Despite his reputation as a tough political conservative, Gov. George Deukmejian likes to present himself as a man who is sensitive to both the needs and aspirations of ethnic minorities, particularly the Mexican-Americans who make up this state's biggest single ethnic group. But many Latinos have doubts about the depth and sincerity of Deukmejian's concern for them, and those doubts have deepened in the wake of the governor's enthusiastic support for the bitter political campaign that last week resulted in the ouster of Justice Cruz Reynoso and two other members of the California Supreme Court.
Reynoso was the first Latino to serve on the highest court in a state that his people helped found and enrich. Although he was a liberal, Reynoso was a symbol of pride to Latinos of various political persuasions. Many leading Latino Republicans pleaded with Deukmejian not to oppose Reynoso as he opposed the two other liberals who were defeated, Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justice Joseph R. Grodin.
Deukmejian did not take that advice, and ended up announcing that he would vote against all three of the justices whom conservatives wanted to remove from the bench because of their reluctance to impose the death penalty. Given the way the well-funded activism against the justices was able to cloud all other issues in the campaign with emotional rhetoric about law and order, Deukmejian's opposition to Reynoso and the others probably did not make that much difference in the final outcome. But by lending the dignity of his office to such a bitter campaign, Deukmejian lowered himself.
Worse, in the case of Reynoso, Deukmejian's position gave aid and comfort to a hard core of nativists and racists in this state who vote for or against candidates because of their ethnic background--and anyone who doubts that at least some people voted against Reynoso because of his Spanish name should henceforth register to vote in Fantasyland.
Deukmejian is not himself racist or anti-Mexican, as some militant Latinos claim. I have heard him speak too often of his own Armenian background with deep and genuine emotion to believe that. He remembers too vividly the painful history of his own people--their persecution in the Middle East and their sad diaspora to the New World--to feel antipathy toward another ethnic group that has also known historic persecution, often in the very state that Deukmejian now leads.
But there have been times in his political career when even moderate Latinos have wondered if Deukmejian is as sensitive as he could be to their aspirations.
The most recent case occurred when the Statue of Liberty was rededicated this past summer. California was to be represented at the event by two recent immigrants who would be sworn in as citizens during a special naturalization ceremony, along with immigrants from 49 other states. One of the immigrants whom Deukmejian named to represent California was, understandably enough, an Armenian. The other was Russian, although by far the largest number of immigrants in this state are from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The move was widely criticized in the state's Spanish-language media.
Then there is the battle that Deukmejian has waged since taking office that pits him against Cesar Chavez, head of the United Farm Workers union. Chavez charges that the governor is trying to break his union by appointing people to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and its staff who favor the interests of growers. Deukmejian claims that he is trying to bring balance to an agency that the state's farmers believe has been slanted in favor of the UFW.
The issues arising out of that political brouhaha are too many and too complex to be argued here. But the fact that the UFW's membership consists mostly of Mexican-American farm workers, and the fact that many of Deukmejian's most prominent supporters are Armenian-American farmers in the Central Valley, does raise questions in the minds of urban Latinos. Politics aside, they admire Chavez as a symbol, much as they admire Reynoso.
Deukmejian could go a long way toward winning over many skeptical Latinos if he appointed another Mexican-American to the Supreme Court to replace Reynoso. That should not be hard; there are many fine Latinos in California who are qualified to sit on the state's highest court. Among them are Judge Arthur Alarcon of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and Judge John A. Arguelles of Irvine, who sits on the state Court of Appeal.
These men are respected in legal circles. They are known to be fair-minded and of judicial temperament, as Reynoso was. But they also have reputations as judicial conservatives who are tough about law and order--the kind of judges that Deukmejian says he likes. He should name one of them, or another Latino of similar caliber, to the state's high court as soon as possible.