EL MONTE, Calif.—Hilda Solis is home.
A few miles from where she lives, in a cavernous local labor union hall, Solis is shaking hands, teary-eyed and tired. The official results won’t be in for hours, but the California polls just closed and the outcome has long been clear to anyone who’s paid attention. The race is over. She won.
Solis, former labor secretary under President Obama and the first Latina cabinet member, successfully avoided a runoff Tuesday in the race to join the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a body so uniquely powerful its members long ago earned the nickname “the five little kings.”
The election was more than just a homecoming for Solis, who left her cabinet post at the start of last year. It was a homecoming for a movement. It was from this part of California that she and a handful of other Latinas began claiming state and national political firsts and it was here, in her election-day headquarters, that they reunited to welcome home one of their own.
“It’s very, very exciting,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard (D), whose congressional district overlaps in part with what will soon be Solis’s supervisorial district. “Up until recent times, politics was strictly a man’s world. … Little by little, women in general, but Latinas in particular, in our community started to say ‘You know what? I’d like to serve also.'”
Solis will serve roughly 2 million constituents, roughly three times the size of the congressional district she represented from 2001 to 2009. Overall, Los Angeles County is home to 10 million people, more residents than in all but seven states. And the powerful Board of Supervisors oversees a $26 billion budget, placing it roughly in the middle of the pack among states.
In representing the first district, Solis will take the reins from current Supervisor Gloria Molina, whom she first met years ago when Molina served as deputy director of presidential personnel in the Carter administration and Solis was a White House intern. (“We stood out,” Molina says.)
The two became friends, put in their time in Washington, and eventually returned home to southern California. Molina went on to become the first Latina elected to the California Assembly, Los Angeles City Council and, in 1991, the Board of Supervisors. (That last success was only possible after a judge agreed that the previous apportionment had boxed out Hispanics—violating both the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution—and subsequently redrew the district.)
In 1992, the Boyle Heights woman whom Molina had hand-picked as her successor in the Assembly in the eighties, Rep. Roybal-Allard, became the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress. Then, in 1994, Solis became the first Latina elected to the state Senate.
“It stems from here, from L.A. County,” Solis said, discussing why so many barriers were broken by Los Angeles-area Latinas. “It’s because of our history and what we learned from that over time. Lucille Roybal’s father fought to be a representative on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and was robbed of that and so we continue to grow on that and grow on what we’ve learned,” Solis said. But it wasn’t just about learning from the broader Latino movement. The women in some cases had to push back against Latino men, too, she and Rep. Roybal-Allard said. (In running for Congress, Solis took on an incumbent Latino.)
Both were on stage to celebrate Solis’s then-unofficial, but expected win on Tuesday night. There with them were Molina, Dolores Huerta, the labor, civil rights and women’s rights activist who has developed a close relationship with Solis over the years, and Los Angeles’s Latino Mayor Eric Garcetti, the city’s first elected Jewish mayor, along with other local Latino leaders.
The group was celebrating more than her return, they were also celebrating her ascent to a very powerful local position on the board of supervisors.
“They wield tremendous influence and much of that influence is wielded behind the scenes,” says Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola University’s law school in Los Angeles and the vice president of the city’s ethics commission.
The board is involved in every branch of government, exercising legislative, executive and quasi-judicial powers. The supervisors approve appointments and administer services such as law enforcement, health and welfare programs and, for the roughly one million people living in unincorporated areas throughout the county, supervisors also act as the mayor and city council.
The county boasts of having the world’s largest sheriff’s department, the nation’s largest jail system and its second-largest health system. It covers an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. But problems in the county can be just as super-sized.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, has been rocked by scandal in recent months. Late last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation brought charges against 18 then-current or former deputy sheriffs in a wide-ranging civil rights and corruption probe involving unjustified beatings. Weeks later, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced his surprise retirement.
“Hilda’s going to have her hands full,” says Molina, who was termed out of the seat, thus freeing it up for Solis. Helping the Sheriff’s Department emerge from the recent scandals and reforming children’s services will likely be two major priorities, she says.
Economic development will be another, Solis said, speaking in a nearly empty union hall around midnight. There’s important environmental policy to be implemented and housing assistance to be provided, too. Public transit should be improved and the county’s new jail needs to include critical rehabilitation services.
There was more, but it had been a long day. It was time to go home.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the record Mayor Garcetti broke. He is Los Angeles’s first elected Jewish mayor.