Latino political activists aren't looking back on 1997 as a particularly good year. And some worry that 1998 might be even worse. Such pessimism is unwarranted.
The biggest factor in this downbeat political mood is the recent drumbeat of negative news regarding prominent Latino political leaders.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez is virtually impotent as a result of his cocaine arrest and may be recalled.
Another Eastside councilman, Richard Alatorre, is being investigated by the FBI for questionable financial dealings and could be indicted.
Already indicted on charges of lying to the FBI is Henry Cisneros, President Clinton's former secretary of housing and urban development, who now lives in L.A. in his capacity as president of the Univision TV network. Many L.A. Latinos had hoped the former San Antonio mayor would provide some fresh leadership when he moved here, but that isn't likely to happen now.
For the longest time, things looked bleakest in Orange County. That is where where the biggest Latino political story in the 1996 congressional elections, Democrat Loretta Sanchez's narrow victory over veteran congressman Robert K. Dornan, took place. But Sanchez was under a cloud most of last year because of allegations that illegal votes may have helped her 984-vote victory.
The possibility was first raised in an investigative report in The Times' Orange County edition, where reporters found that 18 voters in that election may have cast ballots that were technically illegal because the first-time voters had not yet taken the oath of citizenship.
By the time Dornan (a right-wing media hound who has never been shy about drumming up publicity for himself) got through with the allegations, you'd have thought Sanchez was ringleader of some international conspiracy to steal millions of votes.
This outlandish theory is still under investigation in Sacramento, by the secretary of state's office, and in Washington, by a congressional committee. But last month the investigative agency closest to the now-notorious "vote fraud" case, the Orange County District Attorney's Office, announced that no one will be prosecuted.
That decision was made after Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi sought criminal indictments against two employees of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Latino civil rights group that has no formal links to Sanchez but did help register voters before the election. After reviewing the findings Capizzi presented, however, the Orange County grand jury chose not to act.
A grand jury is under no legal obligation to explain why it takes no action. Which left everyone involved free to put their own spin on the story. Sanchez says she has been cleared. Dornan insists the other probes will prove he was robbed.
But Dornan shouldn't bet his congressional pension on that. For what the local grand jury most likely found is what any dispassionate observer would have concluded after a look at the 1996 vote in Orange County: Mistakes were made, as there are in every major election. But there was no great--much less criminal--conspiracy.
It would not surprise me if the anticlimactic denouement to Orange County's year-long political melodrama isn't the turning point in the negative news that has Latino activists feeling at best disconcerted and at worst besieged.
But even if it isn't, there has still been enough positive political news for Latinos to look forward to 1998.
Consider a report on the front page of last week's Times by reporter Ted Rohrlich. It was only the latest analysis of recent voting trends and statistics to conclude that California Latinos, in a reversal of historic trends, are now registering to vote--and turning out at the polls--in record numbers.
That represents "a major change in the history of our state," according to Richard Ross, one of the best Democratic political operatives in California. Ross told Rohrlich that he specifically focused on newly registered Latino voters to help Los Angeles labor leader Gil Cedillo win a special election for state Assembly.
Stuart Spencer, long the most respected political guru in California's Republican Party (he helped both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan win the White House) made the same point in a memo to GOP party leaders. He urged them to drop the immigrant-bashing epitomized by Dornan and his ilk and to embrace new Latino voters. If not, Spencer warned, the GOP will commit "political suicide" by "dramatically losing market share of the fastest growing segment of the electorate."
Political pros like Ross and Spencer are paid to look at the long-term interests of their parties and candidates. If Latino activists look beyond the short-term problems of a few high-profile politicians, they can take great encouragement in the political future of the whole Latino community.