In a series of hardball campaigns for Latino candidates and causes, a brash new alliance of Mexican-American activists is thumbing its nose at political decorum, arousing ethnic anxieties and testing the strength of the region's emerging Latino majority.
Newer and smaller than mainstream organizations such as MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, this insurgent group has muscled its way to the forefront of Latino activism.
It has done so by supporting the successful ouster of Anglo council members in suburban Bell Gardens, by pressuring Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center to hire more Latinos and, most recently, by battling City Hall over the elimination of Latinos from the list of six finalists for Los Angeles police chief.
In one of its more controversial moves, the group recently held a news conference to allege that three finalists had engaged in misconduct, triggering an inquiry by the Police Commission.
The group calls itself NEWS for America, a name that symbolizes the growing size of the Latino population in the north, east, west and south. Its stated purpose is to achieve a proportional share of representation in jobs, politics and government contracts.
In the 18 months since it was formed over breakfast at a Holiday Inn in the east San Fernando Valley, NEWS has emerged as the bad boy of ethnic politics. The group has provoked the ire of prominent Latino officeholders, been accused of pitting browns against blacks and of jeopardizing pending reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department.
At the same time, NEWS has won the loyalty of many Latinos who admire its maverick spirit. "They are doing things that a lot of people have been afraid to do for fear of retribution or because they didn't feel sufficiently empowered," said Fernando Guerra, director of Chicano Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
What most distinguishes NEWS from mainstream groups is its blunt disavowal of coalition politics. Unlike traditional ethnic activists, NEWS looks at its own proliferating population and says, in so many words, "we can win without anyone else's help."
"NEWS combines '60s rhetoric with '90s numbers," said Guerra. "They're waking Latinos up to the fact that they're not a minority anymore. It's a heady feeling."
Among black leaders--whom NEWS sees as political rivals--reaction has not been favorable.
"In general, I find their tactics very disturbing," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "Their notion that 'it's our turn and it's time for blacks to move over' is very destructive. There is no place for an attitude like that if we are ever going to build a process of mutual coexistence among all ethnic groups."
The group's youthful bravado can be deceiving. Although many in the organization cut their teeth in demonstrations and walkouts 25 years ago, the leaders are middle-aged lawyers, business and professional people who display the confidence that comes with material success and professional stature.
Moreover, NEWS leaders estimate that about a quarter of their 100-plus members are Republicans--a characteristic that helps explain the group's aloofness from the city's liberal power structure.
As much as anything these days, NEWS' rhetoric exhorts Latinos to reject the deal-making and bridge-building that has been the hallmark of ethnic politics during the years Mayor Tom Bradley has been in power.
"We have always been so accommodating, so loyal, but it's gotten us nowhere politically, in government," said Xavier Hermosillo, a former journalist, legislative aide, management consultant and NEWS' chairman.
Lawyer and NEWS co-founder Manuel Hidalgo put it more bluntly: "Mexican-Americans have to stop being, quote, 'fair' to the blacks and fair to the whites and start thinking about the 40% of the population that is ours. We can afford to be fair to others after we have assumed the reins of power in a few places."
But that kind of tough talk is not all that sets NEWS apart from other Latino groups, and it is not the only reason why some Latinos regard the group with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness.
There is concern that NEWS' drive for a proportional share of political spoils sets the organization on a collision course with other ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans.
Raul Nunez, a Chicano labor leader and NEWS co-founder, contends that the makeup of the Los Angeles County work force, which employs many more blacks than Latinos, represents the kind of ethnic imbalance Latinos should no longer put up with.
"The Latino population is three times as big as the black population, and yet there are almost twice as many blacks as Latinos on the county payroll. How is that fair?" Nunez asked recently. Last week, the group won a partial victory when the county settled a civil rights complaint by agreeing to hire and promote more Latinos within the county's vast public health system.
But NEWS is not representative of the region's Latino population.