Edith Perez, the daughter of migrant farmworkers who became the first Latina partner at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms and was president of the Los Angeles Police Commission during tumultuous times in the city, has died after a years-long battle with cancer.
Perez died July 20 in Los Angeles at the age of 64. She had suffered from cancer for 18 years, her husband, Curt Holguin, said.
She was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1995 — several years after the Rodney King beating — by Mayor Richard Riordan, who at the time said “she impressed us with her leadership in building consensus to resolve controversial issues” when she served as vice president of the Recreation and Parks Commission.
During her four-year tenure as president, Perez pushed for numerous police reforms and worked to improve community policing, and she championed a language policy that would improve interactions between officers and people who spoke little or no English.
“She threaded the needle between police reform and caring for line officers,” Holguin said. “She visited stations, talked one-on-one to officers about their needs, went to shooting ranges … and went to the scenes where officers were wounded or killed in action.”
But some of her years as the commission’s president were fraught with controversy.
She had allegedly urged the union in 1998 to go after then-Inspector General Katherine Mader during a closed-door meeting at a time when tension between several commission members and Mader was high. Perez later ruled that the inspector general could examine misconduct complaints only after the department investigated and resolved them. The restriction was met with outrage and was considered an abrupt departure from suggestions by the 1991 Christopher Commission, which outlined police reforms after the King beating.
That same year, The Times reported that “a growing number of critics” believed that the five-member panel was struggling to keep then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks in check. Perez denied accusations that the board had become the chief’s rubber stamp.
In another controversy, Perez admitted to sending anonymous letters to prominent police reform experts to boost the police commission’s image.
Still, she was respected by many for her strong work ethic, extraordinary drive and keen focus.
While serving as president, Perez was with Latham & Watkins, where she worked for more than 25 years. She was the first Latina to become a partner at the law firm and was responsible for hundreds of finance, commercial real estate, corporate and international transactions for the firm’s numerous Fortune 500 clients before retiring in 2011 as an equity partner.
“She was always mindful of of the fact that in addition to the hard work that a law firm requires of its attorneys, that she had a role that was prominent in the community, in particular the Latino community,” said John Sherrell, a retired Latham & Watkins partner who worked with Perez for more than 20 years.
Described as frank and intense, Perez was known as a tough and dynamic problem solver. Former Safeway Inc. lawyer Gary Scott once called her a “mighty mini mouse” and “intellectually superior.”
Initially she wanted to become a poverty lawyer. Her law professors advised her to instead apply to the best firms she could find.
“I guess I have a perennially optimistic view of accomplishing what I set out to do,” she told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1998. “If you look at the strikes against me — an immigrant, a girl, a minority — I didn’t think about them as obstacles. I had no doubt they could be overcome.”
Perez was born Aug. 30, 1954, in Acambay, Mexico, a mountain town northwest of Mexico City. In 1956, her family moved to the United States under the Bracero program, which allowed migrant farmworkers into the country and promised them decent living conditions, fair wages and more.
She was raised in the Northern California rural town of Marysville, 40 miles north of Sacramento. Her family was poor, but she said her childhood was “perfect.” Her experience growing up as a “have-not,” as she once put it, fueled her drive to pursue law so she could improve the lives of other have-nots.
A studious and ambitious youth, her hard work paid off when she won a scholarship to UC Davis. In 1976, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in Spanish literature and political science, and she soon got a job in Yuba County as a deputy probation officer.
Law school at UC Berkeley followed, where she served as associate editor for the California Law Review. Perez and Holguin were law students when they met in 1978, and they married two years later.
Perez is survived by her husband, daughters Kate and Ryan, and brothers Erick and Willfred.