Once the most celebrated Latina in America, California political doña and legend Gloria Molina is now facing a challenge that could seriously tarnish her legacy as a crusading giant killer who beat the old boys machine to get to where she is.
Last year, Molinas retirement from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors seemed like a fitting end to a long career that had begun in the State Legislature and moved to the City Council where along the way she surprisingly whipped the entrenched Latino political establishment and relished in doing it.
She was a media darling in the national press, rubbing shoulders with feminists like Gloria Steinem, becoming a role model for Latinas following in her footsteps and even appearing on the cover of Ms magazine.
In California, Molina gave former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa his political start, while she herself achieved the rarity of never having lost an election in a career dating back to 1982.
But that record may be in jeopardy.
Molinas retirement turned out to be short-lived. She is 66, but thats young in California where the governor and a U.S. senator are in their 70s and another senator is in her 80s.
So Molina decided to run for the L.A. City Council again, taking on a scandal-plagued Latino incumbent and heeding the call of some of his angry constituents urging her to challenge him in what they thought would be little more than a political coronation for a returning queen.
Its clear that this constituency wants a radical change, says Molina.
But today Molina finds herself fighting for how she will be remembered, largely because she and others seem to have underestimated the incumbent Councilman Jose Huizar and overestimated her own political power and popularity.
The concern of many including those who have long supported her is that if she loses, she will no longer be remembered just as a political giant slayer and role model for women of color, says Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at California State Los Angeles.
She could go down, as well, as someone who should have quit while on top and made room for the next generation of candidates and officeholders.
Indeed, in a time and place where money is the mothers milk of politics, Huizars campaign war chest for the upcoming March 3 election shows just how influential he has become after five years in office: More than $1 million in contributions and independent expenditures while the Molina campaign has raised a modest $150,000.
Huizar, 46, is also not as politically vulnerable in his district, which extends from downtown Los Angeles northeasterly into Latino working and middle-class neighborhoods and is currently dotted with his campaign billboards, yard signs and volunteers.
There he is still recognized as the UC Berkeley and Princeton-educated immigrant prodigal son who has accomplished things that previous council members including Villaraigosa never did for their district: Cleaning up a lake in the barrio of Boyle Heights, protecting large acreage of open space in middle-class El Sereno and creating a historic preservation zone in the northeast community of Highland Park.
It’s undeniable, the work I’ve done, says Huizar. Ms. Molina may have miscalculated the support I have in the district.
Downtown business interests with incredible clout and money also love Huizar, and the Los Angeles Downtown News endorsed him over Molina, citing his work in the Central City, his relationships with the community, the achievements he has made and the plans he has in motion.
Molina, on the other hand, won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times as well as the backing of Villaraigosa, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Los Angeles Councilman Gil Cedillo.
Huizar has also been endorsed by 11 of the other fellow council members.
A poll has shown Huizar and Molina running neck and neck with three other candidates pulling off votes an expensive runoff may be in the making — but that polling is murky considering the 14th Council District is an anamoly in Los Angeles local politics as is Latino politics itself.
The district is heavily Latino, but many of the eligible voters dont go to the polls, making the 14th a district that regularly elects a councilman with the lowest number of votes in the city.
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That could offer hope for Molina, except she is running in her first seriously competitive campaign in almost a quarter of a century and Huizar has cut into her one-time currency as a political darling of many as the first immigrant ever elected to the city council of the city with the largest number of immigrants in America.
The 14th district is also only a small slice of the vast supervisorial district that Molina represented for 23 years, meaning this is likely better identified as Huizars back yard than hers.
(Molina) really hasn’t had a test since 1991, observes Regalado, so I think she’s a little bit out of touch with how to run a tough campaign, a competitive campaign.
For her part, Molina has promised to drastically cut her council pay of $184,600, if elected, though thats likely only because she earns $90,000 a year from a county pension.
More importantly, it appears that the campaign issue that most thought would give Molina her biggest advantage Huizars personal scandals have seemingly not rallied Hispanics in large numbers against him.
Huizar was involved in an extramarital affair with his former chief of staff who subsequently filed a sexual harassment lawsuit that has been privately settled.
He was also at fault in an automobile accident in which the city had to pay out $185,000 for the other driver’s medical care.
Huizar, however, may be the beneficiary of the even more highly publicized scandals of his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, whose womanizing while mayor wrecked his marriage and led to a playboy image that still hounds him today as he considers a run for the U.S. Senate.
Jose owes Antonio a big debt by comparison to Antonios scandals, Joses seem like pocket change, said a Latino City Hall insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his position.
Ultimately, it may all come down to a question one local headline asked in cutting to the chase:
Can Gloria Molina still slay giants?