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Politics : Latino Caucus Goes After At-Large Election System

May 04, 1989|LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With Latinos making up about one-quarter of California's population, it has become a sore point for Assemblyman Peter Chacon that so few Latinos have stepped into the ranks of political power.

Chacon, a San Diego Democrat who chairs the Legislature's Hispanic Caucus, has gathered statistics showing that Latinos occupy only 6.5% of city council seats and 6% of seats on school boards statewide.

"This is hurting our community," Chacon declared recently while unveiling a package of 17 bills, much of it focused on bolstering Latino political strength on the local level. "Hispanics are terribly under-represented in local government, on city councils and on school boards. . . . So resources are allocated to the majority community that dominates local government."

The centerpiece of the legislative package--the first that has drawn the united support of the seven-member caucus--are bills that seek to do away with the at-large election system that Latino leaders believe is largely responsible for diluting minority political power.

More than 400 of the state's 450 cities still use the at-large system despite calls for change.

While attempts to overturn the at-large system have largely met with failure, the Hispanic Caucus decided to move on the issue this year because of a recent decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The July ruling, which was upheld recently by the U.S. Supreme Court, struck down the at-large system used by the city of Watsonville, where nearly half the residents are Latino but no Latino has won election for nearly 15 years.

In its written decision, the federal appeals court held that Latinos had been the victims of "ubiquitous" discrimination and need not prove current discriminatory practices to challenge at-large, citywide elections.

The bills in the caucus package seek to translate the court ruling into practice by ordering an end to at-large elections in school districts with enrollments over 20,000, requiring elections by district to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and clarifying the authority of cities to adopt district election laws without submitting them to voters.

The measures face political problems, in part because of concern among Republicans that giving more political power to Latinos will translate into more votes for Democratic candidates. Latino voters traditionally register as Democrats. Moreover, the measures would upset the system that brought the current crop of political leaders to power, Democrats as well as Republicans.

Of the 120 members of the Assembly and Senate, only seven are Latinos. The fact that this is the first time the small caucus has been able to agree on a legislative agenda illustrates another difficulty--a lack of unity that has diffused Latino power at the state level.

During a recent Capitol press conference to show new Latino solidarity, two caucus members, Sens. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) and Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), failed to appear.

An aide to Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), author of the community college bill, said the caucus decided to target the Los Angeles Community College District because of Los Angeles' large Latino population and the fact that only one of the district's seven board members is Latino.

"We think this is roughly parallel to the Watsonville case," said Deborah Ortiz, who is handling the bill for Polanco. If the bill passes, Ortiz said, she foresees the likelihood that at least two Latino seats will be created on the district's board of trustees.

The bill aimed at allowing cities to move toward district elections without a public vote is likely to draw strong opposition. There is nothing in current law to prevent cities from taking such action. But Chacon, the bill's author, said he wanted to clarify the issue.

The Latino lawmakers hope to sell their legislative program, not so much by talking about the problems created in the Latino community, but by stressing the problems that might be created for the rest of the population if many Latinos remain poor, uneducated and without political representation.

"We're trying to focus on the fact the demographics are changing in California and the future of this population is directly tied to the future of the state," said Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier).

Other members of the Hispanic Caucus are Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles.)

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