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Latinos Make Political Gains : Becerra Seen as Rising Star After His Primary Victory


Xavier Becerra strode onstage at his victory celebration and unfolded several pages with names of supporters who had helped him win the 30th Congressional District's Democratic primary.

"This is all about human beings," said Becerra, who a moment earlier had been exchanging abrazos with his jubilant supporters. "This was not a race between machines. . . . This is a race that was won because of the human element."

Becerra is expected to become one of four Latinos in California's congressional delegation. Democrats Lucille Roybal-Allard, daughter of retiring Rep. Edward Roybal, as well as incumbents Esteban Torres and Matthew Martinez, won handily on June 2. In addition, six Latinos from Los Angeles County came out on top in Democratic primaries for the state Assembly. All are favored to win their heavily Democratic districts in November's general election.

"The political history of our community is beginning right now," Los Angeles City Council member Mike Hernandez said of the strongest electoral showing ever by Latinos in California. "This is the first time we could really claim to have multiple races where Latinos were running against Latinos and (allowed) for a different kind of leadership to emerge. I think you're going to see a lot of statesmen emerging and a different way of politics beginning in our community."

Hernandez added, "I believe he (Becerra) is our shining star."

Becerra will face Republican physician Morry Waksberg in the Nov. 3 election. The winner will inherit the seat of retiring Rep. Roybal, considered the dean of California Latino politicians, whose endorsement was instrumental in Becerra's success in the primary.

"Roybal's support of Becerra, kind of . . . handing the baton, allows us to have a voice in a national seat . . . for the next 20 years," said Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners architectural group.

Becerra stressed that his rapport with the people of his district was crucial to his victory. "I walk door to door and I listen, and I show people that I really want to make the effort to hear what they have to say," he said. Becerra said he hoped his victory "is pointing us in the direction of grass-roots politics, walking precincts rather than relying on heavy dollars."

The crowds of well-wishers who swarmed around Becerra attested to the power of his personality. "He's personable and educated and articulate and that's a big difference," said Martha Romero, president-elect of the Mexican-American Bar Assn.

"I still see him as a kid," said Becerra's proud father, Manuel, dispensing hugs and handshakes left and right. Indeed, if he is victorious in the fall, the 34-year-old Becerra would be one of Congress' youngest members. That would be quite a coup for Becerra, a Sacramento native and graduate of Stanford Law School who entered politics just two years ago when he won election to the Assembly.

His supporters see his age as an advantage that sets him up for a long political career.

But not everyone shared in the euphoria of the Becerra camp. Diane Gonzalez, a campaign staffer for Los Angeles Board of Education member Leticia Quezada, who finished second in the voting, contended that Becerra's ads portrayed Quezada in a false light.

"There's no doubt in my mind that our campaign was the real grass-roots campaign in this election. We did not succumb to sending out false and misleading information on our opponents," Gonzalez said.

Observers had touted this race and others as showdowns between the opposing political machines of Supervisor Gloria Molina, who endorsed Becerra, and state Sen. Art Torres, who supported Quezada. Gonzalez, who has now returned to her position as an aide to Torres, took some solace in the fact that five of the seven candidates endorsed by Molina lost.

"Clearly this election was won on the strength of Ed Roybal's endorsement," said Gonzalez. "And it has proven very conclusively that Gloria Molina does not have coattails."

Reflecting on the results, Molina said, "It was a sweet and sour (election) night for me. "I felt miserable about the people I supported who didn't make it." Molina said she was heartened by Becerra's victory, however.

Others questioned the view that the election was just a behind-the-scenes battle between Latino power brokers. "There's a tendency to see it as two monolithic power forces contending, but you lose the complexity of the fact that there were so many races that had some very good candidates on both sides," said Harry Pachon, director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "It's a case where people took a look at the ads (campaign mailers) and were responding to individuals."

Becerra finished with 9,252 votes, 31% of the total, to Quezada's 22% in the 30th District. Waksberg, who advocates offering tax credits to low-income families for payment of health care premiums, ran unopposed in the Republican primary and received 6,591 votes.

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