Phil Soto; Latino Politician and Activist


Phil Soto, one of the first Latinos elected to the state Legislature since the early days of California and an early role model for contemporary Latino politicians, died Tuesday. He was 71.

Soto, who represented the La Puente area in the Assembly for two two-year terms, died of cancer at his home in Pomona.

A force behind La Puente cityhood and a La Puente city councilman from 1958 to 1962, Soto was elected to the 50th Assembly District surrounding La Puente in the 1962 election. Voters at the same time sent another San Gabriel Valley Latino and Democrat, John Moreno, to the Assembly.

About 300 political associates and friends saluted Soto's influence on state politics last year at a surprise 70th birthday party planned by his wife, Nell, and their six children.

Active in union and civil rights causes, Soto marched with Cesar Chavez from Delano to Sacramento in one of the United Farm Workers' most famous demonstrations. He voluntarily spent a night in jail with Chavez to show support, and later spent another night in jail with UFW President Dolores Huerta when she was arrested for organizing farm workers.

When Soto won elective office, he continued to fight for liberal Democratic goals, including farm workers' rights, assistance for the poor, inexpensive public higher education and such public works as freeways and water projects.

When the boundaries of his district were redrawn in 1966, Soto found it impossible to survive the conservative Ronald Reagan gubernatorial landslide.

He later accepted an appointment from President Lyndon B. Johnson to help set up economic development and job training programs in East Los Angeles. Soto retired in 1988 as director of the Small Business Administration's minority business development program.

After a failed try to regain an Assembly seat, Soto helped elect his wife to the Pomona City Council in 1988 and to secure her appointment to the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Born in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Soto served as a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II. Afterward, he helped organize the GI Forum, a foundation for Mexican American veterans.

He owned and operated Household Appliance & Electronic Sales and Service in La Puente and served as president of the San Gabriel Valley chapter of the California State Electronic Assn.

Soto was founder and president of the La Puente Democratic Club, local campaign manager for the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and an advisor for Robert F. Kennedy's campaign.

Within his community, Soto was also founder of the La Puente Flyweight Baseball League, and was active in the Optimist Club, the Chamber of Commerce and St. Martha's Parish Men's Council.

In addition to his wife, Soto is survived by five sons, Phil IV, Robert, Michael, Patrick and Tom, and daughter, Anna.

Viewing is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Friday with rosary to follow at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1150 W. Holt Ave., Pomona. Funeral Mass will be at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the same church.

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