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Election Leaves Latinos With Challenges in 1989

March 23, 1989|FRANK del OLMO | Del Olmo is a Times editorial writer and columnist

Normally, a presidential election year like 1988 is followed by a respite from politics. Activists of all political parties are tired from the arduous campaign just completed, and they need some time to rest and recuperate.

But Latino political activists don't have that luxury in 1989. For a variety of reasons, Latinos from Southern California to Washington are going to be busy all year keeping tabs on political developments.

On the national level there is a great deal of interest in how President Bush will respond to expectations among Latinos.

A former Texas resident with many business connections in Mexico, Bush made a strong appeal for Latino voter support in the campaign. His most visible campaigners were his son, Jeb, and his Mexican-born wife, Columba. But Bush also had help from several Latinos in campaign staff positions.

The President is off to a good start, having named two Latinos to his Cabinet. He reappointed Ronald Reagan's last secretary of education, Lauro F. Cavazos of Texas, and he selected former U.S. Rep. Manuel Lujan of New Mexico to be his secretary of interior. But while both men are sure to be sources of pride to most Latinos, they could face rough going in their highly visible jobs.

Cavazos must persuade the President to spend more federal money on education, despite a large budget deficit left by Reagan.

The political tensions that Cavazos' appeals for more money have generated are already in the open. Some Republican conservatives say Cavazos, a Democrat, is too liberal.

Lujan could have difficulty trying to strike a balance between the environmentalists who want to protect the federal lands and forests controlled by the Interior Department, and the businessmen, loggers and ranchers (many from the West) who want access to those valuable properties.

Here in California, Latinos in both major parties are going to be involved in the early maneuvering among candidates who plan to run for governor in 1990. The campaign is beginning so early because Gov. George Deukmejian has already announced that he will not seek reelection, and a wide-open governor's race is likely to attract many candidates.

Locally, Latino activists will be busy, not in a political campaign, but in the courts. They will be monitoring the progress of a lawsuit that will affect the five seats on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Filed against the county by the U.S. Justice Department and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among others, it aims to force the county to create a new supervisor district--one in which a Latino might be elected.

Los Angeles Latinos have become increasingly restive with the fact that while one of every three people in the county is Latino, all five supervisors are white men. They want a Latino voice on the powerful board, and look to Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez in neighboring Orange County as a model.

But county officials have vowed to fight the lawsuit to the bitter end, so it could be some time before a Latino sits on the county board. Should the county give in on the lawsuit and create a new district, some of the prominent Latinos being talked about as possible candidates include Los Angeles City Council members Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).

While it may not be as dramatic as all the political maneuvering, perhaps the most important political effort that will start up in 1989 is the effort by MALDEF and other Latino advocacy groups to help the U.S. Census Bureau get a more accurate count of Latinos when the national census is taken in 1990.

Many Latinos, especially those who are recent immigrants, tend to shy away from census takers and other government officials, but cooperation with the 1990 census is going to be vitally important for the Latino community.

An accurate count of the population will make it easier for Latinos to push for more political representation. The larger our population, the more it is likely that new Latino-majority legislative districts can be drawn at all levels of government. Such districts could elect many new Latino political leaders in the 1990s, especially if the many Latino immigrants who applied for amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform Act become citizens and start exercising the right to vote.

In fact, the 1990 census issue illustrates the one overriding reason why Latino activists can't afford to take a break from politics in 1989: For all the progress Latinos have made in recent years, we are still behind where we should be, given our fast-growing population. We will begin to catch up when we are accurately counted--and then put our numbers to work by fully participating in the civic life of this nation.

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