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ELECTIONS '92 : Latinos May Gain Impact in Assembly


When roll is called at the California Assembly's opening legislative session in January, the event could be of historic proportions for the 7.7 million Latinos in California, especially for the 5 million in Southern California.

So proclaim political observers and the Latino candidates for office who, if elected on Nov. 3, will make up the largest bloc of Latino Assembly members in the state's history.

Seven Latinos, all representing Southern California Assembly districts, will probably have seats in the next legislative session, according to observers. Previously, there have never been more than four. Six are from districts in and surrounding Los Angeles; another is from a San Bernardino district. All are heavily favored to win because they are Democrats running in districts with dominant Democratic majorities.

When combined with the three current Latino state senators--Art Torres of the 20th District, Ruben Ayala of the 34th and Charles Calderon of the 26th--the Legislature's Latino contingent would grow to 10 for the coming term. None of the three state senators is up for reelection this year.

The growth of this Latino political muscle also may be felt in Congress, with the expected net gain for next term of one Latino congressman from Southern California. The four expected congressional seats would be occupied by two incumbents, Esteban Torres and Matthew Martinez, and two current Assembly members who are expected to join them in the House of Representatives, Xavier Becerra and Lucille Roybal-Allard.

Two other Latino congressional candidates are in the running, though both are considered long shots. Democrat Robert Banuelos is vying against conservative Rep. Robert K. Dornan in the 46th District, which covers Garden Grove and Santa Ana. Anita Perez Ferguson, formerly of East Los Angeles, is running against incumbent Rep. Elton Gallegly in the 23rd District, which encompasses Ventura County.

Already referred to as "Los Siete, " ("The Seven"), the Latino Assembly contingent is led by incumbent Richard Polanco, chairman of the Latino Legislative Caucus. The six hopefuls are: Louis Caldera, 46th District; Diane Martinez, 49th District; Martha Escutia, 50th District; Hilda Solis, 57th District; Grace Napolitano, 58th District, and Joe Baca, 62nd District.

Veteran political observer Joe Cerrell, head of the Los Angeles political consulting firm of Cerrell Associates, believes the growing Latino community of Southern California is finally beginning to gather political power commensurate with its numbers. "The (state's) future is with the Latinos; it's just taken an awful long time for this momentum to build up," he said.

Another longtime political observer, Larry L. Berg, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, agrees that the election of this group would be historic. "The voice becomes louder" when several people deliver the same type of message, he said.

Caldera called the likely outcome "very significant" for Latino causes. In terms of numbers, he noted that a bloc of seven Latinos would represent nearly 10% of the 80-member Assembly. "More importantly," he said, "we could have seven votes of the 41 (that comprise a simple majority). This is a very substantial number," he said. He added that, for the first time, Latinos would have strength in numbers.

But beyond the numbers, there also is a potential for synergism that could result from a perceived "good chemistry" among the potential new legislators. Caldera noted that their different backgrounds should mesh well and make them an effective group. He noted Napolitano's experience as a mayor (She is mayor pro tem of Norwalk); Martinez's and Solis' experience in public education; Escutia's experience in law and the nonprofit sector, and his own experience in law and economic development.

These backgrounds could give impetus to some of the legislative priorities the candidates have stated.

Education for Latinos ranks first. This is certainly Napolitano's position. She cites educational attainment for Latinos as a key to becoming more productive. Creative ways must be found to keep classrooms accessible to Latinos, she said, pointing to one such approach in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. Faced with a projected 8% budget deficit, the city instituted a temporary utility tax to make up the deficit instead of making cuts that would affect the less affluent, including many Latinos.

Similarly, "ways must be found to make college available to all Latinos, perhaps by allocating more dollars into the classroom and less into administration," she said.

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