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The Rocky Race of Sarah Flores


Before Sarah Flores could run for Los Angeles County supervisor, her husband, George, had to make a quick trip to the credit union.

After deciding to enter the race last March, she and George paid the $900 fee required of those who run for office. She expected that.

Then an official at the county clerk's office asked if she wanted a brief statement listing her qualifications added to the pamphlet sent to every voter with the sample ballot. That would cost her another $12,000.

The Floreses didn't have the money. But the night before, the family--Sarah, George and their five daughters--had discussed the election. "We decided nothing ventured, nothing gained," she said. "So my husband got a credit union loan and we used the house as collateral."

Thus began a series of emotional ups and downs in the election run of Sarah Flores, 52, in her attempt to become Los Angeles County's first Latino supervisor in this century. The high point occurred in June's primary. Although she fell short of a majority, she finished first and emerged as the favorite to defeat the second-place finisher, Superior Court Judge Gregory O'Brien, in the 1st District, which includes the San Gabriel Valley and Southeast Los Angeles County.

But in a touch of irony, Flores became a victim of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed against the county by the U.S. Justice Department, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It charged that county supervisors had discriminated against Latinos when they drew the boundaries for supervisorial districts in 1981.

Federal Judge David Kenyon agreed. He ordered that a special election be held in November in a new 1st District whose boundaries reflected the county's large Latino population. Then, just as Flores was adjusting to that development, an appeals court postponed the election indefinitely while it reviewed Kenyon's decision.

The appellate court decision put the campaign in limbo. Fund-raising has dried up. And while Flores is making speeches and talking to supporters every day, she has found it hard to keep people interested when the election is nowhere in sight.

Flores discussed her plight recently in an interview at her campaign headquarters in a large shopping center a few blocks from the San Bernardino Freeway. Next door, young men and women in workout clothes bustled around a gym. The activity was a contrast to Flores' quiet headquarters, where she and a volunteer waited for the phone to ring.

"It's a trying time," said Flores, who is on unpaid leave from her job as assistant chief deputy to the incumbent supervisor, Pete Schabarum. "It's hard. We have to be more careful and tighten our budget. We put food on the table and pay the gas and light bill, but there's not enough for a vacation. But it's a commitment we made as a family. We're going ahead."

Another obstacle has been her ex-boss, Schabarum.

Schabarum did not tell Flores last spring that he had decided against running for reelection.

The supervisor figured that if he kept his retirement secret until the last minute, a popular Democrat, Rep. Esteban Torres, would not have time to put together the organization or raise the money needed to run for supervisor.

Then he endorsed O'Brien, saying Flores did not have the experience for the job.

Flores was hurt--and angry. "I trained him" in county government, she recalled, when he became a supervisor in 1971 after serving in the state Assembly.

After filing for candidacy, Flores arrived at her office just as Schabarum was talking to the staff about his decision. "We were in a state of complete shock, wondering why we hadn't been told," she said. Schabarum tried to reassure the staff. "He said everyone would be taken care of," Flores said. "He said everyone would have a job."

Later in the morning, Schabarum held a news conference. He let slip the news that Flores was running. Reporters flocked around Flores, who was in the back of the room. When she and Schabarum returned to the office, she said, "He was very angry at me. He said, 'You stole my press conference.' " She snapped back: "No I didn't. You announced I was running."

Flores fought back. She got an endorsement from Sheriff Sherman Block as soon as she asked him. Backing also came from Supervisors Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich because Flores' candidacy fit in with their plans.

Since 1981, Dana, Antonovich and Schabarum had made up a three-man conservative Republican majority that controlled the five-member board. But in the past few years, they had split. Schabarum, who had helped finance their election campaigns, charged that Antonovich and Dana were straying from his brand of hard-line conservatism. Dana and Antonovich said Schabarum had become stubborn and disagreeable.

Antonovich and Dana saw Flores as a way of beating the Voting Rights Act lawsuit. Her election would show that the 1st District boundaries did not discriminate against Latinos.

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