The political enemies of the late U.S. Sen. Joseph Montoya of New Mexico once published a list of his relatives who were on the public payroll. They thought they had scored a direct hit. But rather than embarrass the patriarch, the list demonstrated to his New Mexican constituents what a good man Montoya was--he took care of his family.
As a rule, Latino politicians in Los Angeles don't put members of their political families--longtime aides as well as relatives--on the public payroll. They tend to run them for office. But Xavier Becerra's victory in the Democratic primary in the 59th Assembly District challenges the power of that handful of Latino officeholders who have been the gatekeepers to Chicano political heaven. Most important, the new Democratic nominee believes that public servants should serve the people, not themselves. For the Latino papacitos, that's not a comfortable idea.
After Whittier Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon, the current incumbent, decided to seek the San Gabriel Valley seat of state Sen. Joseph Montoya, who was convicted of political corruption, Latino political custom dictated that he name his successor.
Diane Martinez, the daughter of Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) had indicated last fall that she intended to run for Calderon's Assembly seat if he sought higher office.
Calderon's power to name his political successor faced a more serious obstacle than Martinez: Becerra, a former aide to state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and a state deputy attorney general, filed for his Assembly seat. The challenge was that Becerra had been encouraged to run not by family members or a political papacito but by a cadre of young Latino political activists. These graduates of Ivy League schools and local universities had not come home to the Eastside expecting to be anointed leaders simply because they had degrees from high-powered schools. Rather, they developed their reputations as activists on community issues, such as fighting plans to build another prison in East Los Angeles and a huge incinerator in Vernon. Becerra first became of member of the group while serving as an aide to Torres.
Becerra was a serious threat, and Calderon's camp scurried around for a suitable candidate of their own. Calderon strongly preferred his brother, Tom, a political consultant. Sources say a meeting was called in early February to pick the candidate. In attendance were Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), George Pla, president of Cordova Corp., and Calderon. Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), once a trusted member of the group, was not invited. The three settled on Marta Maestas, a Calderon aide for seven years.
Unhappy at being excluded, Rep. Esteban Torres quickly endorsed his longtime friend Bill Hernandez, a member of the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees. Like Martinez and Maestas, he has ties with TELACU, a community development corporation that has been a major power in the Eastside's game of political musical chairs. Art Torres, not to be outdone, offered Becerra his imprimatur.
The Martinez and Calderon families resorted to their usual overwhelm-the-opposition tactics. The Martinezes ran a father-daughter campaign, sharing office space and mailing expenses. Potholders, 30,000 of them, carried their message. Maestas, with Calderon's help, attacked Becerra by questioning his credentials to run. Rather than pay his dues in the grass roots, they charged, Becerra had gone off to a fancy school.
None of this worked. Becerra's plurality was decisive, in large part because he attracted the largest contingent of young volunteers since Edward R. Roybal's successful 1949 run for the City Council. Not since Gloria Molina took on the papacitos and ran for the Assembly in 1982 had a Latino campaign been less influenced by a political family.
Becerra also represents a new set of political values. Unlike the Polancos and the Calderons, Becerra does not have to be dragged into the issues. Because he listens to what the people--not just his political aides--are saying, he will be better able to develop a political program that embodies the interests of the community, not those of the papacito.
Xavier Becerra and the volunteers who went door-to-door in his behalf constitute a gathering force in Latino politics, one that is in touch with the Latino middle class in the San Gabriel Valley as well as the poor on the Eastside. They have a moral authority that becoming a member of a papacito's family can never bestow.