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Latinos Make History, but Is Democratic Party Home?

November 10, 1996|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a contributing writer to Los Angeles Magazine

Not long after the 1994 elections, many high-ranking Republican functionaries and conservative intellectuals began wondering aloud whether Gov. Pete Wilson's short-term tactic of identifying himself with Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative, hadn't been a serious long-term strategic error for the party.

They need wonder no longer.

Election day results indicate that the Grand Old Party has a Latino problem. Not only did Latinos vote in larger numbers than ever before, they also voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Since the Latino electorate will continue to grow steadily, it may soon dawn on some GOP strategist that embracing wedge issues offensive to state Latinos is politically risky business.

Yet, for Latinos, over-identification with one political party poses new, more subtle problems.

After 187's and the Republican Party's huge victories in 1994, many media analysts and some Latino politicians blamed the unhappy results on the Latino electorate: They hadn't voted. Quite the contrary.

According to the Southwest Voter Research Institute, 56.6% of Latino registered voters cast ballots in 1994, compared to 60.4% of the total electorate. That year, in fact, Latino voter turnout was the highest it had ever been for a midterm election. Those aware of this fact worried that it was a fluke. They feared the political activism inspired by Proposition 187 would dissipate before the 1996 campaign.

This year's election, however, is noteworthy because the long-standing difference between Latino and overall electorate turnout of registered voters was essentially eliminated. In both categories, a projected 65% of registered voters cast ballots. It may have been a disappointing year for overall turnout in the state, but it was the third consecutive election in which the Latino presence at the polls expanded.

Short term, the Latino voting "problem" has not been the lack of participation by Latino registered voters. Rather, it has been the huge number of permanent resident aliens who are ineligible to vote. But thanks to the GOP-backed anti-illegal-immigrant campaign, which gradually evolved into the anti-immigrant campaign, a quarter of a million of last week's Latino voters became U.S. citizens only within the last four years.

California has experienced an increase of more than 660,000 new Latino voters, both U.S.- and foreign-born, over the last four years. A Times' exit poll estimates that 10% of last week's voters were Latino. Southwest Voter's preliminary estimates put the number at around 13%. Figures from both organizations show that the Latino portion of the California electorate has increased by around 40% since 1992.

But it is unrealistic to expect that the full weight of Latino electoral power will be felt overnight. What is important is that higher rates of naturalization, voter registration and registered-voter turnout have proved to be more than transitory phenomena. The sleeping electoral giant is awake.

In the 1980s, Republicans made inroads into the Latino electorate. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan captured 47% of their vote nationally. This year, Bob Dole received only 21%.

The newly naturalized Latino vote was considered up for grabs only three years ago. But a recent survey by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute revealed that only 9.4% of these voters identify themselves as Republican. Indeed, 75% of California's Latinos voted for Democrat Bill Clinton this year, compared with 51% in 1992.

Still, that California Latinos voted even more heavily Democratic in the past two elections than they had before signifies less of an overwhelming affection for the Democratic Party than a strong rejection of the GOP. The fact remains that hundreds of thousands of new Latino voters will be looking for an ideological home. Democratic strategists would be wise not to take Latinos for granted in their electoral calculations.

More significantly, however, Latinos should not exclusively embrace the Democratic Party. Such an arrangement invariably degrades the quality of political/intellectual debate. Having all Latino participants on the same side of the aisle has, in the past, made for disappointing discussions about the many issues that concern California Latinos. At a time when the variety of Latino experiences is multiplying, it would be a shame for their political life to remain essentially one-dimensional.

It is thus not a good sign that the first Latino Republican elected to the Assembly in this century, Rod Pacheco of Riverside, will not be invited to join the currently all-Democratic Latino Caucus in the Legislature. Still, the caucus will grow from 14 to 17. And in the most dramatic symbol of California's changing political landscape, one of their own, Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante of Fresno, will become speaker of the Assembly.

A Latino speaker will certainly inspire profound changes in the way issues affecting Latinos are perceived in the Capitol. Perhaps most important, Bustamante will bring home the truth that the fates of Latino and non-Latino Californians are inextricably intertwined.

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