The number of Latinos holding elected offices across the nation increased by nearly 6% during the last year, a trend that is likely to accelerate after new congressional and state legislative districts are drawn in 1991, politicians, political observers and voting rights activists said.
There are 4,004 Latinos holding office in the 50 states, ranging from seats on school boards to the U.S. Congress, according to a recent survey by the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Last year, 3,783 Latinos held office.
NALEO's president, Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), said the gains are smaller than hoped for, but still encouraging. "I was hoping it would be more than 6%," Roybal said. "But it shows a definite increase in Latino representation."
Latinos still account for less than 1% of the nation's elected officials while they make up about 8% of the U.S. population.
The 6% growth continues the trend that has seen the number of Latino elected officials rise from 3,128 in 1984, the first year the Los Angeles-based association published a survey.
The national total includes gains made by some predominantly Latino communities that have struggled for better political representation for years. For example, Raul Perez and Luis Hernandez last April became the first Latinos elected to the Huntington Park City Council. Perez had previously run five times in Huntington Park, where the population is about 90% Latino.
More than one-third of Latino elected officials are school board members, a low rung on the political ladder. Ten Latinos are members of the U.S. House of Representatives; 128 hold seats in state legislatures, 368 are county supervisors and 1,212 are city council members.
The nation's only Latino governor, Republican Bob Martinez of Florida, was defeated on Nov. 6 in his reelection bid. NALEO's national director, Harry Pachon, said the sting of that loss was lessened somewhat by the election of Texas Rep. Dan Morales to be that state's attorney general. He is the first Latino in that post.
Experts attribute the 6% increase to more Latinos registering to vote as the population has increased and a greater political sophistication of the Latino community. That sophistication has resulted in voting rights lawsuits and court decisions that have given Latino candidates a better chance to win office.
The next sizable jump could come in several years, after state and national electoral districts are redrawn in 1991, the experts said. The redistricting will reflect population changes marked by the decennial U.S. Census.
Latinos hold just three of California's 45 congressional seats, even though they account for about one-fourth of the state's population. California is expected to pick up seven new seats through reapportionment.
"I don't see how you could escape not having at least one more congressional seat" that could be won by a Latino candidate in California, said political scientist Larry Berg, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. Redistricting is "going to be a very competitive process" and that blacks and Asians also will be pushing for greater representation, Berg said.
Officials of two Latino voting rights organizations said they will be watching the redistricting carefully to ensure that the voting strength of Latinos is not diluted through gerrymandering, as both Democrats and Republicans try to protect their seats.
"We, the community, will challenge (with lawsuits) redistricting plans that we do not feel protect our interests," said Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "In the past, they've been able to gerrymander a community and get away with it because the community didn't have the resources and the sophistication."
Court decisions of the last decade will weigh on state legislatures as they work on reapportionment next year, the experts said. A federal judge recently ruled that Los Angeles County supervisors discriminated against Latinos in 1981 by drawing district lines that gave Latino candidates little chance of being elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Some of the redrawn districts should be more favorable to Latino candidates, said Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "The legislatures are very mindful of being challenged," Martinez said.
Texas has the most Latino officeholders with 1,889, according to NALEO, followed by New Mexico with 692, California with 596, Arizona with 271 and Colorado at 192.
Pachon said more Latino politicians have been successful in Texas because the Latino population is heavily concentrated in the southern part of the state. In addition, Texas is where MALDEF and the Southwest Voter Registration cut their teeth, challenging at-large elections and launching voter registration drives in 1970.