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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR

An Appeal to Hearts, Minds of Latinos

Candidates Dan Lungren and Gray Davis take different approaches to wooing group's voters during speeches in L.A.

July 19, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Appearing together for the first time, gubernatorial nominees Dan Lungren and Gray Davis paid homage Saturday to the nuts-and-bolts activists who have made Latinos the most important emerging force in California politics.

In the process, the two candidates turned their back-to-back speeches in Los Angeles into a contest between political versus personal empathy. Democrat Davis cited his record and Republican Lungren his rearing as each sought to portray himself as the more attuned to the state's burgeoning Latino population.

"I've spent part of the last 25 years fighting for you," Lt. Gov. Davis said. "I'm the only person in this race that fought against [Gov. Pete] Wilson's elimination of affirmative action . . . that fought against [Proposition] 187," the contentious 1994 illegal immigration initiative.

"I will be with you," Davis vowed, "to my last breath."

Atty. Gen. Lungren cited his upbringing in Long Beach, where he went to Catholic school with classmates named "Contreras and Morales and Ortega. I played football with them. . . . I sat side by side with them."

Growing up, Lungren went on, he was taught to believe in a system of equal opportunity and colorblind expectations. He said his outreach to Latinos was not a function of tactics or "political correctness," but because "that is the essence of who I am."

The two appeared one after the other at the invitation of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan Latino advocacy group, which drew thousands of activists from throughout the state for a three-day series of workshops and seminars.

As testament to the growing clout of California's Latinos, the luncheon Saturday marked not only the first joint appearance of the major party nominees--joined by the Green Party's Dan Hamburg--but also attracted one of the largest crowds of the gubernatorial campaign, an audience exceeding 1,000 people.

Seeming to revel in the organization's powerful draw, the group's president, Antonio Gonzalez, cut to the essence in his introduction of the candidates. "Why are they here?" he said. "Because they want your vote."

But as solicitous as they seemed, neither major party candidate broke new policy or other substantive ground.

Continuing his effort to tar Lungren with a broad brush, Davis repeated his criticisms of incumbent Republican Wilson for engaging in "wedge-issue politics" that have poisoned relations with Mexico and, Davis asserted, cost California billions in cross-border trade.

"I pledge you, the moment I'm sworn in as governor, the era of wedge-issue politics and politics of division is over," Davis said.

Lungren opted not to discuss either Propositions 187 or 209, the 1996 anti-affirmative action initiative, telling reporters later that he felt his time would be better spent introducing himself "more fully" to the Democratic-leaning audience.

Acknowledging that both he and his party have "a long road to travel" to win back support from antagonized Latinos, Lungren focused on his upbringing as a native Californian and his 10 years of work in Congress on immigration issues. In particular, he cited his role in the passage of a major reform bill that included the largest legalization program in the country's history--and suggested that the political gains that California Latinos have made in recent years stem directly from that legislation.

At the same time, Lungren delivered his own message of unity and conciliation. "I'm not here to be politically correct," the GOP nominee said at one point. "I'm here to try and tell you that we need to work together to make some real changes."

Hamburg, the Green Party candidate, availed himself of a rare equal-footing appearance with the major party hopefuls to outline his odyssey from lifelong Democrat to a break with the party, which he blamed on President Clinton's rightward drift.

Alone among the candidates, he fiercely denounced the North America Free Trade Agreement, blaming it for massive job losses, and expressed his passionate opposition to the death penalty, which Lungren and Davis support.

Apart from those issues, his appearance--a silver-streaked ponytail, tan work shirt, blue jeans--made Hamburg stand out even more.

But he drew perhaps the most enthusiastic ovation of the day by going beyond opposition to Proposition 227--the anti-bilingual initiative--and declaring that every child in California should become fluent in at least two languages.

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