Scrambling for a Seat

After winning a landmark voting-rights case, Hispanic candidates squabble over a new and powerful post

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Wanted: experienced politician for a seat on one of the nation's most powerful local governing bodies. Non-Latinos need not apply.

No such ad has appeared in the help-wanted sections of local newspapers, but the battle to fill a newly created position on the Los Angeles County board of supervisors has set off a mad scramble among the city's Hispanic leaders. Small wonder. The board controls a $10.5 billion budget (larger than the budgets of all but 13 states), wields broad executive and legislative powers and will pay its members $99,297 a year each. Most important, whoever wins the Jan. 22 election will make history. The victor will be the first Hispanic to sit on the board since its establishment in 1875.

The white male monopoly was broken last June when Hispanic activists, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Justice Department won a landmark voting-rights case. Federal District Judge David V. Kenyon ruled that the board had illegally diluted the political power of Latinos, who make up 33% of the county's 8.5 million population, by gerrymandering supervisorial districts. As a remedy, Kenyon ordered the board to redraw the First District.The remapping made the voting-age population 51% Latino.

But the prospect of filling the prestigious post enticed a host of contenders to enter the race. Within days after Kenyon approved the new plan, the impressive unity that Latino politicians had maintained during the | protracted voting-rights case had been replaced by hectic infighting.

Hoping to head off a divisive showdown, U.S. Congressman Edward R. Roybal convened a series of private meetings with Hispanic leaders to settle on a candidate. But the closed-door sessions broke down in August when other Latino hopefuls complained that they had been shut out of the process.

After that, a confusing melee ensued. For the next three months, new candidates seemed to enter and leave the race almost weekly. Among those who remain in the nine-candidate field (which includes one Anglo):

— Los Angeles city council member Gloria Molina, 42, who is backed by Roybal;

— State senator Art Torres, 44, who has the support of Molina's rival city council member Richard Alatorre;

— Charles M. Calderon, 40, another state senator who announced his bid after his backer, Congressman Matthew G. Martinez, withdrew his own candidacy;

— Sarah Flores, 52, a former assistant to Pete Schabarum, current occupant of the seat.

While the backbiting has subsided in recent weeks, new ideological divisions have emerged: Molina and Torres are both pegged as liberal Democrats, Calderon has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat, and Flores is a conservative Republican. For most Hispanic voters, however, such distinctions are far less important than a chance to elect one of their own. Says E. Richard Larson, legal director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund: "We are out of the legal arena and into the political arena. We don't care who wins or how they run their campaigns. Our goal was simply to give the Latino community the opportunity to choose the candidate of its choice."