Joan Milke Flores cannot be accused of political parachuting. She reached the Los Angeles City Council in 1981 after a gritty, rung-by-rung ascent that included work as a City Hall stenographer and later as an aide to former Councilman John Gibson Jr.
Thanks partly to that experience, Flores, 56, who lives in San Pedro, has enjoyed a seemingly unbreakable bond with her 15th Council District, which stretches from the Harbor area to Watts.
Until this year, that is.
After trying and failing twice to reach higher office--secretary of state in 1990 and Congress last year--Flores has begun drawing fire for losing interest in her district. The criticism is fueled by sentiment in the 15th's blue-collar communities that they have been neglected by a distant City Hall.
Largely as a result, Flores is facing the toughest reelection fight of her 12-year council career. Accustomed to token opposition, she faces an aggressive six-candidate field of challengers that includes Los Angeles Unified school board member Warren Furutani and Janice Hahn, daughter of former county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
But Flores is confident of her chances in the April 20 contest. She says voters will rally to her side as she reminds them what she has done for the district. She cites accomplishments ranging from a branch library in Wilmington to the restoration of a historic train station in Watts.
"Everyone thinks someone else is getting all the services and all the money, but truthfully, we really do get our fair share," she said. "(People) don't always know what's going on. Or, if they see it happening, they don't know that I'm the one doing it."
Indeed, Flores' list of local successes is long.
Two prominent achievements were the creation in 1988 of the $2.2-million Wilmington Branch Library and public works improvement projects in the Wilmington Industrial Park that cost $10 million. In San Pedro, there was also the downzoning of the community and the $3 million used to improve Gaffey Street, create local bikeways and maintain sidewalks and street lights.
She also fought for recognition of Harbor City and Harbor Gateway as distinct communities, worked to save pine trees in the Harbor Pines area and helped established a day-laborer hiring program and day-laborer hiring site at Ken Malloy-Harbor Regional Park.
In the northern end of the district, Flores used her influence to secure nearly $1 million to restore the historic Watts Train Station, which now houses the regional office of the Department of Water and Power. She also helped create the Watts Friendship Sports League, which serves 5,000 children.
Flores says her list of achievements reflects her philosophy of giving people the tools to help themselves. But it also reflects her efforts to undo one of the legacies of Gibson, her mentor, whom she served as an aide for 25 years.
Though Gibson gets credit for massive street improvement efforts, he has been widely blamed for allowing parts of the district to become a miasma of houses, businesses and industry built without any zoning plan or forethought.
Flores says she never agreed with Gibson about the lack of zoning, and much of her time in office has been spent implementing zoning plans to counter the effects of his policies.
"He was a wonderful, warm man who really liked people," Flores said. "But he just thought that if you let business do what it wanted to without any restraints, that everything would be OK," she continued. "He really couldn't see that it had gotten out of hand."
Despite her successes, Flores' two recent attempts to win higher office have prompted some to question her commitment to her district. In 1990, she won the Republican nomination for California secretary of state but was beaten soundly in the general election by Democratic incumbent March Fong Eu.
Last year, she was upset by Democrat Jane Harman in November's 36th Congressional District race, a result that stunned many in the Harbor area and erased the aura of invincibility that had lingered even after Flores' run for secretary of state.
To complicate matters, a number of residents in Flores' 15th District complain that their communities do not get enough attention from her or--if they do--it comes too late.
Wilmington Home Owners President Joanne Wysocki, a longtime critic of Flores, points to the junkyards and blight in Wilmington's eastern corner as evidence of neglect.
Wysocki took on Flores in 1989 in a low-budget campaign that Flores won easily, garnering 72.3% of the vote. But Wysocki took Wilmington with 52.3% of the vote, and she says she will try to hand over her support to Hahn.
Even when Flores feels she has responded adequately to problems, residents sometimes have remained dissatisfied.
One example involves United Wilmington Youth, the group formed last summer by Eastside and Westside Wilmas gang members.