IN their slow rise to power in the nation's most ethnically diverse state, Hispanics have garnered many political trophies: seats on local school boards, city councils, in the state Legislature, Congress. But the one office that has proved conspicuously elusive is the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Now a Latino appears on the threshold of joining this elite group, one of the most powerful local governing bodies in the United States.
In a salsa-hot race, some of southern California's most powerful Hispanic politicians are vying to represent a newly redrawn district in Los Angeles County.
The special election, set for Jan. 22, was ordered by a federal judge after ruling that the district boundaries drawn by the all-Anglo Board of Supervisors diluted the voting power of the county's 3 million Latinos.
While a non-Hispanic could still enter the race and win - Friday is the filing deadline - the contest so far has been an all-Latino affair. Even if an Anglo were to capture the seat, Latino activists argue the individual would have to pay more attention to Hispanic issues, given the interest the redistricting suit and special election have generated in the ethnic community.
Victory by a Latino, though, would carry particular significance. Because of the power the board wields - each member represents 1.8 million residents, more than the population of 17 states, and controls a sombrero-size budget - the winner would undoubtedly become a visible force in Latino politics nationally.
At the same time, it would mean the first Hispanic on the five-member board in 115 years.
``It is extremely important,'' says Sergio Munoz, executive editor of La Opinion, the nation's largest Spanish-language newspaper. ``It is something we have been fighting for for so long.''
The frustration local Hispanics have felt mirrors, to a certain extent, concern among Hispanics nationwide. Although Latinos make up 8 percent of the population and are the fastest-growing ethnic group, they hold only about 1 percent of elected offices.
Still, gains are being made: The number of elected Latino officials has grown 30 percent in the past six years, to 4,004.
``We are starting to show up on the radar screen prominently,'' says Harry Pachon, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
But the numbers still are not what activists would like. Several reasons are cited for the lack of empowerment: the young age of many Hispanics, lack of citizenship, language barriers, and, in some cases, unfavorably drawn districts.
Hispanics have made fewer gains in California, where one out of three live, than in Texas or New Mexico. Thus the race here has taken on added symbolic significance.
The groundwork for the special election was set in June when Federal District Judge David Kenyon ruled that county supervisors had deliberately discriminated against Hispanic residents when drawing up boundaries after the 1980 census. He ordered new maps drawn, which resulted in a First District that is 71 percent Hispanic, thus increasing the chances of Latino representation.
While county supervisors are appealing Judge Kenyon's ruling - a move that could result in the election being postponed - few experts think that will happen. Indeed, some demographers believe the upholding of the judge's ruling by one court already could help Hispanics in other redistricting efforts that will go on as a result of the 1990 census.
In the race for the redrawn seat, most of the powerful Hispanics in southern California have either jumped into the fray or backed a candidate.
Among the Democrats, where most of the jostling is going on, three major contenders have emerged: Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles City Councilwoman who once served in the state Assembly and US Department of Health and Human Services; Art Torres, a state senator who, like Ms. Molina, has deep roots in East Los Angeles, which is part of the new First District; and Charles Calderon, a state senator who is running as the ``moderate'' voice of the San Gabriel Valley, also part of the district.
US Rep. Matthew Martinez (D) had been a contender, but he pulled out to support Mr. Calderon. The Democrats are competing against Sarah Flores, a Republican former aide to County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who says he is retiring.
All candidates stress they will be independent voices on the board, now tilted conservative, and stand up for issues that transcend ethnicity. Yet Latinos may gain no matter who wins.
``Whoever gets elected is going to have to deal with Hispanic issues,'' says Richard Fajardo of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.