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LATINOS : Winning More Political Offices but Still No Agenda

February 11, 1996|David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez | David E. Hayes-Bautista is executive director of the Alta California Research Center. Gregory Rodriguez is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and at Alta California

If the Latino political agenda has been to advocate increased Latino representation at all levels of government, it has been wildly successful. In 1994, the number of Latino elected officials in California rose to nearly 800, almost twice what it was a decade earlier. The number of Latino state and federal legislators has jumped from seven, in 1980, to 18 today. And within four years, Latino lawmakers could make up nearly 20% of the state Assembly and one-third of all Democrats in Sacramento. But success in creating Latino political fiefdoms has not translated into a consistent and coherent agenda on how to promote Latino interests or on how to better govern a changing state. Ironically, that absence signifies a growing political maturity.

Even before the highly politicized climate of the 1960s, politics was seen by many Latinos as an elusive quick fix with the potential to suddenly transform lives. "If we would only all unite, we could change the system," has been both a Latino mantra and lament for decades. Latino communities were seen as untapped political forces whose less than enthusiastic participation in electoral politics would invariably--election after election--wind up disappointing the politicians and activists who courted and sought to lead them. Conversely, the absence of an active and informed electorate gave incumbent Latino elected officials some of the most secure political seats in the state.

But because of the grand hopes many Latinos have invested in electoral politics, their expectations have grown unreasonably high. The myth of unity also haunts Latino elected officials. Most bridle at the notion that they should vote in unison or legislate as a bloc. Although many blame the media for selling the idea of ethnic political unity, Latino leaders themselves have pushed that very ideal for years.

Understandably, the majority of elected officials loathe the pigeonhole of "Latino politician." None wants to limit his or her appeal by appearing too ethnically provincial. And even when some do choose to showcase their ethnic colors, their consultants invariably ask them to tone it down. During the battle over Proposition 187, for example, Latino officials who actively opposed the anti-illegal immigrant measure heeded a conservative consulting firm's advice not to publicly join the campaign to defeat the initiative. The consultants' advice: The Latinos' message would lack credibility and their faces would threaten Anglo voters.

Because few Latino-held districts actually have a majority of Latino registered voters living in them, most Latino officeholders have to curry favor with Anglo and other non-Latino voters. Los Angeles Assemblyman Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who was elected with both Latino and Anglo votes and represents an ethnically diverse district, presents himself as ideologically, not ethnically, driven.

A small but growing number of Latinos have seats in districts where Latinos are a decided minority. Liz Figueroa, an Assemblywoman in Northern California, represents a district that is 52% Anglo and 12% Latino. If she appeals to an "ethnic" constituency in her district, it is to the one-quarter of residents who are Asian. "My constituents don't even know I'm Latina," she says. Since her district has both a high concentration of college graduates and a low crime rate, Figueroa can approach issues differently from her colleagues in the Latino Legislative Caucus, who represent a more working-class constituency. Unlike state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala, who represents a majority Anglo district and derides the idea of the Latino caucus as self-segregation, Figueroa subscribes to a broad Latino political agenda.

That agenda consists generally of Democratic social-welfare and civil rights issues, with a few new emphases. State-level politicians who subscribe to this agenda concede that it does not address the concerns of the roughly half of California Latinos who have reached the middle class. It was only a few years ago that Latino representatives felt it necessary to sit on committees that oversee social-service programs in order to protect their constituencies' interests. But shifting ideological winds, the declining faith in big government and the growing recognition that their poorer constituents are more entrepreneurial and hard-working than they are a static urban underclass all seem to have made Latino politicians more business and economic development-oriented. This shift has also been made possible by a larger Latino presence in Sacramento and a greater diversity in committee assignments.

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