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Molina--Catch a Rising Star : Politics: The new county supervisor is the focus of attention nationwide. Her success has stirred ambitious dreams for women.

March 08, 1991|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

She is "the hottest commodity around," one political fund-raiser admiringly observed. As Gloria Molina today takes her seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, her meteoric ascendancy is the focus of attention across the country.

Few have equaled her success in so short a time. Since 1982, Molina has sought and won office in three powerful bodies--the California Assembly, the Los Angeles City Council and the board. She was the first Latina to hold each post; indeed, the first woman elected to the board.

With each election, she confounded the odds, surmounting a political Establishment arrayed against her and playing against the conventional ideology of California voters.

At the Washington headquarters of the National Women's Political Caucus, telephones have rung incessantly since Molina's Feb. 19 election, according to Sharon Rodine, the group's president. And the subject is Molina.

"They see future, future, future written all over her," Rodine said.

For activist women, Latinas particularly, Molina's victory over state Sen. Art Torres of Los Angeles has stirred ambitious dreams. In part, the enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that Torres had strong backing from organized labor and elected officials.

"Thousands and thousands of women all of a sudden see that there's hope," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Women's Campaign Fund, which dispenses money to candidates.

"She was an outsider. She stayed the course. She ran against the machine and she won. She sends an important message."

But whether Molina's own ambitions will be rewarded with state or national office remains very much an open question, subject to the quixotic whims and sometimes erratic timing of politics.

Despite her heady victory, political analysts suggest that Molina will have to overcome a fistful of problems to rise beyond her seat on the board.

While her celebrity is likely to keep Molina in the public eye, the board itself is hardly an automatic steppingstone for politicians. The venerable Kenneth Hahn, perhaps the best known of the county's supervisors, found that out in 1958 when he tried to use the board as a launching pad for the U.S. Senate. The voters thwarted him and other supervisors who similarly sought higher office.

Additionally, Molina's campaigns, while successful, have been run in districts that bear little resemblance to the rest of California or the nation.

U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon, moving to redress voting rights violations, last year carved out the first supervisorial district and made it 71% Latino. In contrast, a Los Angeles Times exit poll taken after the 1990 gubernatorial election showed that 75% of the voters statewide were Anglo, and only 10% Latino.

Molina's greatest electoral success came among Latinos, whom she won by a 59%-41% vote, according to a KMEX-TV exit poll. In contrast, the polling estimated that Molina's showing among Anglos was a much narrower 52% to 48%.

In political ideology, Molina has set a liberal tone, in keeping with her district but in contrast to what voting patterns have shown to be the cautiously conservative nature of the state's electorate.

During her campaign for supervisor, Molina pushed for increased funding for health and welfare programs, a popular move in the district but one that could receive mixed reviews elsewhere in budget-squeezed California. She also promised to hire more Latino county employees, which could open her up to criticism in a free-wheeling statewide campaign.

But friends suggest that Molina's attributes, although not as easily defined as her negatives, have paid off. Time and again, she has leaped over the organized political leadership and connected with voters in a way unforeseen by her opponents.

In the race against Torres, Molina ran against the accumulated heft of the county's labor unions, but attracted voters with a vow to shake up the supervisors and deliver services to her district.

Molina supporters say she must now move determinedly to chalk up some victories on the board that can not only ensure reelection but be used as a base for any future political effort.

"Her performance in office is certainly going to dictate her future," said the NWPC's Rodine. "People will be watching for her performance--that will be the deciding factor."

Simultaneously, Molina will have to extend her reach--both among disparate political groups and in the realm of fund raising. The latter is essential in state races, where expensive television advertising dominates and a candidate cannot depend solely on the intensely personal, knock-on-doors campaigns that Molina has mounted thus far.

"She did a nuts-and-bolts campaign, and it would be very different in a statewide campaign," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus, a Molina ally. "Doing the kind of campaign that's required to win is what's important, not doing the same campaign each time."

At 42, Molina can afford to pick her next campaign carefully. She is almost a generation younger than last year's gubernatorial candidates, Dianne Feinstein and Pete Wilson, both of whom are 57. And with each year that passes, analysts note, California's minority groups will assert more political power, power that theoretically could accrue to Molina's benefit.

Molina can be expected to continue receiving political and financial support from two sources that dominated her fund raising in the last election--women and Latinos. Her role as supervisor, however, will also open Molina to new worlds of financial donors, who are essential to political success.

"She has tremendous fiscal responsibility on the board," said Danowitz of the Women's Campaign Fund. "That means she already has a national fund-raising base and a national constituency."

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