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Molina Wins Historic Contest for Supervisor : Politics: The victory culminates a long struggle to put a Latino on board. She is first woman elected to panel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gloria Molina, a farm worker’s daughter who rose from grass-roots politics to become a force in Los Angeles government, was elected Tuesday to the County Board of Supervisors, culminating a long struggle for Latino representation in county government.

Molina, a Los Angeles city councilwoman, defeated Democratic state Sen. Art Torres 55.4% to 44.6% to become the first Latino this century and first woman ever elected to the governing board of the nation’s most populous county. Voter turnout in the historic 1st District race was 23%.

“I feel great, so great,” Molina said, claiming victory at 10:05 p.m. “We went door to door talking to voters and conducted a grass-roots campaign, and that really made a difference.”

At a packed East Los Angeles assembly hall, cheers filled the room and the crowd of about 700 supporters sang “Viva Gloria Molina” throughout the night. Molina walked through the crowd hugging and kissing supporters with her parents at her side. “It means people really care what happens in this district,” Molina said. “I’m very proud to have their support.”

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Conceding defeat at 10:40 p.m., Torres said: “Gloria Molina, I gave you your first job. Gloria Molina, I supported you for the Legislature. Gloria Molina, you are the winner, and I congratulate you.”

Torres had spent much of the night secluded with close political ally City Councilman Richard Alatorre in a private room at Stevens Steak House in the City of Commerce.

After conceding, the senator went to Molina’s celebration, hugged her and raised her arm in a victory salute. “Let’s all work together,” he said.

Molina led Torres among Latino voters, 59% to 41% and among Anglos, 52% to 48%, according to an exit poll of about 1,000 voters commissioned by Spanish-language television station KMEX. Pollster Sergio Bendixen said that Molina also carried the women’s vote, 60% to 40%, and the male vote, 54% to 46%. Molina led Torres in heavily Democratic East Los Angeles, while the candidates ran even in the more conservative San Gabriel Valley.

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The new supervisor will take office March 8, forming a liberal majority on the governing board of the nation’s most populous county.

“I hope they’re not frightened by me,” Molina said of her future colleagues. “We’ve got to open things up.”

The nationally watched campaign was one of the costliest in county history as Molina and Torres together spent more than $1.7 million trying to win over a tiny portion of voters interested enough to cast ballots.

The election was ordered by a federal judge who ruled that the all-Anglo Board of Supervisors discriminated against the county’s 3 million Latinos, diluting their voting power by splitting the community among three districts.

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In response to a voting rights suit filed in 1988 by the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups, Judge David V. Kenyon carved out a new, 71% Latino district to help a Latino succeed retiring Supervisor Pete Schabarum on the board.

Latinos make up one-third of the county’s population, but no Spanish-surnamed person has served on the board since 1875. The only woman or minority to serve in this century was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a black appointed in 1979 who was defeated when she ran for election.

Supervisor Ed Edelman said he called Molina to offer congratulations and invite her to join him and fellow liberal Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in changing the direction of county government, including placing a proposal before voters to create an elected county executive and an expanded Board of Supervisors.

Schabarum said he did not bother to monitor the election results.

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Conservative Supervisor Deane Dana said he met Molina only once, at a restaurant. “I look upon anyone with an open mind,” he said.

Even before the final results were in, speculation was circulating about possible candidates for Molina’s council seat. Council President John Ferraro said that he may ask the council to schedule an election in June.

At a precinct in the City of Commerce, Margarita Betancourt said in Spanish that she voted “because this is history. This is the first time that the Latino vote will mean something in Los Angeles County.”

A stream of homeless people, with tattered clothes and shopping bags slung across their backs, came to vote at the Midnight Mission on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

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Mary Randle, a polling inspector who has worked the mission’s polling booth for the past four elections, said she expected about 25 of the 630 registered voters to cast their ballots by 8 p.m. By noon, to her surprise, 20 had already voted.

“It may be because it symbolizes something different,” she said. “This one means something special for the Skid Row area.” Both Molina and Torres pledged to provide the swing vote to increase the $312-a-month in general relief paid to 50,000 people. The increase has been blocked by the board’s conservative majority.

The election drew national attention because the candidate who wins will automatically become one of the most visible Latino elected officials in the nation, possibly a candidate for national or statewide office, including governor.

Because Molina and Torres are liberal Democrats, the election assured an end to a decade of conservative control of the board, which oversees a $10-billion budget and serves 8.8 million residents, more than the populations of 42 states.

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Molina, 42, and Torres, 44--one-time friends and allies turned bitter rivals--finished first and second in the Jan. 22 primary with 35% and 26% of the vote, respectively. They needed more than 50% of the vote to win outright.

The political bases for both candidates are centered on Los Angeles’ Eastside, so Molina and Torres tailored their runoff efforts to more conservative and largely undecided voters in the San Gabriel Valley. The district extends from Silver Lake east to La Puente and southeast to Santa Fe Springs.

Torres, with massive backing from labor unions and fellow Sacramento legislators, raised about $1.2 million in campaign contributions--twice as much as Molina.

He highlighted his endorsements from Republican Sarah Flores and state Sen. Charles M. Calderon, a conservative Democrat, who together collected 36% of the primary vote, mostly in the San Gabriel Valley. Torres also sent out mailers targeted at GOP households featuring his support from law enforcement, Republican leaders and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

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Torres also sent a letter to voters talking frankly about his struggle with alcoholism that led to his 1987 and 1989 drunk-driving arrests. Those close to Torres said the election was a test to see whether Torres, once considered a top contender to be California’s first Latino governor this century, could overcome the political damage from his two highly publicized drunken driving arrests.

Molina, a former aide to Torres, stuck to the strategy that helped her finish a strong first in the primary--portraying herself as a political reformer who would shake up the bureaucracy.

She sent out mailers criticizing a lawsuit brought by Torres’ union supporters that struck down a $1,000 campaign contribution limit designed to reduce the influence of special interests.

Molina was backed by women’s groups and Reps. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).

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The four-week runoff campaign began with the candidates agreeing on most issues, including expansion of the board to seven members and the need to increase social service programs.

As they attended nearly a dozen debates and campaign forums, the tone became increasingly bitter, with Torres attacking Molina for accepting large donations from developers and Molina characterizing him as a tool of special interests.

FIRST SUPERVISORIAL DISTRICT ELECTION

Precincts Reporting: 100%

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CANDIDATE VOTE % Gloria Molina 45,805 55.4 Art Torres 36,939 44.6


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