WASHINGTON — In presidential politics, on Capitol Hill and in the voting booths of Los Angeles, the Latino age seems to be dawning--at long last. In 1996, newly mobilized Latino voters, enraged by Republican nativism, ended the GOP's lock on the Sunbelt by tilting both California and Florida into the Democratic column. In 1997, Latino voters outnumbered African Americans in an L.A. mayoral election for the first time in a century. And in the House of Representatives, the Hispanic Caucus, energized by the addition of Dornan-slayer Rep. Loretta Sanchez, is currently leading the battle to restore benefits to legal immigrants.
Taking center stage in all these arenas is Los Angeles Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra--new chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the first-ever Latino member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Only 39, Becerra projects an earnest boyishness that makes him seem a decade younger. But then, Becerra is the Golden Boy of Latino politics: a graduate of Stanford Law School, married to a graduate of Harvard Medical School, Carolina Reyes, who teaches at George Washington University Medical School. A deputy to California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, Becerra was elected in 1990 to the California Assembly, where he compiled a notably liberal record on issues ranging from environment protections to the availability of AIDS medication. When 15-term L.A. Rep. Edward R. Roybal chose not to run for reelection in 1992, the one-term assemblyman upset veteran L.A. school board member Leticia Quezada in the contest for Roybal's old seat.
Becerra's district, which runs from Hollywood to Highland Park to Boyle Heights, is a classic L.A. caldo--heavily Latino, heavily diverse and heavily immigrant. Coming to the Capitol just as the anti-immigrant campaign was heating up, Becerra soon became one of the most voluble and constant defenders of immigrant rights in the House.
Blessed with the safest of districts, Becerra could settle in at Ways and Means as a long-term advocate for inner-city and minority interests, in the mode of Harlem's Charles B. Rangel, the committee's ranking Democrat. But with the Latino share of the L.A. electorate finally taking off, Becerra's political horizons may not be confined to one congressional district, though his political agenda may prove to be a stumbling block in a city where political power requires the construction of a multiracial coalition.
For Becerra has emerged, particularly since passage of Prop. 187 in 1994, as one of L.A.'s, and the nation's, most tenacious apostles of Latino causes and Latino-ism. "He's one of the brightest members of the House," a Democratic congressional colleague avers, "and one of the more rigid." Other colleagues respond that Latino-ism--even rigid Latino-ism--is precisely what's needed from the chair of the Hispanic Caucus at a moment when the basic rights of immigrants--a majority of them Latino--are under attack.
Question: How do you assess the president's performance in the battle to reinstate benefits to legal immigrants?
Answer: You have to be critical of the president to the degree that we're in this mess because the president signed the [welfare] bill. The president did not have to sign; he could have vetoed and asked [to remove] some of the provisions that we are now trying to correct. And that's not just legal immigrants: There is the issue of having provided no money for welfare-to-work; the problem of cutting off food stamps to families too quickly. So there are reasons to criticize. But, at the same time, he did stand up [in negotiating the budget deal]; he did say, "Let's put some of that money back where it belongs."
Q: Is restoring benefits to legal immigrants priority one for the Hispanic Caucus? Are there other priorities?
A: It's among the top three. There's also the issue of another presidential pledge--to have an administration that reflects America. We're trying to do what we can to help the president achieve that goal. For the first time in the White House, there are two very qualified, capable Latinos serving at senior-level posi- tions--the director of the office of intergovernmental affairs and the director of public liaison.
And then, there's making the caucus as cohesive as possible. Quite honestly, it's the first priority for the caucus, because if we don't have a cohesive caucus, we won't be able to push for greater consideration when it comes to appointments, or correcting the cuts to legal immigrants.
Q: Republicans argue that Latinos lean right on cultural questions; Democrats argue that Latinos lean left on economic issues and civil rights. Then there's a third factor, which is that Pete Wilson has driven Latinos into the Democrats' arms.