Gloria Molina, Champion of the Eastside and a Political Tactician, Dies at 74

Cityside Column: The longtime county supervisor had a record of breaking boundaries

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, County Supervisor Gloria Molina was part of a panel preparing for what would become a massive project in downtown Los Angeles. The city and county governments, and the Community Redevelopment Agency, all owned plots of land on Grand Avenue. Developers were eager to win the right to build near Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Molina, sensing opportunity, inserted a wrinkle into the development package: Whoever won the contract would be required to pay $50 million to upgrade an underutilized park. The real kicker: The money had to be delivered in advance.

New York-based Related Cos. won the contract with a multi-tower design by Frank Gehry. Then, a brutal recession hit and the housing project stalled. But Molina has secured the funds, and the $56 million (interest boosted the pot) Grand Park opened in the summer of 2012. It arrived before a shovel for the Gehry project had even hit the ground.

This was one of the savviest political power plays of the era. I was the editor of Los Angeles Downtown News at the time, and Molina told our reporter that her approach with Grand Avenue came after a previous failure—how in another part of Downtown, families had been moved via eminent domain for promised housing that never materialized.

“The community got screwed at the end of the day,” she said. “So this time, I was a little wiser by that experience and did it the other way around.”

The 12-acre park was a game changer for a downtown with few green spaces. It included open lawns and a fountain with a splash pad that lured families. At its debut, the accolades went to the design, but also to the supervisor who drove the hard bargain.

“Molina had great foresight and fortitude to have the developers contribute money upfront so that no matter what happened with the real estate market, the Grand Park would still be built,” said then-Councilwoman Jan Perry.

Last month, the park was officially named for Molina shortly after she revealed on Facebook that she had terminal cancer. On Sunday evening, Molina died. She was 74.

An announcement on her Facebook page said she passed away in her Mt. Washington home, surrounded by family.

Molina had a storied 32-year political career, and broke boundaries every step of the way. In 1982, she became the first Latina elected to the California Assembly. Five years later, she won a spot on the Los Angeles City Council—once again, she was the first Latina on the panel.

She captured a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1991. Yet again she was the first Latina member of the body, and for more than two decades served as one of the most powerful politicians in the region. She was a champion of the Eastside, with prominent work on healthcare, transportation and more. She was termed out in 2014.

“Gloria Molina was a force for unapologetic good and transformational change in Los Angeles,” Mayor Karen Bass said, crediting her work addressing environmental justice and her advocacy for public health. “She shaped Los Angeles in a lasting way while paving the way for future generations of leaders. As the first woman Mayor of Los Angeles, I know I stand on Supervisor Molina’s shoulders.”

Molina was the eldest of 10 children born to a Mexican mother and a Mexican-American father. She grew up in Pico Rivera, and attended East Los Angeles City College and then Cal State University, Los Angeles. She became an activist while still a student, and helped establish the Chicana Action Service Center. She would helm the Comisíon Feminíl Mexicana Nacional, a women’s right group, and played a prominent role in a lawsuit against L.A. County-USC Medical Center for sterilizing women without their consent.

It did not take long for Molina to move into politics. She worked for Assemblyman Art Torres, became a staffing specialist in President Jimmy Carter’s Office of Presidential Personnel, and was a Los Angeles area deputy to California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

L.A. political watchers recall how, rather than wait for an open post and be endorsed by the establishment, as was typical, Molina ran for the Assembly seat Torres was vacating. She beat Richard Polanco in the 1982 election.

Molina was known as an active and forceful voice, ready to go to the mat for her constituents. She could also be harsh, dressing down county department heads in public if she felt they had failed to deliver.

Her community contributions ran deep. She played a leading role in getting a Metro Gold Line extension into the Eastside and helped found LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in the El Pueblo portion of Downtown. On its website, LA Plaza touted her political might, but also remembered her as, “an artist who shared her passion for depicting her Mexican roots through her beautiful quilts and by teaching others.”

The accolades during and after her time in office were extensive. In 1996, Time magazine cited her as one of the Democratic Party’s “10 Rising Stars.” An East L.A. Metro station was recently named for her.

Molina understood the rigors of politics. After her final Board of Supervisors term ended, she ran for City Council against José Huizar. She knew battling an incumbent would not be easy, and that once again the establishment was lined up against her. I discussed the race with her in late 2014. We pondered how a campaign team that had savaged past opponents would attack her.

“They’re going to cut me pretty good,” Molina said as we spoke in an Eagle Rock café. “The thing is, I’m ready for it.”

She would lose, in a race that was not close, but was not done with civic life. She became a role model for a new generation of political hopefuls.

“She didn’t just make space for herself,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn on Twitter. “She opened the door to the rest of us. Women in politics in L.A. County owe a debt of gratitude to Gloria Molina.”

Hilda Solis, who now fills Molina’s former Board of Supervisors’ seat, tweeted, “I am heartbroken to lose a champion for Latinos, for mujeres, and for the Eastside. While she may no longer be physically with us, we will forever feel her impact.”