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Can GOP Ever Win Over Latinos?

July 24, 1986|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.

Where is a good Republican when Latinos need one?

For years the California and national Republican parties and candidates have given lip service to the idea of drawing Latinos into the fold. Republicans argue that Latinos, with their strong family values and conservative social and religious views, belong in the GOP rather than with the Democrats.

I have always been impressed by the logic of this GOP thesis, and consistently unimpressed with the efforts to put it into practice. Latino Republicans are good at setting up committees every election year to support major candidates like President Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian. They raise lots of money and deliver some votes. But, once the election is over, the committees fade away. By failing to establish an on going presence in the Latino community, Republicans lose opportunities to beat Democrats where they least expect it--in local races in heavily Latino districts.

A textbook example of this is the 55th Assembly District, in Northeast Los Angeles. It was represented by a Democrat, Richard Alatorre, for 13 years until he was elected to the City Council late last year. The Assembly vacancy was filled in a special election in June, when Alatorre aide Richard Polanco defeated fellow Democrat Mike Hernandez, a local businessmen.

Normally that would have been the end of the matter. But the Polanco-Hernandez race was bitter, and the ramifications are still being felt on the Eastside. One of Hernandez's key supporters was Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, who bucked Democratic Party leaders to oppose Polanco. To punish her, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown let the Legislature approve construction of a new state prison in Molina's district--a project that she and residents of the Eastside vociferously oppose. In an act of revenge that was poetic, if not especially subtle, Polanco cast the vote to get the prison project out of the committee where it had been blocked.

Polanco explained his vote by saying that he wanted the Eastside prison discussed on the Assembly floor. Yet anyone whose knowledge of politics is above junior-high civics knows that if a politician's constituents don't want something, his normal course of action is to try and stop it wherever he can, preferably in committee.

In fact, Polanco knew exactly what he was doing in casting the prison vote--getting back at a personal rival even if it meant going against his own constituents. One does not normally associate the phrase arrogance of power with rookie politicians like Polanco, but clearly he thinks that he can get away with this stunt. One reason is the "safe" district that he inherited from Alatorre--a district where the Republican Party is offering only token opposition in this November's general election.

As angry residents of the Eastside fuss and fume over how they can get back at Polanco and the Democratic clique that sustains politicians like him, they might ask themselves what would have happened if there were a real contest in the 55th Assembly District this fall. What if a well-known and respected Latino community leader like Mike Hernandez were running against Polanco as a Republican?

For one thing, Democratic leaders like Brown would never have let Polanco cast a risky vote on a controversial issue like the Eastside prison. And if Polanco had supported the prison anyway, GOP officials like Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan could have exploited the misstep by dipping into their campaign funds to support Polanco's GOP rival.

It's an intriguing scenario. But it's academic, because the Republican Party does not have the kind of organization in the 55th District that the Democrats do. Until it does, even minor Democratic politicians like Polanco will be able to act like little emperors, answering to their financial contributors and party leaders more than to the people who elect them.

Republicans will argue that Democrats have stacked the deck against them in places like the 55th District, drawing boundaries so that they are top-heavy with poor and working-class minorities. But this old assumption about Democrats having a lock on minorities' votes doesn't fit the GOP's new vision of its potential among Latinos. In a New York Times/CBS poll published last week, 58% of Latino respondents said that they leaned to the Democrats, while 29%, a higher percentage than in similar polls taken in the past, leaned to the Republicans. More important, 43% of Latinos categorized themselves as conservative, compared with 16% liberal and 33% moderate. And the 64% of Latinos who approved of Reagan's performance in office is almost on par with the 67% approval rate that he got from the general population.

The seeds of success in the Latino community are there, but Republicans will have to cultivate them more carefully than they have in the past.

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