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Commentary | CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY

'Giant' Is Awake and Is a Force

California: Latino voters' pivotal role in the election puts all politicians on notice.

June 07, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Once upon a time there was a sleeping giant. Political pundits spent lots of time arguing over whether it would ever awaken and what might happen when it did. Last week's primary voting settled that argument, once and for all. The giant is not just stirring but wide awake.

"Sleeping giant" is the term used by political pros since at least 1960 to describe California's large but politically impotent Latino population. In 1996, after Latino voters helped President Clinton win California, Arizona and Florida in the general election, I suggested the term was outdated, but that was disputed in some quarters. I don't expect disagreement now.

A big Latino turnout--12% of all California voters, double the number of Latinos who voted in the '94 primary--played a pivotal role in key election contests.

Latino voters helped ensure that four Latinos will be candidates for statewide office in November:

* Former Speaker of the Assembly Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat from the Fresno area, will run for lieutenant governor against Republican State Sen. Tim Leslie of Tahoe City.

* San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales won the Republican Party's nomination to oppose state Controller Kathleen Connell's bid for reelection.

* Democratic Assemblywoman Diana Martinez of Monterey Park will oppose the reelection bid of state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.

* Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman will oppose incumbent Delaine Eastin in the state superintendent of public instruction's race.

If any one of those four wins, it will be the first time since 1871--when Romualdo Pacheco was elected lieutenant governor--that a person of Latin American extraction has held statewide political office in California.

Even if none of these statewide candidates wins, Latinos are assured of playing a bigger role in the Legislature and in key local offices.

Of the 20 state Senate seats to be filled in November, seven have Latino candidates. If voters in those districts follow past voting patterns, at least two Latino candidates should win, bringing the total number of Latino senators to six.

Of the 80 Assembly seats on the line in November, 25 have Latino candidates. There are already 14 Latinos in the Assembly, so only two more seats would give Latinos 20% of that body's votes.

Latinos were also vitally interested in the two most closely watched initiatives on the ballot, Propositions 226 and 227.

Proposition 226 would have forced labor unions to get their individual members' permission to donate money to political campaigns. It was defeated 53% to 47%, but a Times exit poll indicates the vote would have been closer except for the fact that 75% of Latino voters--many of them union members--cast ballots against it.

Proposition 227, the controversial initiative banning bilingual education in California public schools, won easily. But it was opposed by two-thirds of Latino voters, according to The Times' exit poll.

The Proposition 227 vote may seem to run counter to the trend of Latino voting success. But even that defeat can be seen as a moral victory for Latino activists, who fiercely opposed the measure despite early public opinion polls that showed a majority of Latinos in favor of it.

Although the campaign against Proposition 227 did not persuade a majority of California voters to change their minds, it did win over the growing Latino electorate. Latino activists proved that when they set out on a unified course of political action, they can sway significant numbers of Latino voters.

Proposition 227 also will provide new ammunition for future Latino political campaigns. Activists will now link it with 1994's Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from public schools and social services, and 1996's Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in public education and contracts, as expressions of anti-minority sentiment by California's older, mostly white voting majority. That will keep Latino voters in a defensive stance for some time--on the lookout for propositions or candidates deemed anti-Latino.

This us-against-them politics is unfortunate, but not all bad. For it makes it less likely that ambitious politicians will stake out negative positions like those taken--to cite a bipartisan example--by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994, when both campaigned on promises to get tough on illegal immigrants. The risks of such divisive "wedge" campaigns are just too great now.

So the giant is awake. But thankfully not angry, just wary. It's time for politicos in both parties to get over their own fears and find constructive ways to use the giant's strength, youth and energy to help build a better California.

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