Gloria Molina’s life has been one of contradictions: the famous feminist politician from East L.A., the career policymaker/politician who still feels like an outsider. She can claim many “firsts,” a lot of admirers and a lot of political foes. The first Latina elected to the Legislature, to the Los Angeles City Council, and the first woman and Latina elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, where she’ll likely be until she is termed out in 2014. Her reputation is one of picking fights, but she also picks her fights -- killing a proposed prison in East L.A. in the 1980s, watchdogging cushy government pensions and perks and budget practices, and looking out for Los Angeles’ poor, of which she was once one herself, the eldest of 10 kids of a poor Mexican immigrant. You may see her only in TV news clips, jabbing a finger on some point. There’s more, and some slow-mo, to GloMo.
Once again you’re the only woman on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Outside of having a bathroom all to yourself, what is wrong with this picture?
You can’t measure where women are by what’s going on here because the opportunities to run for this office are very limited. It’s still a struggle, but there are opportunities for women. When I’m termed out [in 2014] and Zev [Yaroslavsky] at the same time, hopefully there’ll be a real opportunity for women.
Ted Kennedy was someone you thought highly of. He was a great compromiser. You’ve said you don’t compromise very effectively. Why is that?
Let’s face it, you can’t survive in this system [without] some compromise. But anything that compromises my own personal sensibilities and about certain issues, I just won’t move. Sometimes I would rather lose than compromise. The East L.A. prison fight was exactly that. I had carried a package of about 12 bills [in the Legislature] on high school dropouts. The governor [George Deukmejian] asked me if I wanted him to sign them, and I said, “Absolutely,” and he said, “We would like you to accept the prison in East L.A.” I had to reject that, and he vetoed all of my [education] bills.
What did that teach you?
So many colleagues said, “Gloria, you have to cut your losses on this one, there’s another day.” But in my community this issue was so strong. I also felt betrayed by the political system. I think I made the right decision. I think that’s also one of the reasons I have enjoyed a lot of support in my community.
Your name has been mentioned for Congress, even governor. Is this job the best fit for you?
This is a very good fit for me. It meets all of my personal needs about being a, quote, politician or policymaker, because of the range of issues -- children’s issues, senior citizen issues, all aspects of government. I really don’t think [Congress] would have been a good fit for me, working through the caucus, waiting for seniority opportunities, having to do the bidding of so many senior members in order to get opportunities. So this seat was just a perfect fit. I love what I do and I wish I could stay here forever, but it’s just as well that I move on and find something else, hopefully not elective office.
How have you changed the culture of the board?
I think I’ve had a huge impact. Whether it is noticeable or not, I’m not sure. When I first arrived, it was very acceptable to allow the county administrative officer to basically operate everything. His recommendations were accepted; the department heads ran the departments with little or no questions. To me, the budget determines what your priorities are. And the board always let the CAO do the budget. There was a lot of rubber-stamping. I worked very hard to create a very different system, to ask questions. The other part is this ownership thing [about] money. My daughter was watching [me] on TV arguing with my colleagues, and she said, “Mom, why do you care? It’s not your money.” And I said, “It is, and I treat it like my money.”
In the process, you’ve ticked off a lot of people, administrators. If you’ve made things better for the system, have you made it harder for you to operate in it?
Certainly I have had people refuse to give me information, and we’ve had battles. The sheriff [Sherman Block] was one of the first. I’d question what was going on and how the expenditures were made. Sheriff Block was a very tough guy to deal with. I said, “Sheriff, I don’t tell you who to hire, where to send out the cars, how you handle anything -- there’s only one thing I can do legally, and that’s your budget. I want to understand your budget.” Just asking the questions made him very angry. They eventually started fibbing to me. There was a deputy -- I barred him from this office. I don’t need anybody to come in and not tell me what’s going on. I didn’t want to embarrass him; I just wanted him to tell the truth. That was the first struggle; it’s still continuing.
One of your colleagues used the word “grandstanding.”
Sometimes I have to take things public. When I first came here, on the pension issue, my colleagues, all of them, were very angry with me. Sometimes I have to go that far in order to make a point.
My colleague, Garrett Therolf, says it bugs you that reporters come to you for what you’ve called the “bitch quote” -- is that how you’ve been cast by the press?
Absolutely. Particularly in the L.A. Times, my name always has a lot of adjectives like “feisty” or “hostile” or “angrily.” When Zev asks a question as aggressively as I do, it doesn’t have those adjectives in front of his name. Granted, I get angry about some of our people and how badly they do certain things. I do know that’s [my] reputation. I really even don’t mind it. I’d love being sweet and nice all the time if I could, if I didn’t care about all of this, but I do.
Los Angeles County is majority Latino; California soon will be. Is it time to begin redefining majority and minority?
We’re going to be a majority, but what does that mean? If you still [have] the highest dropout rate and the most crime-infested neighborhoods and all those things, then it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t create anything unless you are empowering along the way. So, yes, we are more in numbers, but I don’t know that we are effective enough collectively, as Latinos. We will not be the power majority at all because there’s too many shortcomings in the Latino community for all kinds of reasons, unless we make the kind of dramatic changes to make sure that as you move up, you’re going to have a healthier number of Latinos in every way -- health, education, financial independence.
Were you surprised at the huge reaction against your ordinance cracking down on illegally parked taco trucks?
Absolutely. The people who made it kind of a gag almost certainly don’t know any of the issues. I had a taco truck in front of a school -- they wouldn’t move, they just paid the citations and parents complained they were crossing with their children and couldn’t see around them. I had no ability to move it out of there. We spent a lot of years negotiating -- “Come on, guys, move on” -- and they wouldn’t do it. I remember getting a letter from someone in West Covina who said, “What is wrong with you? There’s nothing better than going into East L.A. and having these wonderful tacos.” [These] weren’t people who had these trucks in their neighborhoods. Why is it they don’t have them in Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard? Because they don’t permit it. I’ve had good meetings with the loncheros and said, “I’m not trying to ruin your business.” [But some operators are] urinating on lawns, making noise, they’re there until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Ever eat from them?
Of course I did; I don’t do it now -- someone would take my picture! I did it years ago.
You told NPR’s “Story Corps” that you wanted to be a fashion designer.
We all have dreams, right? I loved old movies, I loved the fact that everything was so beautiful and perfect. How did Jean Harlow have this dress that flowed so beautifully? Then, of course, everybody asks you what you want to be when you grow up, and becoming a fashion designer was something I really wanted to do. I didn’t know anything about being a lawyer or doctor. I read about Edith Head and Coco Chanel and this very glamorous life, and so I thought, “What a great career!” Little did I know I have no talent in that, none whatsoever!
Now you belong to a sewing group?
I’m a quilter. I make lots and lots of quilts. It has become an unbelievable passion for me. We meet every Wednesday. You have to have something besides this part of it [she gestures around the office]. I’m not great at it, but I love doing it.
You grew up the eldest of 10 children; your daughter is an only child. Do you think about how different her life is from yours?
Absolutely, every day, and it’s troubling. One of the things that I worry about is that she has had a very easy go of it, and one of the things that was helpful to me was the struggle that I had, coming from a poor family. I think it inspired me to strive, and it has given me the courage to look at things very differently. Sometimes my daughter says things or does things that remind me of how comfortable she’s gotten, and so it worries me. She’s wonderful and strong and has so many wonderful values, it’s just that -- her college was paid for, she had a car, she has a credit card. I appreciate my upbringing, I really do. I didn’t appreciate it much [then], but I think it really helped me in the long run.
Is there one thing you wanted to fix when you came into public life that you haven’t been able to?
The high school dropout rate. Right now I’m working on a foster-care project that has been, painfully, the only place I have any jurisdiction on educational attainment, for the most part. I traded it for an issue that was very significant: We still don’t have a prison in East L.A., and East L.A. is the better for it. I made the right decision, but it is a regret.
firstname.lastname@example.org.This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.