Napolitano, Grace: 1936—: Politician, Business Executive

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Grace Napolitano: 1936: Politician, business executive

A political force from urban Southern California, Grace Flores Napolitano has made an impact on U. S. congressional legislation affecting water and soil clean-up, teen suicide prevention, worker training, and the protection of small businesses and jobs for minorities. A retired business executive and concerned parent and citizen, she acquired inside information on national, state, and local Latino and workers' problems from experience at the local level. From Norwalk city councilwoman to mayor and three-term state legislator, in 1998, she worked her way up to two consecutive terms in the U. S. House of Representatives and mounted a strong advocacy for families, health, and the environment.

Grassroots Beginning in Politics

Napolitano, who is California's two-term congressional representative from the 34th district, is well-versed in Latino culture and the needs of Hispanic citizens. Born in the Mexican border town Brownsville, Texas, on December 4, 1936, to Miguel and Maria Alicia Ledezma Flores, Napolitano was christened Graciela Flores. She completed high school, divorced her first husband, and raised their children as a single mom. In 1976 she married New York entrepreneur Frank Napolitano and assisted him in opening a restaurant. The couple settled in Norwalk, California and Napolitano established a thriving career there as an employee of Ford Motor Company. In retirement, she shared her husband's enthusiasm for the local Roman Catholic parish and for community activism.

To better her business career, Napolitano studied at Cerritos College, Los Angeles Trade Technical College, and Technical Southwest College. She expressed concern for the Norwalk community through volunteerism in community family guidance, parish work, and membership in the Lions Club. Her rise up the political ladder began in 1986, when she pursued a four-year term as councilwoman in Norwalk and, simultaneously, as mayor from 1989 to 1990. Because of her involvement in solving local problems and strengthening the economy, she won re-election to the city council by the highest vote margin in Norwalk history. Central to her platform were citizens' needs for more jobs, a diversified job base, downtown redevelopment, and improvements to inter-urban transportation.

Upon election to the California Assembly in 1992, Napolitano championed international trade, environmental protection, improved highway development, and the financial needs of beginning entrepreneurs. In addition, she supported economic expansion and local-based solutions to family issues like teen suicide and domestic violence in the Hispanic community. As a proponent of American small business, she advocated the expansion of foreign markets for American products and better-paying jobs linked with trade. In 1996 she joined California legislator Richard Katz in sponsoring a bill requiring the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to plan more efficient, competitive facilities. At the local level, she led annual sessions of the International Trade and Procurement Conference.

At a Glance . . .

Born Graciela Flores on December 4, 1936, in Brownsville, Texas; married (divorced); married Frank Napolitano, 1976; children: Yolando, Fred Mus-quiz, Jr., Edward, Michael, Cynthia. Education: Attended business courses at Cerritos College, Los Angeles Trade Tech, and Technical Southwest College. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Democrat.

Career: Ford Motor Company, until 1986; Norwalk City Council member, 1986-92; Norwalk City mayor, 1989-90; California State assemblywoman, 1992-98; U.S. House of Representatives, 1998-.

Memberships: Lions Club; New Democrat Coalition; Community Family Guidance volunteer.

Addresses: Capitol Office 1407 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515-0001. Phone: (202) 225-5256. Fax: (202)225-0027. E-mail: [email protected]. District Office 11627 East Telegraph Road #100, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670. Phone: (562) 801-2134. Fax: (562) 949-9144. Home 1712 West Beverly Boulevard, Suite 101, Montebello, CA 90640-3934.

Spirited U. S. Congresswoman

Napolitano's election to the 106th U. S. Congress from the 34th California district coincided with a national political shift that brought four other Latinas into the U. S. Congress. Her success derived in part from a trend toward Hispanic prominence in politicial leadership. For instance, there was a rapid rise of 30.1% Latinas in the nation's elective offices as compared to only 17.2% of white women. In November of 1998, before she took the oath of office, she plunged into a prickly issues forum weighing the effectiveness of unilateral U.S. trade sanctions.

During her first term in a federal office, Napolitano demonstrated the intelligence and courage of a seasoned politician. She accepted appointments to the small business and resources commissions, chaired the women's caucus, and served as vice-chair of the Latino caucus. In addition, she became an ardent spokes-woman for Armenians, Greeks, Native Americans, and the business-oriented New Democrat Coalition, a centrist thinktank promoting mainstream and bipartisan action on national problems.

Campaigned for Health and the Environment

In Napolitano's second run for Congress, she won reelection with 71% of the vote and added to her list of duties membership on the international relations commission. She committed herself to securing job-training funds and new business for the urban constituents of Southern California. As a result of her work, the U. S. Labor Department granted the area $2.8 million for specialized high-tech training and $4 million toward the reuse and redevelopment of the Northrop Grumman B-2 facility in Pico Rivera as a potential key to job diversity.

Napolitano showed no reticence in campaigning for a better life for Latino citizens. In August of 1999 she sparked wellness initiatives by endorsing Los Angeles health advocate Cesar Portillo for the California state legislature. A month later she echoed the protests of hundreds of community activitists and union members against racial discrimination and unfair labor practices that targeted Latino employees of the new Gigante Supermarket in Pico Rivera, California.

Napolitano's battle against Gigante involved neighbors and business advocates for consensus building. In partnership with Radio Shack and Office Depot, the retailer, Grupo Gigante, sold groceries and general merchandise through a superstore chain owned by the heirs of Angel Losada Moreno, based in Mexico City. The company had just built a store in the Los Angeles commercial district when Napolitano joined State Senator Joe Dunn, Assemblyman Tom Calderon, and Pico Rivera City Councilman Gregory Salcido in demanding dignity and a fair wage for grocery workers. She networked an alert to the public of the company's intent to break state labor laws by limiting Latino employees to substandard wages. In a crusade for fair treatment, she protested salaries that were half the norm for California grocery workers and denounced exorbitant premiums for company health care coverage.

Built a People-Friendly Reputation

Napolitano quickly aimed her activism at hot-button environmental issues. In September of 2000, she earned endorsement of the Sierra Club, supporters of a cleaner world and protection for the endangered ecosystem. She denounced the insidious practice of "con-tract bundling," the consolidation of two or more procurement requirements into a single contract, as a deterrent to the flow of business capital to new, miniority, and female entrepreneurs. In October of 2000, she joined backers of small business in applauding President Bill Clinton's executive order directing federal agencies to bolster business for minority and disadvantaged entrepreneurs by increasing opportunities for subcontracts.

In a partisan effort that included the Northern Ute Indian tribe, Napolitano mobilized political effort in February of 2000 to protect the Metropolitan Water District from a potential disaster triggered by an 11-story heap of uranium waste 600 feet north of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. She condemned the refuse left by a bankrupt factory that daily leaked some 28,000 gallons of radioactive waste plus arsenic, lead, and ammonia into groundwater daily. According to her reasoning, the outflow of contaminants endangered the drinking water of seven states, including California. She and other Californians demanded immediate action to protect the Lake Havasu intake from the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The resulting pact focused on the quality and reliability of the primary drinking water supply to 17 million citizens, who comprised 25 percent of mostly urban Southern California. The initiative prefaced Napolitano's subsequent promotion of legislation forcing a cleanup of the 130 acres soiled by 10.5 million tons of radioactive mill tailings. In October of 2000, President Bill Clinton made the cleanup an element of the Floyd G. Spence National Defense Authorization Act, which he signed into law. Napolitano remarked that the year-long campaign to rid the area of a significant agrarian and human health hazard had produced joint action by leaders throughout the Southwest.

Spokeswoman for Citizen Well-Being

Napolitano deliberately avoided a one-issue political career. She spearheaded suicide prevention among teenaged Latinas, who had the highest rate of self-destruction of any ethnic or racial group in the country. In 2001 a Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill underwrote an expanded school-based mental health service that focused on the needs of young Latinas in Southeast Los Angeles County. Additional federal funding that Napolitano directed toward district problems included grants for a youth center and sheriff's department office in La Puente, funds to lower diesel emissions by replacing diesel vehicles with environment-friendly models burning compressed natural gas, water recycling in Rio Hondo, and drainage and sewage systems to prevent flood damage to Norwalk, Pico Rivera, and Whittier. To limit congestion on I-5 between Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs, she secured $500,000 toward improving roadways and installing a commercial vehicle advanced traveler information system. She also supported the spending of $7.5 million to equip a 35-mile eastern Los Angeles rail corridor with a light rail transit system. A bonus to her district was the rail project's creation of new jobs and protection of existing jobs throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

Napolitano's outreach continued to target needy venues. On June 29, 2000, she addressed the House Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power on behalf of CALFED, an alliance of state and federal agencies with management and regulatory responsibility in the Bay-Delta Estuary. In her address she called for substantial water storage, state and federal water regulation, and assurances of drinking water quality in urban areas. That same month, she promoted dozens of national Latino organizations at the First National Latino Policy Summit on Domestic Violence, which pooled the wisdom of community activists, advocates, practitioners, and researchers to improve the lives of Hispanic citizens. Despite heavy demands on her time, she returned weekly to her family and spent free time talking with voters about their needs and wishes.



Carroll's Federal Directory, Carroll Publishing, 2001.

The Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.


Business Wire, September 1, 1999; September 15, 1999; February 11, 2000; June 20, 2000; October 16, 2000; October 31, 2000; June 21, 2001.

Jet, October 30, 2000.

Journal of Commerce and Commercial, April 18, 1996, p. 1B(2).

PRNewswire, November 4, 1998; August 11, 1999; June 20, 2000. August 11, 1999.

PS: Political Science & Politics, September, 2000.

Sierra, September, 2000.



Additional Information for this profile was obtained through personal telephone interviews with Kevin Su on the Washington, D. C. congressional staff and with Ray Cordova of the district office of U. S. Representative Grace Napolitano in Santa Fe Springs, California.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass