Photos by Debra DiPaolo (top) and Ted Soqui

They are charismatic, bright and ambitious. Gloria Romero and Martin Gallegos are two of the rising stars in Latino politics, each one supported by powerful endorsements and big-money contributors.

Next Tuesday, there will be room for only one of them in the 24th state Senate District. San Gabriel Valley voters will decide in a special election who will take the slot that opened up when Hilda Solis moved on to Congress. Solis beat fellow Democrat Mathew Martinez in the 31st District last year.

In many ways, the Gallegos-Romero race is reminiscent of the Solis-Martinez contest: Both candidates are Democrats and Latinos. Gallegos is a termed-out assemblyman while Romero is the current assemblywoman of the 49th District.

But the two candidates have even more in common. Romero, who is 45, is a professor of psychology; Gallegos, who is 44, used to work as a chiropractor and still writes for medical journals. The two come from working-class, pro-union third-generation Mexican-American families, ideal backgrounds for the mostly Latino 24th Assembly District, which stretches from Alhambra to Azusa. The district also includes a large portion of whites and Asian-Americans.

Gallegos is supported by his party and a host of Latino politicians, such as Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante. Romero has been endorsed by Solis and dozens of labor organizations, including the influential L.A. County Federation of Labor. Romero has raised about $370,000, much of it from teachers unions and other labor groups. Gallegos has raised about $260,000, most of it from medical groups.

The race for the 24th District is a sign of things to come, political observers say. Term limits are pitting contenders who otherwise would more than likely never have faced off. Before term limits, it’s likely that Gallegos, who spent six years as an assemblyman, would have been the Democratic point candidate to fill Solis’ vacant seat in the Senate.

Some Democratic lawmakers were outraged by Romero’s decision to run against Gallegos, she says. In her Rosemead campaign office, she dismisses such criticism, saying this is a democracy, not an inherited style of politics like Mexico’s old PRI, where a party elder chose candidates.

“Hilda Solis showed that when she ran for Congress. She got the same criticism. Like how dare you take on the sitting congressman,” Romero says. “The days have changed. The dedazo (finger anointing) is not pointed anymore. This is not an ascension to office: It’s an election of the people.”

Gallegos says he does not object to Romero’s running against him, but adds that such showdowns are best avoided. He says Latinos have fought for political power, and it is foolish when two strong candidates slug it out. “We shouldn’t be fighting over the food,” says Gallegos, during a recent night in his El Monte war room. “And recognize that there’s plenty of food for everybody to eat if we just handle it in a responsible manner.”

Romero could have remained for four more years as an assemblywoman, Gallegos says. But now, one of them will suffer a political blow, setting back a Latino candidate with valuable experience in serving their communities.

Acknowledging that Romero is a capable office seeker — good enough for him to have endorsed her for the Assembly in 1998 — Gallegos nevertheless believes that his six years of experience in the Assembly makes him a better candidate. But he respects her as a formidable opponent.

“Would I have preferred her not to run? Of course,” Gallegos says.

Two lesser-known candidates — Republican Vincent House and Libertarian Carl Swinney — are also running, but the district is expected to remain under Democratic control.

Romero says she decided to run against Gallegos because she firmly believes she can do a better job in the 24th District. She has been a psychology teacher for 18 years; her roots as a lawmaker go back even further, to her teenage years.

Romero’s mother moved to California from New Mexico, where as a teen she worked as a maid. Her father worked a grueling swing shift on the railroad. He would often come home with bloodied hands.

The Romero family lived on the outskirts of Barstow, where they had to drive along a dirt road to get to town. Her father made sure to carry shovels in the family’s Ford pickup and in their old Chevy; the tool came in handy when the vehicles got stuck in the dirt.

“My dad just got tired,” Romero says. “He said, ‘We are people. Why can’t we have services?’”

Her father got her to write a petition that asked for a road to be paved. Going house to house, Romero and her father gathered hundreds of signatures; the road was built. Romero moved to Los Angeles to study psychology at Cal State Long Beach. The way people think, analyze and behave enthralled her.

“Social psychology, dealing with race relations. How do you start trying to bring together groups that are in conflict with each other?” Romero says. “I found that fascinating.”

As a professor, Romero became the first Latina to be elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, in 1995. She was later elected, in 1997, to the Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission.

In 1998, Romero defeated a group of well-qualified candidates in the 49th Assembly District in Monterey Park. She has the support of labor, including the United Farm Workers.

She owes part of her political tenacity to such role models as United Farm Workers warrior-activist Dolores Huerta, Romero says. She also is inspired by the way her mother tried to help others improve their lives.

“Latinas don’t step aside anymore,” Romero says. “We have earned our credentials. We have a message to deliver . . . and it resonates.”

For Romero, public safety will remain a key issue. In the aftermath of the LAPD Rampart corruption scandal, she shepherded through a law that makes it a felony for officers to alter, plant or conceal evidence in an attempt to get someone charged with a crime.

As for Gallegos, part of his political philosophy comes from his mother. A single parent, she managed to put him and his older brother through medical schools working for $80 a week in a South-Central rubber-mold factory. “She always told us, ‘You got to go to college because you don’t want to end up like me, working in a factory for 30 years,’” Gallegos says. “It was hard work that she did.”

He grew up in Huntington Park, playing baseball and joining the Boy Scouts. He decided to become a chiropractor, in part because he was inspired by one who healed his mother’s neck injury.

Gallegos believes he is the first Spanish-speaking chiropractic doctor to set up a clinic in the mostly Latino Baldwin Park area, in 1985. During his off time he would do volunteer work for the city, cleaning up graffiti or vacant lots.

In 1990, Gallegos was elected to the Baldwin Park City Council, and he served for four years. In 1994, Hilda Solis left the 57th state Assembly District when she was elected as a state Senator for the 24th District; Gallegos ran for her vacant chair and won.

Last March, Gallegos announced he would run for the state Senate after six years in the Assembly, and he plans to continue to make health care a focus of his work. He’s lived in the San Gabriel Valley for 22 years.

Their offices filled with charts and maps of the 24th District, Romero and Gallegos have hundreds of volunteers and are battling it out for votes street by street, house by house. Gonzalo Molina, a veteran Democratic activist who is a friend of both candidates, says they are among the cleanest and most honest Latino politicians around, and that each one is exemplary. He says, “I consider them my friends. They are very intelligent. May the best one win.”

LA Weekly