A "Very Powerful Board"
"Her getting elected as supervisor was almost as big as Antonio [Villaraigosa] becoming mayor – bigger, in terms of power," says Henry Lozano, the former chief of staff to Congressmen Edward Roybal and Xavier Becerra. "There are only five [supervisors] in L.A. County, and those people have power," says Mr. Lozano, who first met Ms. Molina when she was a high school student. "Some would say they have legislative, executive, and quasi-judicial powers. So that's just a very powerful board."
Raised in Pico Rivera, a heavily Hispanic suburb east of Los Angeles, Ms. Molina studied at East Los Angeles College and Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. She began her political career in the 1970s with the Chicano movement, and worked both at the White House and for the San Francisco Department of Health and Human Services. She returned to Los Angeles and was elected first to the California State Assembly in 1982 and then to the Los Angeles City Council in 1987 before running for supervisor.
Mr. Lozano recalls a meeting in the early 1980s at an East L.A. restaurant, where about eight local Hispanic political players tried to choose a candidate for state assembly. "We threw out names, and someone said, 'Why not get a woman to run? Why not Gloria?' " he says.
As a campaigner, Ms. Molina works hard and "articulates very well," according to Mr. Lozano, but she has a reputation for turning issues into a fight. One time at a political event Mr. Lozano said he heard criticism that she was too negative, and Ms. Molina's husband Ron Martinez responded: "Right after this election, we're going to send her to charm school." But she won that election – and every one since.
Ms. Molina has advocated for fiscal responsibility by ending "pension spiking" (inflating salaries to determine pension benefits) to save the county nearly $100 million. On the spending side, she advocates funding for parks, healthcare, and schools. "Education is by far the most significant issue for Latinos," she says. "In many public schools, we're not a minority anymore, we're the majority. But the quality has dropped due to inattention from the federal government in funding."
In economic development, her office conducts constant outreach to encourage contracting with local government and transportation projects. She also works to bring large companies to the inner city. Recently, she supported the construction of La Alameda Shopping Center, a $59 million project in Walnut Park that will bring big-name stores to the neighborhood. "It's a matter of synergy," she says. "You need small businesses, but you also need national retailers to anchor these shopping centers. We work to facilitate that."
At the national level, Ms. Molina helped coordinate the Democratic National Convention in 2000, and served as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee until 2004. She maintains her roots by serving on the board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Mr. Saiz at Cal State Northridge calls her a "significant player on the national scene" who has gathered power by staying 14 years on the county board.
"There weren't people doing what I did, so I had to learn along the way," says Ms. Molina about her journey to prominence. "My advice to other Latinas is to prepare for everything and roll with the punches. It was never easy, but there's great satisfaction in leadership."
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