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Latinos Want to Be Won but Insist on Commitment : Politics: With reapportionment near, Democrats and Republicans must realize that Latinos want power, not just attention.

April 29, 1990|Antonia Hernandez | Antonia Hernandez is president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) , a national Latino civil-rights organization based in Los Angeles

Latino voters are being wooed as they've never been wooed before, and the suitors are the strangest of would-be bedfellows. Both Democratic and Republican Party leaders are sending messages loud and clear to the Latino community that the political future could be bright, indeed, if Latinos would only join forces with the party that serves their interests. Not surprisingly, both sides insist they--not the other guys--represent the party for Latinos.

Well, we've heard this before.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that all this attention isn't flattering, because it is. For the first time, the Latino population is considered large and powerful enough by outsiders to be consulted when determining future political agendas. That's a refreshing change from the days when Latinos talked to each other, but had to shout to get anyone else's attention. But the overtures are also aggravating because we are now considered important enough to be--there's no other word for it--used by both parties. So while these budding relationships may be intriguing, may we remind all the political "big boys" that Latinos will be beholden to neither party.

That's because we also recognize the significance of the changes looming on the political horizon. Indeed, Latinos around the country are already gearing up because they know some of the toughest skirmishes of future elections will be fought long before any candidate hits the campaign trail. The most contentious contests will occur during the reapportionment process, when state legislatures draw new district boundaries in 1991 on the basis of the population statistics gathered from the recent census.

Already behind-the-scenes discussions and rumblings from both parties indicate how high the political stakes of reapportionment are going to be. On a recent visit to Washington, for example, I was approached by a high-ranking Republican attorney who asked how the GOP could help MALDEF in the 1991 reapportionment process. To appreciate the irony--maybe even the hypocrisy--of that query, remember that Republicans control the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. MALDEF and other civil-rights groups have sued them to try to force them into reapportioning districts to give Latino candidates a chance to be elected. I told this acquaintance that what the GOP can do for Latinos on reapportionment is to call off his fellow Republicans--now, not in 1991.

Of course, he was no naive messenger. GOP strategists know exactly what they're doing in approaching Latinos, and African-Americans, with offers of cooperation in 1991. Some political analysts believe that cities with large minority populations, and which have traditionally supported white Democrats, could be reapportioned in such a way that minority groups will elect their own representatives. But to do that, many white voters in neighborhoods nearby would have to be shifted into suburban districts, where Republicans do well. That could force white Democrats to compete with Republicans on their turf. Republicans think this bodes well for them, and obviously most Democratic incumbents would prefer to keep districts well-stocked with "safe" Democratic voters, be they white or minority.

Latinos know all this, which is why we are not waiting for the Democrats or Republicans to decide how the major parties can best "serve" the Latino community. Instead, we resolved early on that the only way to ensure that the interests and concerns of the Latino community are addressed seriously and decisively is to do the political groundwork ourselves.

Consequently, Latino groups are joining forces to maximize their political clout. MALDEF, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) are combining efforts to stretch our limited resources to the fullest, and we are investing in computer technology and data systems to support our work.

It is a formidable effort and one that necessitates the cooperation, compromise and tenacity of all those involved. But I'm confident that the Latino community will be successful in this pivotal endeavor. While Latinos make up only 8% of the total population in this country, our numbers are steadily increasing and, in the meantime, our concentration in key states like California, Texas, Illinois and New York will guarantee that our presence is felt even during the early 1990s.

Democrats and Republicans must realize that the time of using Latinos to perpetuate their own political self-interests is over. We are cognizant that the political process is one of accommodation, and so we will allow ourselves to be "used" as long as we also are accommodated. We enter into this "negotiation" with our eyes open and with a clear understanding of the role we can and should play in the political future of this country. We are on the same playing field with access to the same data as everyone else.

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