I recently overheard a conversation that perfectly summarized the prevailing attitude among local Latinos toward the coming Los Angeles City Council election that will pit two popular Eastside politicians, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina and Board of Education member Larry Gonzalez, against each other.
"Are you supporting Gloria or Larry?" a politically active businessman asked an old friend. The other man reached into his pocket for a coin, flipped it into the air and caught it. "Take your choice," he said with a laugh.
Latinos in the newly created 1st District, which runs from Highland Park to the Pico-Union area just west of downtown, might just as well flip a coin to decide if they will support Molina or Gonzalez in a special election next Feb. 3, because there are few major differences between them. Both are moderate-to-liberal Democrats. Both are young and attractive. And both once worked as aides for state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles).
A few activists worry that if two well-known candidates divide the Latino vote in the 1st District a non-Latino may win. But that seems unlikely, since 16 other candidates also have declared their intentions to run for the council seat. It will be hard for so many rivals to compete effectively with Molina and Gonzalez in a district with a 69% Latino population.
Because Molina and Gonzalez do not differ radically on issues, many Latinos fear that the 1st District campaign may focus instead on personalities and old political rivalries. The pivotal figure in this scenario is City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who wants Gonzalez to be the second Latino on the council.
Alatorre and Molina have not gotten along since he supported another candidate against her when she first ran for the Assembly in 1982. This year she got even by backing a rival candidate against an Alatorre aide who ran in the 55th Assembly District. Latinos fear that the simmering rivalry between them may boil over again in the 1st District. If it does, the campaign could get rough. And that could force Latino community leaders, who respect both Molina and Gonzalez, to choose up sides whether they want to or not.
"When Alatorre and Molina face off like this, they get angry if you help the other side," another Chicano businessman told me somberly. "And if I try to help both sides I'll just get both sides mad at me. Everybody is going to have to choose, like me."
I've covered politics long enough to know that he probably is right. I also know that if mud-slinging becomes the main feature of the 1st District race the image of two young Latino politicians will not be the only thing tarnished. The image of the entire Latino community will suffer, too.
There have just been too many bitter, even dirty, campaigns in the local Latino community in the last few years. Not just the many efforts to oust former Eastside Councilman Arthur K. Snyder, but also the race between Sen. Torres and former state Sen. Alex Garcia in 1982, and this year's 55th Assembly district campaign between Mike Hernandez (backed by Molina) and Richard Polanco (Alatorre's boy). By now I couldn't blame outsiders if they decided that Latinos are incapable of conducting serious campaigns that focus on issues
So I hope that Latino community leaders, especially the prosperous businessmen and professionals who give so much financial support to politicians like Molina and Gonzalez, insist that it does not happen again. After all, they have leverage this year that could make even strong-willed politicians like Alatorre pay attention.
The city's new campaign-finance law prohibits candidates from taking contributions of more than $500 from any one source. That includes both cash donations and "in-kind" contributions such as postage and printing costs. More important, the new rules bar candidates from using money raised for other campaigns to run for city offices. So Molina can't use her Assembly campaign fund, and Gonzalez can't use money that he has raised to run for reelection to the school board.
Thus both candidates will need help from as many donors as possible. And this means that Latinos can do more than flip a coin in the 1st District race. Instead, they could donate a little to each side, then sit back to see who uses the money cleanly and effectively before deciding whom to support the rest of the way. This will undoubtedly annoy Gonzalez and Molina and their powerful allies. But ambitious politicos need prosperous supporters in the Latino community as much as the Latino community needs them, so they'll be back looking for help when some future election rolls around.
In the meantime, the many successful Latinos in this city who donate to political campaigns, and give in too easily to the requests of their political leaders, will have a chance to get something in return--a clean, fair campaign that the Latino community can be proud of.