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Building Blocs

Victories in the state Senate and Assembly underscore the future voting power of Latinos. But political leaders question if the recent momentum can be sustained.


When the votes started trickling in last November, and the enormity of it all became clear, those who had long labored in the Latino community's political fields could only grow giddy with joy. For the first time in 20 years, there was little whining about the paltry turnout of Latino voters--this time, things had been different, thank God and Gov. Pete Wilson, not necessarily in that order.

California had five Latinos in Congress, four in the state Senate and 14 in the Assembly, all but one Democrats. It would soon have one--Fresno's Cruz Bustamante--as the first Latino Speaker of the Assembly--and another, Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa, as the chamber's Democratic floor leader.

It had Xavier Becerra, also of Los Angeles, on the House's most powerful committee, Ways and Means, and as head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

As amazing as all that was the reach of victory. Latinos picked up their first Assembly seat in the San Fernando Valley and congressional seat in Orange County. Inland Empire voters elected two Latinos to the Assembly: a Democrat and a Republican. Farther north, Latinas were elected to Assembly seats in the East Bay and in Sacramento.

The results underscored the future power of a massive voting bloc that, with a few exceptions, has traditionally been underappreciated by the state's political establishment. November's returns also provide a road map for what Latino leaders expect to be a future wave of successes in Los Angeles and throughout California.

No longer are Latino politicians representing only the communities that bred and supported them, such as East Los Angeles.

"We are really seeing a suburbanization of the Latino vote, a dispersal and suburbanization of Latino influence," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Political Institute at Claremont College.

The exact extent of the vote last November remains unclear because the state does not track the ethnic background of voters. But almost everyone agrees that Latino turnout shattered records.

The Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which has charted Latino voting trends, estimates that 75% of registered Latinos voted in the city of Los Angeles and 70% voted in the state. That is dramatically higher than the overall turnout, which California officials estimate at a paltry 53.5% citywide and 65.5% statewide.

The Los Angeles Times Exit Poll showed Latinos comprising an ever larger proportion of the overall electorate. Statewide, Latinos were 10% of the electorate in November, up from 8% four years earlier. "There are some inroads being made," said Susan Pinkus, acting director of the Times Poll.

But polls also illustrates the reason that Latinos have, until now, been taken for granted by politicians. While they compose 32% of the city's population, Latinos amount to only 14% of registered voters, according to a January Times Poll. The same poll found that Latinos are 12% of those likely to cast ballots in April's mayoral election.

The first rationale for the expanding turnout by Latinos is the easy one: Fear.

The two most recent state elections have been dominated by initiatives whose impact frightened Latinos. Proposition 187, while targeted at illegal immigrants, raised fears among other Latinos of discrimination, particularly against children. And Proposition 209 curtailed affirmative action programs that have helped some Latinos enter state universities and gain state jobs. Welfare reform also threatened non-citizen Latinos.

"It's no longer if you become a citizen you can vote," said Claremont's Pachon. "Now it's if you don't become a citizen and you have a devastating injury, you'll not get aid."

A study by the Tomas Rivera Political Institute showed that 25% to 35% of November's Latino voters were either newly naturalized citizens or young voters, presumably motivated by the recent initiatives and the rhetoric emanating from Wilson and others.

"Pedro Wilson created more [Latino] Democrats than any Democratic official," Pachon said.

But Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, points out that those developments only quickened Latinos' pace of involvement. Figures gathered by his organization show that Latino registration actually began to take off in 1984, and by 1988 Latinos were increasingly winning elections.


Latino leaders are optimistic about picking up more seats, particularly in areas where concentrations of Latino voters give them power in Democratic primaries.

Several analysts project broad and growing strength in the San Fernando Valley, the Harbor area, Long Beach, Oxnard, Ventura and the Inland Empire.

Latinos also are looking forward--but not longingly--to future battles with African Americans for seats in the increasingly Latino South-Central Los Angeles.

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