muir, James Rainey, Hector Tobar and researcher Cecilia Rasmussen.
1ST SUPERVISORIAL DISTRICT ELECTION
100% PRECINCTS REPORTING
Candidate Vote Pct. Gloria Molina 26,567 34.58% Art Torres 19,756 25.71% Sarah Flores 15,738 20.48% Charles Calderon 12,185 15.86% Gonzalo Molina 1,352 1.76% James Mihalka 591 0.76% Louis Chitty III 292 0.38% Khalil Khalil 178 0.23% Joe Chavez 158 0.20%