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Pioneering Eastside Assemblyman John Moreno Dies at 72 : Obituary: L.A. native was elected to Legislature in 1962. He helped make construction of Rio Hondo College possible.

August 29, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Moreno, one of the first Latinos elected to the California Legislature in this century, died Aug. 19 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 72.

Moreno died of heart failure, his sister, Gloria Delatorre-Wycoff, said.

A Los Angeles native, Moreno won election in 1962 from what was then the 51st Assembly District, encompassing parts of East Los Angeles, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, Pico Rivera, Montebello and Norwalk.

One of his major accomplishments in office was winning passage of a bond issue to build Rio Hondo College in the 1960s after three earlier bond measures had failed. He also helped the college district avert bankruptcy through legislation that allowed it to prolong an override tax and complete construction of the campus in 1966.

Moreno was elected to the Legislature the same year as Philip Soto, a Democrat who represented La Puente, Whittier and West Covina. As the state's first Latino legislators this century, "they were pioneers," said Assemblywoman Nell Soto, the widow of Soto, who died in 1998.

Their victories stirred excitement in many minority communities and "opened the door to public office for a lot of people who felt it couldn't be done," she said.

Moreno's legislative efforts boosted civil rights, aid to the aged and support for farm laborers. He served on the state Compensatory Education Commission and co-authored a bill that funded special programs for disadvantaged students, including youths from migrant families and those who were learning English.

He began his political career as a member of the first City Council in Santa Fe Springs. He was a driving force behind incorporation in 1957 and later served as mayor. Before entering the Assembly, he taught elementary and high school for 11 years in Pico Rivera, Whittier and Los Angeles.

He served in the Navy during the closing months of World War II, then attended USC, earning a bachelor's degree in 1951. He studied law for a few years at USC and Southwestern University.

Ted Snyder, a retired Rio Hondo College political science professor who served as Assemblyman Moreno's administrative assistant, said the lawmaker's election was remarkable because legislative districts were gerrymandered to prevent Mexican Americans and other minorities from holding office. Moreno, a Democrat, was elected in a district that had a majority of white voters.

"He didn't wear his Mexican American background on his sleeve," Snyder said. Yet neither did he back away from his culture, the former aide said, recalling that one of Moreno's most interesting feats was getting a mariachi band to march through the Assembly.

Moreno served only one term, losing in the 1964 primary to Jack Fenton, a Montebello Democrat. His defeat was blamed on a rival Latino's candidacy splitting the vote and allowing Fenton to win. Moreno also was harmed by a drunk driving arrest in early 1964. After the incident, he apologized to constituents and fellow legislators, saying he was "grievously ashamed" of his conduct.

After leaving the Legislature, Moreno moved to Washington, D.C., where he taught school and opened a home improvement business. He later moved to New York City and ran his business there until his retirement in 1992.

Moreno is survived by his wife of 18 years, Judith Anderson, four daughters and two sons from a previous marriage, and two sisters. A memorial service is planned for late September in Santa Fe Springs.

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