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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS

Taking the Long View on Alarcon's Victory

The more Latinos gain power at the ballot box, the more wedded they will become to familiar political patterns.

July 15, 1998|ROBERT DALLEK | Robert Dallek, who taught history at UCLA for 30 years, is a professor of history at Boston University. His latest book is "Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973"(Oxford University Press, 1998)

For a number of years now, Californians have been hearing about the "rising tide" of Latinos who were becoming the state's largest minority. The influx of illegal immigrants whose children crowded public schools and burdened state budgets by swelling welfare rolls and Medi-Cal costs partly accounts for recent statewide votes against affirmative action and bilingual instruction.

Not surprisingly, there's been a striking response to the backlash. Latino voters--many of them voting for the first time--are showing they know how to use the ballot box to influence government. This is in the great tradition of American politics, one pioneered by the many immigrant groups who came before.

A case in point is the recent 29-vote victory of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon in the Democratic Party's nomination fight for the 20th District state Senate seat. According to some analyses of Alarcon's razor-thin election over former Assemblyman Richard Katz, Alarcon's ability to mobilize new Latino voters in the northeast San Fernando Valley demonstrates how Latinos, the new ethnics, can defeat the candidate of assimilated Jewish ethnics, who gave Katz the bulk of his votes in southeast Valley precincts.

While Alarcon may simply have out-campaigned Katz, the contest does signal changes in voting patterns that are likely to become more frequent in the coming years.

The assumption that Latinos don't vote much, especially in primaries, proved false in the Alarcon-Katz race. Spurred by an Alarcon get-out-the-vote effort, Latino participation doubled, rising from 6% of primary voters in the district in 1994 to 12% in 1998.

More important than the results of this single contest, what are the consequences of more Latino voting? Will traditional power brokers strike ever more negative themes about the dangers of greater control of public affairs by "aliens" unfamiliar with America's political and economic traditions? Will Latinos--like so many ethnic groups before them--eventually shift from bloc voting to more complicated judgments on what serves diverging interests?

When Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition helped bring European ethnics into the mainstream of the country's political life in the 1930s and 1940s, it was greeted with warnings by conservatives of dire consequences: Constitutional restraints would disappear, welfare state socialism would replace free enterprise capitalism, and American individualism and freedom would go by the boards. And the hue and cry over civil rights and voting rights for African Americans made President Lyndon Johnson fear an outbreak of violence in the Southern United States in 1964-65.

But the political alterations between the 1930s and 1960s obviously did not shatter the republic. To the contrary, they made it a more democratic and stronger country, a nation closer to the founding ideals of equal opportunity and treatment under the law.

The bulk of the great migration to America between 1870 and 1920--Irish and Italians; Jews; Poles and other eastern and southern Europeans--responded to overtures to enter the mainstream of American life with enthusiastic regard for the traditions that had shaped the nation since its founding.

Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to assure the franchise to blacks, brought not radical change to national or Southern politics but a massive expansion of black voting and office holding at the city, state and federal levels. The subsequent growth of a black middle class and greater educational and economic opportunities for disadvantaged African Americans has done more to wed blacks to the American governmental system than anything since their emancipation during the Civil War.

As with other immigrant groups, California Latinos, as they move into the ranks of regular voters, will seek a similar transformation in their relations with other members of society. The more Latinos see their capacity to gain a say in the life of the state through electing representatives who speak for them in the councils of power, the more wedded they will become to familiar political patterns. Like first-generation voters before them, such as those who were among the strongest supporters of FDR's New Deal coalition and now vote in considerable numbers for Republicans and independents, Latinos will refuse to be taken for granted by any party or candidate.

Latinos, like other earlier outsiders, will find in opportunities to join the political and economic mainstream irresistible reasons for acting like the many other groups that have been absorbed into American political culture. The political melting pot remains an attractive and effective feature of American life.

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