The political glass ceiling is starting to crack for Latinas.

Four now head committees in the state Senate, including L.A.-area Democrats Hilda Solis and Martha Escutia.

Assemblywoman Gloria Romero, D-Monterey Park, has just been chosen speaker pro-tem of the state Assembly. And veteran Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles, chairs the House Hispanic Caucus.

"Considering they were largely kept out of elected posts for so long, Latinas have made remarkable progress in a very short period of time," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tom & #225;s Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont.

A number of factors have converged in the past decade to spark that change:

-A demographic shift has resulted in Latinos making up an ever-larger share of L.A's population.

-Many second- and third-generation Latinas have become more politically active than their parents.

-An organized drive was launched a decade ago by Latino politicians to recruit Latinas for elected office.

-And Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that restricted benefits to illegal aliens, drew huge numbers of Latinos into politics for the first time. Though its major provisions were later struck down by the courts, the measure rallied the Latino community, especially women, who were concerned that health care benefits for their children would be eliminated.

"Pete Wilson was the greatest thing that ever happened to Latino activism," said Antonia Hernandez, executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, referring to the former Republican governor's support of the controversial measure. "He single-handedly mobilized more Latino men and women than generations of Latino activists had."

Cracking the City Council

By the mid-'90s, dozens of Latinas began running for office at virtually every level of government, from school boards to city councils, the state Legislature and Congress.

And they won in unprecedented numbers. As of last year, 53 percent of all Latinos holding office in California were women, according to the National Directory of Latino Elected Officials compiled by the Naleo Educational Fund.

By contrast, in 1985 women made up only 14 percent of Latino elected officials in the United States. The percentage of Latinas in California was probably even lower because they entered politics comparatively later than candidates in states like Florida, Texas and New Mexico, Pachon said.

Yet some barriers remain. There are still no Latinas in statewide elected posts, and with the notable exception of Gloria Molina 15 years ago, there have been no Latinas on the L.A. City Council, despite the fact that almost one in four Angelenos is a Latina.

A number of candidates have tried. In council elections last year, San Fernando Valley activist Corrine Sanchez got as far as a runoff election against Alex Padilla. But Padilla won the coveted union endorsement and handily defeated her.

"It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political science professor at Claremont Graduate School. "It's what has been called by (former Assembly Speaker) Jesse Unruh 'the streetcar rule of politics:' you have to be on the right corner at the right time with the right change and the streetcar going in the right direction to get on. In the case of Latinas running for the City Council, one or more of these political factors was always missing."

But one Latino political observer privately said something else was at work: a bitter political rivalry in the 1980s between council members Molina and Richard Alatorre.

"There was a sentiment among the male Latino leadership at the time that Molina was too outspoken, that there needed to be someone who could be more easily controlled," the person said. "What that translated to was an unwillingness to accept women into the political fold."

(Molina herself backed Michael Hernandez a Latino man to succeed her when she won election to the Board of Supervisors.)

Matter of time

By the mid-'90s, the bickering had all but disappeared. In 1998, the Latino political leadership tried to recruit Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, to run for office to replace the retiring Alatorre. She declined to run, choosing instead to stay at the helm of the union local.

Political observers inside and outside the Latino community agree that the absence of Latinas on the City Council won't last much longer.

"Until very recently, there were no term limits on the L.A. City Council, which basically meant you had to wait for the incumbent to die to get into office," said local political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "Next year, half of the City Council seats will be open. If not in the next election, then certainly two years after that, you'll see Latinas running. All you have to do is see how term limits have opened up the state Legislature."

While Latinas are running and winning office on more levels, leadership positions remain elusive.

"Latinas have done well in getting elected, but have not done as well in moving into leadership positions," said Fernando Guerra, who heads the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Prominent Latinas and political observers cite several reasons. Chief among them is that Latinas as a group simply haven't been in office long enough to climb to the top.

While Latino men broke through as a political force in the 1970s and 1980s and reached leadership positions in the 1990s, Latinas were still on the outside looking in 20 years ago.

"Latino men have been in office for 20 or 30 years and have hit their stride first," said Durazo. "Latinas haven't been there in as great numbers until very recently, and it takes time to climb up."

The one major exception has been Molina, who became the first Latina elected to the state Legislature when she entered the Assembly in 1982. She won election to the L.A. City Council in 1987, moving on to her current post on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1991.

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