LOS ANGELES -- Voters will make history here Tuesday when they choose the first Hispanic county supervisor in 115 years in a runoff election between state Sen. Art Torres and Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina.
Although both candidates are Democrats with well-established liberal credentials, their hard-fought contest has served to demonstrate the traditional conservative values of the Hispanic community.
In a debate on public television last Thursday, Torres interrupted a reporter who described him as a liberal Democrat, saying, "On crime, I'm not a liberal Democrat . . . and not on fiscal issues." He then emphasized his "tough" stands on crime and took Molina to task for supporting an increase in the city's sewer tax.
Molina also has taken a hard line on criminal justice issues. Like Torres, she supports the death penalty and points out that she has held this position consistently while Torres once favored the abolition of capital punishment.
On fiscal issues the two candidates emphasize increasing services by making government more efficient instead of by increasing taxes. As Ronald Reagan did in 1980, Torres says he would turn to taxes only as a "last resort." And borrowing a stylistic device used by Reagan in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, Torres twice chided Molina during their debate Thursday by saying, "There you go again."
Torres, 44, and Molina, 42, are competing in a supervisorial district drawn by a federal court to remedy a long pattern of intentional discrimination against Hispanics, who were scattered among the county's five supervisorial districts. The court-drawn district extends east for 25 miles from poor neighborhoods of downtown Los Angeles to relatively prosperous suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley.
The conservative tone of the runoff campaign reflects the effort of the two candidates to win votes from supporters of Sarah Flores, a Republican civil servant, and state Sen. Charles Calderon, a conservative Democrat, who ran third and fourth respectively in a free-for-all election last month. Molina led with 35 percent of the vote, and Torres had 26 percent as runner-up.
The campaign tone also reflects voter attitudes in a district where the population is 71 percent Hispanic. A survey by the Southwest Voter Research Institute released Friday found 31 percent of the district's electorate regard "gangs" as the most important issue, followed by 18 percent who listed "crime" and 12 percent who said "drugs." No other issue was in double digits.
The survey found Molina leading with 38 percent support to 28 percent for Torres, with 30 percent of voters undecided.
Torres's supporters claim he has offset Molina's lead in the first election by winning the endorsement of the other seven candidates who opposed them, including Flores and Calderon. He has raised nearly $1 million, twice as much as Molina, with a quarter of the money coming from labor unions.
Molina's inability to win support from any of her former opponents has underscored her reputation as an abrasive outsider. She considers this a plus and cites the endorsement editorial of the Los Angeles Times, which praised her as "an anti-politician politician." Molina says the Hispanic community needs someone who can speak with "a strong voice" on the board.
"You're a fighter, there's no question about that," Torres said to Molina during the Thursday debate. "I believe that working with people can get more results."
Whatever the outcome, the election is considered likely to change the ideological balance on the five-member, nonpartisan county board, a powerful body whose budget of $10 billion is exceeded by only a dozen states. The board has long had a 3 to 2 conservative majority, and either Molina or Torres is far more liberal than the conservative incumbent, Pete Schabarum, who did not seek reelection in the redrawn district.
While they have campaigned as conservatives, both Molina and Torres say they want the county to spend more on health care, including AIDS treatment and mental health facilities. And both are environmentalists who say they will seek remedies to the increasing pollution of ground water in their district, where waste dumps abound.