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Retiring Elder Statesman Roybal Leaves Latino Power Vacuum


It was a scene that befit the man who pioneered modern-day politics for Latinos in Los Angeles. Nearly 100 people--politicians, community leaders and Latino activists--had braved the rain to honor their mentor and friend at an Eastside restaurant, fighting back tears as longtime Democratic Rep. Edward R. Roybal had his last hurrah.

The faithful, some of them political heavyweights in their own right, sang "Happy Birthday" and heaped praise on the 76-year-old Roybal. Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina tried to talk him out of his decision to retire from Congress because of his wife's health. But he would have none of it.

"I want to be the congressman from East L.A.," Roybal said later, noting that this year's reapportionment had moved his district westward and away from his Eastside power base. "I don't want to be the congressman from Hollywood."

The night may have been Roybal's, but the next day belonged to the political handicappers, who began grappling with the question of who would inherit Roybal's political legacy: the 30th Congressional District seat and the role of the Eastside's reigning kingpin.

The departure of Roybal, who was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council when the term "Mexican-American" was in vogue and Latinos were commonly referred to as "wetbacks," marks the end of an era. Activists and political scientists say he leaves a void that may never be filled.

"He is one of a kind," said East Los Angeles political activist Berta (Bert) Saavedra. "He's separate and apart from everyone else in the Latino community. He did things when it wasn't fashionable to do it."

"We've lost a gigantic voice for our community," said Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, whose election to the council 26 years after Roybal's 1949 breakthrough win made him only the second Latino to serve on the council.

Larry Berg, a political scientist at USC and director of the university's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the significance of Roybal's career for Latinos is easily defined.

"When he started," Berg said, "he was it for Latinos. He broke the path."

He was the first Latino to serve on the City Council. The first to run for statewide office this century. The first elected to Congress from California. And he almost became the first to serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, losing in 1958 to Ernest E. Debs after several recounts.

Roybal leaves the political arena much changed. As Los Angeles' first Mexican-American elected official, Roybal had no other Latino officeholder to help promote his ideas: bilingual education, adequate health care for minorities and the elderly and the humane treatment of illegal immigrants.

The councilman had to make alliances with Anglo power brokers and others who had not given much thought to Eastside residents. Roybal preferred to work behind the scenes to get support for his ideas, a practice that became his trademark during his 30 years in Congress.

When Roybal announced his retirement last Monday, he was called Los Angeles' original coalition builder--a reputation built long before Tom Bradley fashioned his own coalition to become mayor in 1973.

In today's world, the old-style Roybal seems a bit stiff and long-winded when the TV cameras roll.

The new generation of Latino politicians, principally led by Molina, Alatorre and state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), convey their messages in short, punchy "sound bites," suited to the constraints of television news. As a result, the new generation frequently finds itself being quoted on issues ranging from the proposed prison near Boyle Heights and the preservation of Olvera Street to combatting gang violence.

The congressman also leaves behind dozens of elected Latino officials serving in Los Angeles County, ranging from school board members to state legislators.

Their numbers could grow significantly with a new wave of aspirants seeking election this year as a result of changing legislative boundaries mandated by reapportionment. The reapportionment has created new "Latino" legislative districts in which newcomers can seek office. For the first time, a number of women are among the contenders. One of them is Roybal's daughter, Democratic Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, who has announced her intention to run in the new 33rd Congressional District.

Others who have been mentioned for some of the seats are Saavedra; Hilda Solis, a trustee of the Rio Hondo Community College District; Pat Acosta, a marketing consultant, and Marta Escutia, an attorney and a senior vice president with the United Way of Los Angeles.

Despite his stature as an elder statesman, Roybal retires without putting an end to the factional squabbling among younger Latino politicians.

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