YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Latino Is as Latino Does in Office

Cruz Bustamante's rise to Assembly speaker carries the obligation of doing right by thosewho voted for him.

November 17, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Latino activists, especially of a Democratic persuasion, have had almost two weeks now to bask in the glow of their election day victories. And while it's now time to move on, I can understand why some Latinos might be reluctant to do so. After years of hearing their people dismissed as a sleeping giant, or worse, it's nice to see Page 1 articles reporting that the giant is, if not fully awake, then finally stirring.

Latino voters helped President Clinton win reelection, for example, by turning out in record numbers in key states like California and Florida. They provided a strong base for his winning traditionally Republican Arizona and New Mexico.

And Latino voters were pivotal to a widely noted GOP setback: the apparent ouster of the rabidly right-wing Rep. Robert K. Dornan in Orange County by a Latina, Loretta Sanchez. (As of Friday, Dornan was still refusing to concede, blaming his 665-vote loss on "voting fraud.")

Heavy Latino turnout in California also helped restore control of the state Assembly to Democrats. That, in turn, led to the party leadership's selection of the first Latino to hold the post of Assembly speaker, the second most powerful job in state government.

With the election of four additional Latinos, the Assembly's Latino caucus increased to 14 members. So Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante will have a sturdy bloc of support after he officially becomes speaker when the new Legislature convenes next month.

Impressive as these advances have been, however, this is really just the start of the political maturity that Latinos must achieve if they are to put their newfound political muscle to its most effective use. For elections are just one small, if colorful, part of the political process. Equally important, if less dramatic, is the day-to-day process of holding the politicians we voters elect accountable.

My mentor on this is a Latino I've long considered one of the smartest political minds around, Ernesto Cortes. He is the community organizer who helped found some of the most effective grass-roots groups in the nation, including Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio and the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) of East Los Angeles.

A student of the late radical organizer Saul Alinsky, Cortes has helped refine Alinsky's methods for the modern era. And I'm not the only one who considers Cortes a pretty smart fellow. A few years back he won one of the famous "genius" grants awarded by the MacArthur Foundation.

But the truest measure of Cortes' work is the fact that both COPS and UNO have spun off several allied organizations in Texas and California. In fact, a major get-out-the-vote drive here in Southern California was carried out by UNO and its allies in the Active Citizenship Campaign, which got an estimated 90,000 voters to the polls.

Now, however, the leaders of the Active Citizenship Campaign are out to make sure that they do not lose the momentum they carried into election day. In the process of planning their next steps, they will surely ponder this bit of wisdom I once heard from Cortes: "Just because a Chicano gets elected doesn't mean the millennium has arrived. Actually, that's when even harder work must begin. We must hold that politician accountable."

Those may sound like harsh words, especially to the many new Latino citizens who, flushed with idealistic enthusiasm, voted for the first time this year. But surely the politicians they helped elect know it. Take, for example, California's Assembly speaker-elect.

Bustamante represents a district near Fresno that is heavily Latino and heavily agricultural. And while he has voted in support of the United Farm Workers union on some issues, he has voted against them on others. Earlier this year, for example, he voted to give farmers leeway to keep using the controversial pesticide methyl bromide. UFW activists wanted an immediate ban of this highly toxic gas that regularly poisons farm workers. But Bustamante bought into the farmers' argument that a premature ban on methyl bromide could hurt the state's agricultural economy.

The pesticide issue is likely to surface again next year in Sacramento. When it does, urban Latinos should not be at all surprised to see the union founded by Cesar Chavez taking on the first Latino Assembly speaker. But that's politics.

So enough of the warm, fuzzy celebrations. It's time to get on with the cold, hard work of governance.

Los Angeles Times Articles