12/08/2012 08:00 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2013

LA City Council: Latinas Make Push For City Council Seats As The Group Is Wildly Underrepresented

Mariachis played at City Hall when Gloria Molina was sworn in 25 years ago as a city councilwoman, a nod to her Mexican heritage. The emotional ceremony feted Molina, the first Latina to be elected to the council.

She was also the last Latina elected.

While Hispanic men have become a powerful force around the horseshoe at City Hall, the impact of Hispanic women has yet to be felt.

But that may be changing. Two Latina politicians, Nury Martinez and Cindy Montanez, said this week they will run for City Council next year to represent the southeast San Fernando Valley.

They're part of a larger crop of Latinas seeking council seats next spring, a group that also includes former City Hall staffers Ana Cubas and Ana Grande.

The women say the number of strong Latina candidates seeking office is encouraging. But it's also a frustrating reminder of their lack of representation at the City Council since Molina's departure in 1991.

"It just makes L.A. look bad," said Cubas, Councilman Jose Huizar's former chief of staff who is running for the open downtown council seat. "The city is 50 percent Latino, and we're supposed to be progressive and a liberal city."

Latinas' lack of progress at City Hall is in contrast to the gains made on the state and national levels.

Between 1996 and 2010, the number of Latina elected officials increased 105 percent, three times as fast as the number of their elected male counterparts,

according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Following the Nov. 6 election, five Hispanic women will serve in the California Assembly, although none kept positions in the state Senate. Nine Latinas will hold office in the 113th Congress.

Locally, Latinas have influential positions at the Department of Water and Power and Los Angeles Unified School District. And arguably the most powerful woman to regularly pass through City Hall is Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a Latina.

"You see Latinas doing well, except at the City Council level," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Latinas aren't the only group who've been under-represented at City Hall. Only one Asian-American councilman has served at City Hall in the council's history, despite Los Angeles' growing Asian population.

And following Janice Hahn's departure for Congress last year, Councilwoman Jan Perry is the lone female serving on the council. Just a decade ago, five councilwomen held court at City Hall.

Not enough women are running for City Council seats, believes Cubas, which is impacting representation for Latinas.

"It's not a Latina issue, it's a women issue," she said.

Molina, who has served on the Los Angeles County Board Supervisors for more than 21 years, remembers the hurdles of getting endorsements when she ran for council, because her gender was seen as a barrier to politics.

And during her time at City Hall, she tried to get Latinas elected to the state level, but recounts being laughed out of her colleagues' offices.

Molina faults departing female politicians for failing to find and groom women to replace them in office. When she left the Assembly, for instance, she helped campaign for another Latina -- Lucille Roybal-Allard -- for her old seat.

"The reality is that men will select men (to follow them)," Molina said. "That's just the way it works. Women have to put themselves in that role."

By contrast, Latino men at City Hall have crafted a political machine.

Over the last few decades, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley have sent a number of Hispanic men to Sacramento and City Hall -- and back again. Those men, Antonio Villaraigosa, Alex Padilla, Richard Alarcon and Tony Cardenas, helped create an "old boys network of Latinos," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.

But the network's influence will be tested, believes Regalado, as more Latinas run for office.

Next year, former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez will face off against Nury Martinez, who sits on the LAUSD Board of Education, for the council seat being vacated by Congressman-elect Tony Cardenas.

Like Molina, Montanez is viewed as Latina who broke barriers. She made history at 30 years old, becoming the first Latina to chair the Assembly Rules Committee. But she's also felt the power of the male Latino political machine. She dropped out of the City Council race in 2006 so then State Sen. Richard Alarcon could run for a third term at City Hall.

The number of Latinas seeking City Council office next year hasn't gone unnoticed by Montanez.

"We could go from zero to having two or three (Latina council members)," she said.

Cubas, who is seeking Perry's old City Council downtown seat is also viewed as a front-runner.

She's raised nearly $100,000 and recently placed second in a LMU poll of her race conducted last month.

Gains by Latinas are overdue, believes Guerra.

"It's tough for us to argue that we are an inclusive and transparent system if we exclude a population of the city," Guerra said. "If we don't have 25 percent of the population, it doesn't speak well for how Democracy works."



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