Reigning Women : ‘Year of the Woman’? In Central L.A. They’ve Wielded Political Clout for Years--And More Are on the Way


Call Maxine Waters a congress man and she either will look the other way or defiantly state that she is not a man and therefore will not respond to such references.

Shortly after being elected to the Assembly in 1976, the 54-year-old congress woman , a Democrat from South-Central, proposed a resolution that would have put an end to the tradition of referring to all members of the Assembly as assemblymen.

“Men attacked me viciously,” Waters said, grinning. “They charged me with trying to neuter the male race.”


Although the motion failed, Waters continued to raise the issue until it became so politically incorrect to call an assemblywoman an assemblyman that even some of the most conservative male legislators began to watch their language.

This doggedness, among other factors, has helped Waters and an increasing number of other local women emerge as powerful forces among the good ol’ boys of government. Despite the hoopla over 1992 being the Year of the Woman, residents in central Los Angeles have been voting women into office for many years.

Of the area’s seven Assembly seats, three are occupied by women. Women hold two of the four congressional seats, two of the four state Senate seats and both seats on the County Board of Supervisors. At the local level, Leticia Quezada of Highland Park is president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, and Rita Walters represents South-Central on the City Council.

“I think there’s been a lot of excitement about women of color because people have been able to see them battle on equal terms and prove their equal worth,” said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at Cal State Los Angeles.

“I think women candidates are especially attractive in areas like ours where voters are thoroughly disenfranchised by the system and the male-dominated politics.”

Many regard Yvonne Brathwaite Burke’s election to the Assembly in 1966 as a milestone because it was the first time a black woman had ever held such a seat.

Six years later, Burke became the first black woman to represent California in Congress. And earlier this month, the 60-year-old public finance attorney, who had been appointed to the county board in 1979 but lost an election for the post in 1980, narrowly defeated state Sen. Diane Watson to become the first black elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.


When Burke takes office, she will share the political stage with such women as Waters, Watson (who remains in the state Senate), and Supervisor Gloria Molina (the first Latino elected to the county board this century). Many say these four women are the reason a record number of African-American and Latino women, most of them Democrats, have captured key political races in recent years.

“They’ve been role models for the voting electorate,” said Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Latina assemblywoman recently elected to represent the Eastside in the U. S. House. “They’ve been extremely effective, and they’ve shown that women often are more competent than men. They’ve paved the way for the rest of us.”

Waters said it was natural for black women to come to power once Burke opened the door because they already had been playing key roles in their communities.

“Black women have always had to go out and get things done that black men couldn’t do,” Waters said. “We took jobs when black men couldn’t get work. In our churches, we were the leaders. We started poverty programs and headed social service agencies. Out of all of this (there) developed a sense of responsibility.”

In the ‘70s, several black women emerged on the political front. Watson won a seat on the Los Angeles Unified school board in 1975, then moved to the state Senate three years later. Assemblywoman Gwen Moore was elected to the Los Angeles community college board in 1975 and then to the Assembly in 1978. And Teresa Hughes, like Waters, made her political debut in 1976 when she was elected to the Assembly.

Once in power, these women developed a penchant for challenging the traditional male-dominated system and pushing their issues until people listened.


Waters loves to tell the story about how she defied President Bush by showing up at one of his meetings uninvited.

Waters learned that Bush had called an emergency meeting to discuss the Los Angeles riots. Incensed that she was not invited, Waters quickly caught a cab to the White House and demanded to be let in to the meeting.

White House aides “fumbled for about 10 minutes until they finally let me in,” she said. “When Bush walked in the room, he saw me and he looked very surprised. . . . No one from the (Congressional) Black Caucus was invited, but I felt that I had a right to be there because it was my community and they needed the benefit of my knowledge.”

Waters’ confrontational style has earned her--and others who share her approach--both praise and criticism. After the riots, the Orange County Register, conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and other media lambasted Waters for refusing to denounce the looters.

When asked about the criticism, Waters said: “I don’t care. I feel that I did the right thing and my community appreciates what I did.”

Although Latinas did wield some political clout, as aides, lobbyists and fund-raisers, Molina’s 1982 election to the Assembly clearly upped the ante. Since that election, several other Latinas have come to the forefront both in government and in political organizations.


“We were used to being in the kitchen, doing chores, taking our children to schools,” said Aurora Castillo, a member of Mothers of East Los Angeles, a grass-roots political group that organized in 1985 to keep a state prison out of their community. “But the reason we became active was because of our children. If a mother sees that her children are being threatened, she’ll turn into a lioness.”

With most of her financial contributions coming from women, Molina won her Assembly seat without the support of then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, whose backing was viewed as crucial for budding Latino politicians. Alatorre told her she was not ready to run and backed her opponent, Richard Polanco, in a bruising Democratic primary. (Polanco has since won his own Assembly seat.)

Today, Molina, 44, snickers at the thought of having to ask Alatorre--who now serves on the Los Angeles City Council--for anything. She is now considered the most powerful Latino politician in town.

Earlier this month, when Molina called a news conference to announce that she would not be running for mayor of Los Angeles, a mob of reporters and television crews showed up demanding to know whom she would endorse.

Molina refused to drop any names, but as cameras flashed and reporters scribbled furiously in their notebooks, it was clear that her presence would be felt throughout the election.

“Los Angeles needs an aggressive, hands-on leader who has the courage to confront our problems head on,” she said. “While timing prevents me from being that leader for the city, I hope to play a significant role in helping to elect the new mayor.”


Molina frequently is depicted as a maverick leader eager to crack down on the bureaucratic abuses of county government. But she and other Latina leaders also have been criticized for being ineffective when it comes to dealing with issues such as the quality of local law enforcement and use of force complaints against police by minorities.

“After the riots, we saw Maxine Waters and Diane Watson (confronting those questions),” said Gloria Romero, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles who supported Molina in her supervisorial bid. “We did not see Lucille Roybal-Allard and Gloria Molina. She (Molina) was missing in action. We had to push and push to have her take up the issue.”

Romero added: “Latinas have the capacity to articulate these issues, but they haven’t. We have much more of a history for African-American women” doing so.

Molina, for her part, said she has been so critical of certain police practices, she has never been able to obtain the endorsements of police associations.

As for her actions in the aftermath of the riots, she said: “No, I didn’t stand in front of burning buildings and call a press conference. But we did a lot of things not police-related but more people-related.”

Molina said she and her staff worked with the local postmaster to help people retrieve their welfare checks and then encouraged neighborhood check-cashing businesses to keep their doors open.


Despite the large and growing Asian population in central Los Angeles, no local Asian woman has ever been elected to public office.

Angela Oh, who has served as a spokeswoman for the Korean community since the riots, said Asians generally have shied away from politics because it is not a highly regarded profession in their communities.

“Politics is considered a dirty business,” Oh said. “But I think, when we saw what happened during the riots, there is a growing awareness of the importance of having a political presence.”

Although Oh has no desire to run for public office, she predicts that other Asian women in central Los Angeles will take that step soon.

“When I look at who the activists are--it’s women,” she said. “More and more young women are saying, ‘Hey, I can make a difference.’ ”

Since the first wave of women from central Los Angeles took office, other women have followed in their footsteps.


Marguerite Archie-Hudson, 53, won a seat in the Assembly in 1990 after upsetting then-City Councilman Robert C. Farrell in the Democratic primary. And earlier this month, Latina attorney Martha Escutia, who had no previous political experience, captured a newly created seat in the Assembly.

Escutia, 35, who will represent Southeast Los Angeles, said, “To be a woman is the most ‘in’ thing” in politics.

Meanwhile, many of the more experienced women politicians are moving to higher offices.

Roybal-Allard, 51, will make the jump from the Assembly to Congress, and Hughes will move from the Assembly to the state Senate. Quezada, who won her school board seat in 1987, was named the panel’s president in July.

Waters, meanwhile, has been mentioned as a possible contender for a Cabinet post--such as Housing and Urban Development secretary--in President-elect Bill Clinton’s Administration. Waters was among the first prominent black politicians to back Clinton’s candidacy.

“I think (Waters) could be the first black governor (of California),” said Eric Schockman, a political science professor at the University of Southern California. “If Maxine Waters wants something, she gets it. If she wanted to run for God, she could get it.”

Many say women from central Los Angeles have prospered politically because they constantly prove their commitment to their communities.


Watson’s legislative agenda consistently addresses the health, economic status, and legal rights of women and minorities. Molina has steered government contracts to women and minorities. And Waters is one of the authors of the state’s enterprise-zone legislation, which gives businesses tax breaks for locating in economically disadvantaged areas.

Women also have made it politically attractive for male candidates to start talking about women’s issues, said Rep. Edward R. Roybal, who is retiring after representing Northeast Los Angeles in Washington for 30 years.

“They’ve called attention to the lack of attention politicians had been paying to women,” Roybal said.

But despite their political gains, most women candidates still don’t raise as much money as their male counterparts, and they still tend to be stigmatized because of their race and gender.

“People tend to think we’re interested in soft issues like education and social services,” said Archie-Hudson, who represents Watts, Exposition Park and Downtown. “But we’re also interested in economics, banking and finance. I think women, because we’re so outnumbered, really have to push our issues to the forefront and make people see that they’re legitimate.”

Local women leaders say they have repeatedly faced racism or sexism on the job, but all have refused to allow themselves to be victims of discrimination.


During Watson’s first run at the school board in 1972, her best friend and campaign chairman Tom Stewart was shot to death on his way home from a fund-raising event. The crime remains unsolved, but Watson suspects it was related to her candidacy because both she and Stewart had received racially motivated death threats prior to the incident.

“I thought I was going to die,” Watson said. “It was a painful, tragic experience because I felt I was partially responsible. I came close to dropping out. But my supporters encouraged me to stick it out.”

Though Watson did not win that election, she came back three years later to claim a school board seat. However, her troubles did not end there.

Shortly after she was elected to the school board, she became involved in a furious battle over integration. After speaking out in favor of mandatory busing, Watson said she received 125 death threats.

But Watson became even more driven to fight the system. “It was agonizing and overwhelming, but someone had to stand up and support these kids,” she said.

Even now, after her defeat in the Board of Supervisors race, the 58-year-old state senator talks only of the future. “I’ve already bounced back,” she said. “I’ll just go on with what I need to do. I have a full agenda for the next two years (in the state Senate).”


If the current political climate is any indication, more minority women will seek public office within the next few years, Molina said. But that depends in part on the performance of women now in office, she said.

“We are being watched constantly and measured as a whole group,” she said. “You’re the one that is carrying the torch for everyone else. If you don’t do a good job, you may be destroying the whole capability of other Latinas who want to run for higher office.”

Los Angeles Times