Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Interview: L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina on the Issues

(photo from L.A. Times)

After a long day in the board meeting Supervisor Gloria Molina sat down in her office for a late afternoon interview with me. Behind her desk, she is nothing if not intimidating.

(Click player to hear entire interview or read below for interview highlights)

“Let me hear what you’re going to say,” Senior Legislative and Press Deputy Roxane Márquez said. She warned me that Molina was customarily tough on reporters and she would be tough on me.

“She’s intense,” Márquez said, “ She has been accused of leading by temper tantrum, she plays the card too often sometimes, but it’s ok because people are outraged by how cavalier the bureaucracy can be. In the Mexican and feminist groups the feeling is even more acute.”

“When I see my community being taken advantage of it just stirs in me a hostility and anger,” Molina said.

On the incorporation of East L.A.:

“I think that the group of people who are moving forward on the incorporation are good people who really believe in the romance of it…I know there isn’t a revenue base in East L.A to really sustain itself. Just like the woman who had the octuplets…”

“Now, saying all of that, I know that if I come out against it I can kill incorporation and I don’t wish to. I wish it to proceed forward, I think the residents are entitled to get all the information…Then I think the voters should vote and they should make their own decision…I don’t want to influence them.”

“They would have to change the zoning in a lot of areas. They would have to bring in more retail. The problem is it’s going to be a painful process,” Molina said.

On her tough attitude:

“They sometimes get upset with me because I’m so demanding but at the same time I would trade any of my staff people, that I’ve trained, for anybody else’s staff people. I think that I have, by far, some of the smartest brightest people. It was a tough road…but I bet ya they’re the brightest bulbs wherever they go because of our…boot camp,” Molina joked.

“I started out as a very very shy intimated individual, I was raised as that. But I’m really one of the products of the Chicano movement. I know government can change things.”

“I do give breaks, when people make mistakes the first time I don’t go after them, but when they make it the second and the third time…” Molina said as Márquez interrupted with, “ And then she says, I’m yelling at you, kid, the way Willie Brown (former speaker of the California State Assembly) yelled at me.”

Márquez confirmed that Molina does not come to work make friends. She said that for herself and the other staff for whom Molina was a political hero, it was hard to understand that she would never be their friend.

“But it’s not just about me. I need every single person on my staff to know that they’re a significant as me, if not more so,” Molina said.

On President Obama:

“We have just seen a president that I think has destroyed this country and a whole new leader that gives us an opportunity to really change everything that we’ve been doing…if he continues to be commanding about that leadership he can dramatically change the kind of respect… that we have for government.”

“It helps me, not having war and not being disrespected as a world power helps me because we can further our goals when it comes to dreaming about health care for everybody and talking about a fair immigration plan and talking about leading by example. Him trying to heal all of the disaster that the last administration left behind helps me. I feel more hopeful, I feel more patriotic, and I kind of feel very optimistic. A lot is riding on his very first steps… but so far everything looks good.”

“I have high expectations and I would continue to challenge even the president,” Molina said.

I wrapped up the half-an-hour interview soon after that, but not before she could tell me “You should know local government…and when you go meet with a politician you should know exactly what they do.” Considering her reputation, I got off easy.

(photos from the day)

Created with flickr slideshow.

Click here for recent and popular L.A. Times articles on Gloria Molina.

In the Presence of “The Glo" : A Day in the Life of L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina

On February 10th I spent 10 hours shadowing L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Short, stocky, dressed in a pink skirt suite and dark pink glasses decorated with rhinestones at the corners, “The Glo," as she is called by her staff, is a force to be reckoned with. But if you can get her brassy Senior Legislative and Press Deputy Roxane Márquez on the phone for the five minutes it takes her to determine if you’re a “dumbass” or not, I found she just might let you spend a day observing her at work.

(Photo from the official website of Gloria Molina)

The staff area behind Molina’s seat at the supervisor’s board meeting can only be described as tense.

In the middle of the meeting, Molina turned around to request something of her staff, a few minutes went by and nobody answered. That’s all it took for Molina’s temper to flare.

“Where the hell were you?” Molina said with controlled anger in her voice, “All I was asking for was a little help. You guys should be there when I call.”

Her staff, First District Operations Director Avianna Uribe, Senior Legislative Director Barbara Nack and Senior Health Deputy Amy Luftig Viste explained that they just switched places.

Nonchalantly, Molina replied that she wished they hadn’t made her yell in front of me.

“She’s tough. Once you work for Molina, you can work anywhere,” Avianna Uribe, first district operations director, said.

Molina’s wing on the eighth floor of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown L.A. is for straight shooters only.

“I spent a whole lot of time not schmoozing. I spent a whole lot of time not getting cozy. The reason I don’t do that is because I want them to know…I’m here to make the best decisions for my constituents,” Molina said during an interview later that day.

“(Molina’s) agenda is very very important to me. I didn’t come here to amass power and go to parties and feel like a badass. I came to work for the issues,” Márquez said to me in her office, “…Gloria expects a lot of her staff because the public expects a lot from her.”

The Fluff

“Gloria hates the fluff,” Márquez said as we waited in her office for Molina to finish taking photographs with the winners of the 2008 Public Library Children’s Book Week Bookmark contest, “ I think the fluff is important. It‘s the only time people really get to see their public officials.”

The photo op was the first event of the morning.

Márquez pointed out Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s presentation of an adoptable pet at every televised board meeting, a part of the county’s Pet Adoption Program, as popular “fluff.” This week’s dog was wearing a tutu.

“I don’t like presentations, but when it’s children…” Molina later said in defense of the morning’s “fluff, “ I just think there are more pressing issues.”

“This isn’t about friendship and all that. This is my job. I have a set of friends. That’s a real important thing to me, to keep my distance, because then I become part of what I never liked about politics and that’s the political establishment that cruises and is glamorous,” Molina said.

“I don’t care that I called somebody a pinhead and I don’t care that somebody called me a name if I’m comfortable with what my outcome was…that’s what keeps me going,” Molina said

Though I was scheduled to shadow Molina for the entire day, I didn’t actually meet her until closer to noon.

Instead, the morning hours were spent listening to Márquez who has a talent for making “Fuck” sound different almost every time she says it by stretching it out and putting a different emphasis on the vowel.

The topic of the day --her irreverent view of life, love, journalism and politics and her reluctance to go home and cook dinner while her husband played with the cat.

“There’s a hierarchy. The better you understand it the better you can operate…nobody in the work world needs you. Nothing replaces raw experience.” Márquez said of the workforce in general, “I’m not going to bullshit.”

“It’s a dramatic environment. Inevitably at some point in time you’re going to have a conflict (in the office), “ Márquez said as she described both how she loved her job and how it could be stressful.

“There came a point where I took on too much and it was barely treading water.” Márquez took a six-week break and threatened to quit if she didn’t get a raise. She got the raise.

The Board Meeting

“She’ll come to you,” Uribe said as she and the other staff members took turns explaining different parts of the meeting to me. During the meeting we sat in the staff section behind Molina.

Molina was not pleased when I managed to make my way to her as she was coming from her seat.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” Molina said tensely as she asked me to stay out of the way. Then she told her staff to “Take care of me.”

Eventually, Molina sat down with me for about 10 minutes during her break. She said she thought I was there for an interview and seemed surprised to hear that I was just shadowing and had no specific issues to discuss with her.

“I guess somebody doesn’t read her emails,” said Márquez who was my initial contact in setting up the shadow appointment.

“The boss is always right,” Uribe said with the same mix of respect and sarcasm that most of Molina’s staff seem to possess. They brushed off Molina’s demeanor.

On the other side of me, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ staff was considerably less tense. One of his staff members, who called himself “Bond, James Bond” and refused to tell me his real name, introduced me to Ridley-Thomas. I later found out that the staff member was Senior Advisor and Special Assistant Vincent Harris.

Compared to Molina’s all-business attitude, Ridley-Thomas was practically jovial. While Molina refuses to even get a Facebook account, this is a list of where Ridley-Thomas can be found online:

“I’m a really aggressive, pushy demanding, boss that hopefully leads by having that same standard, “ Molina said of herself later in the day, “My biggest problem that I have is the same thing that I hate about my father who has the same temperament. I go from one to 90 in seconds…don’t light that torch, man, because it will blow you out of the water,” she laughed.

An important item on the agenda was several representatives of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, an organization that tries to help convicts reenter the workforce.

They spoke on behalf of Gariner Beasley and opposed laws that would block convicts from filling certain jobs.

Beasley was convicted in the 1990s of raping two women while on duty as a Los Angeles police officer, recently it came to public attention when the LA Times reported that he was working as an X-ray technologist at County-USC Medical Center.

“Supervisor Molina kept calling Mr.Beasley a “rapist” and I think we fail to see that he’s been rape-free for the past 10 years,” Joshua Kim, an attorney for A New Way of Life Reentry Project, said.

To which Molina replied, “He’s been what? Do not use this gentleman. I use the word loosely…as your poster child.”

Behind the scenes, Molina’s staff was busy researching and emailing her possible responses. Senior Health Deputy Amy Luftig Viste said sometimes Molina uses her notes, sometimes she doesn’t.

“It’s not just about me. I need every single person on my staff to know that they’re as significant as me, if not more so,” Molina said.

After the public board meeting, the supervisors went into closed session to discuss a possible lawsuit against the state over funds owed to the county.

(Click the player to hear Molina discuss the closed session)

Meanwhile, Molina’s staff and I watched celebrity gossip in the break room. Even politician’s staff care about what happened between Rihanna and Chris Brown.

After Hours

(Staff group photo from the official website of Gloria Molina)

“I’d basically like to drop kick him from the eighth floor…I think that he’s a busybody, an arrogant dumbass and that’s just what I conclude because he’s so annoying,” Molina said to Policy and Political Director Gerry Hertzberg about someone who they’ve been working with.

They didn’t mention names and they didn’t go into detail, but it was after 5 p.m., we had just finished our interview and I had promised to sit quietly on the couch as Molina prepared to leave the office. Molina called Gerry into her office about three times in less than an hour to question him on various issues she was looking over, but for the most part she read her proposals and emails in silence.

Her office, spacious and organized, is decorated with art done mostly by Frida Kahlo and other Latino/a artists. Her books are also about Latin American culture.

At 5:10 p.m. Molina noticed a proposal she said she hadn’t approved earlier. She called for the person who was supposed to meet with her, but had she’s already gone for the day. Molina was shocked.

(District Map from the official website of Gloria Molina)

One of her field deputies went ahead on a plan to plant more trees in their district. Márquez, not knowing the whole situation, ran a press release without hearing from Molina.

Hertzberg was called in again. There was an email that Molina said she didn’t remember reading, but the staff remembered getting a reply. Hertzberg didn’t take the situation too seriously, they only have to pay for some trees, which everyone seems to think is a good idea.

It had been a long day, Molina couldn’t understand how a proposal was allowed to go through without her permission. Twenty minutes later, she dropped the issue and gathered her things to leave. The staff looked worried, they knew that Molina would bring it up in the morning.

Pleasantly, she turned to me and said, “ It’s like the rapist who got through (the employee screening), nobody knows anything, nobody asks. It’s about accountability.”