The story of Latino political power in Los Angeles

Councilwoman-elect Gloria Molina, with Mayor Tom Bradley standing behind her, on Feb. 12, 1987.

Councilwoman-elect Gloria Molina, with Mayor Tom Bradley standing behind her, on Feb. 12, 1987.
(Penni Gladstone / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, Feb. 27. I’m Gustavo Arellano, a metro columnist for The Times, which means I’m allowed to share my opinions, like this:

Covering Latino politics in Los Angeles is a trip.

But before I get into that, here’s what you need to know to start your day:

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Power y Glory

I’m a lifelong Orange County resident who spent the vast majority of my career covering the craziness that is O.C. I knew the big names in L.A. Latino politics over the decades: Gloria Molina, Antonio Villaraigosa, Alex Padilla, Hilda Solis and others. I even talked to some occasionally for stories.

But I never imagined I’d ever cover them for a living, even after I joined The Times in 2019.

I was supposed to cover Southern California, not the machinations of bare-knuckle politics in a city where it’s a sport. But, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” just when I thought I was out, Alex Villanueva pulled me back in.

Covering the downfall of the former L.A. County sheriff in 2022 was my introduction to a whole new world that I found irresistible. That year’s leaked audio exposing L.A. City Council members making racist comments — for its coverage, The Times won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news — made me realize I needed to pay more attention and also try to connect the proverbial dots, some dating back decades.

Then came the election-night party of Imelda Padilla. She won a special election last summer to replace Councilmember Nury Martinez, her former boss who resigned for saying bigoted remarks against Black children and Oaxacans on the leaked tape. Padilla’s celebration was a bona fide coronation: council members, congress members, community leaders and other power brokers all offering their congratulations.

That’s when I asked myself: How did Latino politics in Los Angeles get to this moment?

Nearly six months later, I have some answers.

The series

“Power y Glory: Latino Politics in Los Angeles” is a four-part dive into the key moments and players of the scene, with a focus on four areas in the city and the 2024 races that best exemplify their political trials and triumphs.

I start in the Eastside, the cradle of Latino power and a place perpetually in political desmadre — chaos. I zero in on the race to take down Councilmember Kevin de León, the last person standing who participated in the tape leak. He represents District 14, which takes in downtown, Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock. Its voters have never met a controversial councilmember they didn’t elect, then move on to run for higher office (hola, Antonio and Kevin) or resign in disgrace (that’s you, Art Snyder and Jose Huizar).

Part 2 of the series goes up the 5 Freeway to the eastern San Fernando Valley, where U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and his Beltway roommate, Rep. Tony Cárdenas, have spent 30 years building a political dynasty worthy of “The Crown.” The discipline here is the antithesis to the messiness of the Eastside. But in the wake of Martinez’s resignation and Cárdenas’ announcement last fall that he wouldn’t seek reelection, political observers are asking how long can the San Fernando machine hold.

Part 3 focuses on South Los Angeles, the historical heart of Black L.A. but a place that has been majority Latino for at least a quarter of a century. A trio of candidates — Sade Elhawary, Efren Martinez and Dulce Vasquez — are seeking to become the first Latino to represent South L.A. on the City Council since Edward R. Roybal did so in the 1960s. Can any of those candidates represent South L.A.’s Latino majority but also reassure Black residents that their needs will be heard and their long-fought-for power not disappear?

The series concludes in the cities of Southeast L.A. County — SELA, as the cool kids call it, or the “corridor of corruption” per former Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon. A new generation of Latino councilmembers are trying to work past the region’s scandal-plagued past by working together. Two of them, Bell Mayor Fidencio Gallardo and Huntington Park Councilmember Graciela Ortiz, are running for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified school board.

They are also facing an interesting dilemma, one that more Latino elected officials across Southern California and beyond will encounter as the country’s demographics continue to change: What does it even mean to be a “Latino” politician when Latinos are the super-majority of the population?

Why my series matters

Um, because I wrote it? Kidding! “Power y Glory” is important to read because all Angelinos should know about the different nodes of political power in Latino L.A. It’s city history, after all, not just Latino history. Within all these stories are cautionary tales, heroes, villains and lessons to make a better city for everyone — and to avoid the mistakes of the past.

All the articles come out today online and will appear in the paper throughout the week. If you have any bon mots rants, or chisme — gossip — do email me at [email protected]. Have fun!

Read more from Gustavo’s series diving into Latino politics in L.A.

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"The Slot" trail in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“The Slot” trail in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
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SAG-AFTRA PresidentFran Drescher dazzles in red at the 30th Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Today’s great photo is from Times photographer Brian van der Brug from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where A-listers brought their A-game to the red carpet.

Have a great day, from the Essential California team:

Gustavo Arellano, columnist
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
Stephanie Chavez, deputy metro editor

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