Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina sits behind her desk ticking off what she's good at and what she's bad at — just a few days after sending a jolt through Los Angeles politics by announcing that she will take on Jose Huizar, the City Council District 14 incumbent, in the March 2015 primary.
In the modern history of L.A.'s council primaries, only one person has ever defeated an incumbent. In 2003, former California Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa beat Nick Pacheco, then used his Council District 14 post as a waystation to challenge and oust Mayor James Hahn in 2005.
The ugly 2003 Villaraigosa-Pacheco war over the Eastside's CD14 split some Latino friends and families. A much bigger brawl is likely this time.
Huizar, 46, represents not just the working-class Eastside but also the most monied new sector of Los Angeles, downtown's skyscraper districts, and he has been raising campaign money furiously as if in anticipation of Molina's surprise move. Molina, meanwhile, has made a key campaign issue of the virtual disappearance of female politicians from L.A.'s municipal life, along with her dismay over what she calls neglected infrastructure and municipal services in the Latino, working-class half of CD14, east of the L.A. River.
Neither candidate is accustomed to losing elections.
The tough Molina, 66, holds a place in local history for outsmarting a powerful group of Latino good old boys who fought hard to block her election as the first Latina legislator in California history. Huizar, meanwhile, has easily won hard-fought elections in CD14 and has enlisted well-connected City Council President Herb Wesson and downtown developers.
Huizar's intent was to scare off any serious competition on the ballot in March.
But everything changed, Molina tells L.A. Weekly, when a group of people approached her two months ago, as she prepared to retire from politics, and asked her to run for the LAUSD Board of Education.
Molina says, “I'm not good at raising money, I've never been good at raising money. And I was on the verge of becoming a volunteer for Parents Institute for Quality Education, a wonderful group that trains Eastside parents in very assertive skills to help their kids get into college. And it really works.”
She gave serious thought to the recruiters, who approved of Molina's support of charter schools in poor and working-class L.A., as well as other reforms. “When I looked at the school board, and the foothold the unions have there, I wasn't sure I could break through their opposition to real change,” Molina says. “The board itself seems not to be interested in fixing the schools — and I'm much more hands-on than that. In fact, that's a criticism I often receive. Too hands-on.”
She then shifted her attention to complaints she says her office receives from residents of Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Eagle Rock and other areas, about the city's decaying infrastructure and services.
“Even in Little Tokyo, I heard from people who told me of their frustrations in dealing with [Huizar's] office,” she says, listing county projects she has led in CD14, including a partnership with the California Endowment to open the Wellness Center inside Historic General Hospital in Boyle Heights. “They were going to use the hospital for storage!” she says of the county planners.
Huizar's office did not return phone calls from the Weekly to comment. His staff emailed to the Weekly a prepared statement Huizar issued last week, stating in part, “The service to Council District 14 constituents has never been higher and I look forward to continuing to serve as their councilmember for the next four years.”
But plenty of others are weighing in.
Tony Castro, an author and former newspaper reporter who maintains close ties to Latino leaders in Los Angeles, says, “Huizar's got an awful lot of enemies and a lot of stuff that can be brought out against him.” That includes an affair that the married Huizar had with an aide. That aide now claims in a lawsuit that Huizar retaliated against her, interfering with her career.
“I don't know if Gloria will run against those issues,” Castro says, “but there will probably be independent committees against Huizar who will run the usual dirty campaigns we see — and they may bring it out. On one level, there's a risk to Gloria's legacy — to her name — should she lose to Huizar, of all people, who is so weak. But I don't think legacies are things that worry her. Her legacy is as a trailblazer. And she knows it.”
Until fairly recently, Huizar did not represent the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. But in 2012, City Council president Wesson pulled off a controversial gerrymander during the redistricting process, dramatically shifting the boundaries of City Councilwoman Jan Perry's district to take most of downtown away from Perry and hand that prize to Huizar.
Huizar almost overnight became significantly more powerful, the leading voice for using city resources to create upscale communities downtown, including the historic Broadway Theater District.
Former city controller Laura Chick had harsh words for both Huizar and Molina: “I was surprised and a little aghast” about Molina's announcement, she says, “because I happen to believe in something called the art of leaving. Gloria Molina has served this city long and well, but it's time to pass the baton. I was very surprised that in this long time of public service that she hasn't found someone to mentor. Men — or especially women. And it's disappointing to me.”
But, Chick adds, “That said, I hope to heck someone puts Jose Huizar out of office.”
Grace Yoo, a Koreatown activist involved in a federal lawsuit that claims the 2012 Wesson-led redistricting chopped apart legally protected communities, has not taken a side in the Molina-Huizar war.
But if Molina can persuade voters that the City Council is emerging as a new version of the old boys' club — 14 males who vote in lockstep on 99 percent of council matters — she may pose a threat to Huizar.
Yoo says, “I think the fact that Gloria Molina stepped into the CD14 race means that this very quiet race has, all of a sudden, become a very major race. … She's been the first Latina on so many occasions. She certainly wouldn't be the first Latina City Council member — but the fact is that we currently only have one” woman on the council: Nury Martinez, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley.
Michael Trujillo, a political operative who backs Huizar but is not employed by his campaign, says he is torn over the problem of women vanishing from L.A. politics.
“This is going to sound bad coming from a guy,” Trujillo says, “but the biggest detriment to women not getting elected are their fellow women. For whatever reason, they seem to find reasons not to support women [financially] on the local level, or for Congress. The numbers on the City Council are at the worst level in the history of L.A. since women got politically active. It's disconcerting, and it's horrible.”
Trujillo notes that Huizar “has been fighting for women for office — he supported Monica Garcia and Ana Cubas and went all in for Wendy Greuel. He has been trying to empower women. But so has Gloria Molina. She helped found a feminist organization and supported Ana Cubas and Wendy, and Monica Garcia is now working in Gloria's supervisorial office.”
This week, Molina's staff was busy with her county projects, many of which are located adjacent to, or deep inside, CD14. Her office staff, which has expertise on poverty, education, park development and other urban matters, numbers about 30 people. Three-fourths are women.
Detractors at City Hall say Molina's staff doesn't spend enough time on the Eastside, but the supervisor rattles off a dozen long-standing efforts, including her fight to locate a KIPP charter school in an unneeded county building in East L.A. “They'll hold a lottery to decide who gets to attend,” Molina says, “and thousands of Eastside parents are going to apply.”