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Torres Loss Tarnishes Great Expectations : Politics: The L.A. Democrat says it's too early to write his political obituary. He has returned to his legislative duties.

February 24, 1991|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Less than a decade ago, Art Torres was considered a rising political star, the subject of much speculation and envy.

After unseating an incumbent to claim a state Senate seat in 1982, Torres quickly established himself as one of the chamber's more articulate, charismatic members. And his name was usually at the top of the list as politicians talked about how the state's growing Latino population could one day propel a glib, good-looking and bright Latino all the way into the governor's office.

But after Torres' defeat last week in a race for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--ironically to a former aide, Gloria Molina--those political dreams seem to have slipped away, shattered by the realities of the ballot box.

The loss follows two drunk driving arrests of Torres in the late 1980s. In the view of many political consultants and lawmakers, it was those arrests that began to dim Torres' political luster. Now, political strategists say, he has to be regarded as a long shot to win any statewide office, much less a high-profile one.

In a typical comment, one Sacramento lobbyist, who asked not to be named, said that Torres' defeat means that "he couldn't generate the confidence in himself as a candidate to raise the money" required to mount a statewide campaign.

Not surprisingly, the 44-year-old Torres demurs from such analysis, saying that it's much too soon to write his political obituary. He maintained that in the past, "People have tried to do that with me, and it hasn't worked."

Referring to his loss in the supervisor's race, he added, "One election doesn't determine a person's career."

Even though he outspent Molina nearly 2 to 1, Torres was defeated by her 55% to 45%. Molina, who after a stint in the Legislature has served as a Los Angeles city councilwoman, became the first Latino elected to the board in this century, and the first woman ever elected supervisor.

Torres, a Democrat, said that if the vote had been part of a general election--instead of a special contest--the turnout would have been higher, and he might have won. As it was, about 25% of the supervisorial district's registered voters cast ballots.

Torres also said the recent campaign taught him that Sacramento-based politicians face a disadvantage when running in local elections. Molina benefited from the more intensive coverage that Los Angeles television stations devote to local politicians rather than to the Legislature, Torres asserted.

As he returned to the Capitol and his Senate duties on Thursday, Torres was refocusing his attention on legislative business. He arrived early for Thursday's session and was greeted with a bear hug by Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who had lost to Molina and Torres in the primary for the supervisor's seat.

In an interview, Torres declined to spell out his political plans. But he shrugged off speculation that he might run for Molina's council seat, or for a new San Gabriel Valley congressional seat, which could be created in the reapportionment of legislative districts later this year.

Torres also discounted the impact that Proposition 140, which limits legislative terms, would have on decisions about his future. Under the terms of the initiative, he can only hold onto his Senate seat for one more four-year term, meaning he would have to leave the Legislature in 1998.

Torres easily won reelection last November to the 24th Senate District, which includes South Pasadena, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Maywood, Vernon and parts of Los Angeles, including Eagle Rock.

Although the drunk driving arrests did not become an issue in his reelection campaign, Calderon did raise it in the supervisorial primary. Seeking to defuse the issue, Torres sent a letter to voters talking frankly about his alcoholism, which he said he has overcome.

Sacramento political strategists have viewed the personal problem as troubling baggage for Torres, and his defeat last week confirmed that opinion for them. One lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that if Torres "can't overcome the drunk driving arrests in Los Angeles, there's no way he can do it statewide."

But David Townsend, a Torres campaign consultant, said that by confronting the issue in the supervisorial race, Torres has put the drunk driving arrests behind him. "He's dealt with his problems," Townsend said.

Assemblyman Xavier Becerra (D-Monterey Park), a one-time Torres aide, said that the key to Torres' political future will be "finding the right race at the right time."

Becerra said the loss to Molina is far from the final chapter in Torres' political career. "I don't think Art's the type who will let someone else write a chapter for him," Becerra said.

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