Gloria Molina cleared path for women of color, tapped Clinton to bail out LA county

Most describe Gloria Molina, who died from cancer at 74 on Mother’s Day, as the pioneering Chicana who served 32 years in elected office in Los Angeles, trounced her male opponents and fiercely stood up for her constituents.

They called her tough as nails, fearless, salty and a role model for women and especially women of color seeking elected office.

Certainly, the memories from those who knew her go hand-in-hand with her political “firsts.” In 1982, first Latina elected to the state Assembly; in 1987, first Latina elected to the Los Angeles City Council; in 1991, first Latina elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The Montebello-born Mexican American brought more than a tough exterior to her longest-held position, as a county supervisor from 1991 until 2014. The journey of Jesús Gloria Molina is really one of a multi-layered individual, who would grill county bureaucrats one day, and another day would host a food fair with homemade tamales.

“There were many layers to Gloria,” said Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who Molina endorsed for supervisor. “Her layers were very complicated, as a woman, a mother — and as a feminist before she even realized she was a feminist.”

In her later years, she could be found near Olvera Street, knitting and quilting with ladies in the group she founded, The East LA Stitchers (or TELAS). She also founded the historical museum LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Eastside Arts Initiative.

Tom Rosenquist builds an altar for groundbreaking Latina leader and former lawmaker Gloria Molina at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum and cultural center in Los Angeles on Monday, May 15, 2023. The altar and exhibit for Molina, who died at 74, will be open to the public beginning Wednesday. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Someone who saw Molina as a role model is First District Supervisor Hilda Solis, who started her career by getting elected to the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees in 1985. “She was one of the few role models. I think of Gloria Molina and (labor activist) Dolores Huerta. That’s where it ends,” Solis said on Monday, May 15.

Solis remembers Molina winning seats by beating male Latino candidates and defying those in the party who told her not to run. She met her at a meeting of the Comisión Femenil, a group Molina helped found.

“One time, I remember she sponsored an event on Whittier Boulevard. It was a big fiesta. I’ll never forget her wearing her apron,” Solis said.

She was also invited to Molina’s house during Christmas for homemade tamales and baked goods. “She liked to share her culture. I feel honored to have known her and the good work she did that we’ve carried on.”

Molina passed away at her home in Mt. Washington, surrounded by her family and close friends. A week before she died, Solis visited her and told her that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors had renamed Grand Park as Gloria Molina Grand Park in recognition of her efforts to complete the now-popular green space in downtown Los Angeles. Solis also told her that the Metro board, on which Molina served for 23 years, recently dedicated the East LA Civic Center Station of the L (Gold) Line in her honor.

Opening political doors

When Molina ran for state Assembly, she was told by the older, male Latino politicians to wait her turn. Molina ran anyway and won. Later, she beat the powerful Art Torres for the supervisorial seat in the newly drawn Latino district which was created due to a judge’s ruling.

“Sometimes you lead by example. She actually set the model in not agreeing to wait her turn,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Government Affairs at Cal State L.A. “Waiting your turn causes disadvantages for women candidates. Now women will run when they want to run.”

Sonenshein said by the time she ran for supervisor, she had stopped asking for permission.

“It takes courage to be the first woman in the room, and Gloria was the first woman and first Latina in nearly every room she was in,” said Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chair Janice Hahn in a prepared statement.  “She didn’t just make space for herself — she opened the door to the rest of us. Women in politics in LA County owe a debt of gratitude to Gloria Molina.”

Digging in her heels

A seminal moment came in the early 1980s when she led the opposition to a state prison proposed in East Los Angeles. She rallied the mostly Latino residents against the project, “digging in her heels,” Sonenshein said. In turn, then-Gov. George Deukmejian said he would veto her future bills. But the prison never got built.

“This was distinctive about her,” Sonenshein said. “She said the traditional way is not going to stop us. She kept her ears close to the ground. She was in touch with highly sensitive issues that could get overlooked by even traditional Democratic politics. That was her hallmark.”

Younger politicians followed her career. L.A. City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez called Molina a trailblazer for Latina women in local and state politics, noting that “Gloria Molina paved the way for many to follow after her. She was unapologetic in her efforts to give voice to her community, and worked tirelessly to hold government accountable.”

Some say she would go overboard when dressing-down county department heads in public during board meetings if something wasn’t right and she wasn’t getting straight answers.

“She held bureaucrats accountable,” said Jaime Regaldo, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. and former director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs. “If she felt they deserved a dressing-down, boy, they were in for it. If she didn’t like the response, well, there was the threat that you would lose your job.

“She made people cower under her persistent questioning,” he added. “And a lot saw it as an abuse of power. But she was fearless for the right reasons, going after those who were not doing their jobs.”

Higher connections

What many don’t know is that Molina had connections in Washington D.C. that came in handy. Before being elected to office, she worked for President Jimmy Carter and later was involved in President Bill Clinton’s campaigns, and was vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

In 1995, L.A. County’s government was going bankrupt and needed funding for its hospitals and healthcare operations. She used her connections with the Clinton Administration. President Bill Clinton flew to Southern California and helped bail out the county, said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, who sat on the county supervisor board dais with Molina for 20 years.

“She was at as home in the West Wing of the White House as she was in a home in El Monte,” he said.

Irene Tovar, a resident of Mission Hills, met Molina during meetings of Comisión Femenil in the 1970s. She always appreciated Molina’s support of Latino issues, even in the San Fernando Valley, which was not in her district.

“She understood the realities of politics and the needs of the community. That worked for her. She was a fighter,” she said.

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Staff writer Linh Tat contributed to this article.

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