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Flip Side of Ethnic Politics

November 01, 1998|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

In the last two election cycles, California was convulsed by two high-profile, racially charged ballot initiatives--Proposition 187 in 1994 and Proposition 209 two years later--that exposed its social fault lines. By contrast, the current general-election campaign has been politically and racially benign. Indeed, racial dissonance seems conspicuously absent from the political dialogue. Has the importance of race and ethnicity quietly declined in the most ethnically diverse state in the U.S.? On the contrary.

California politics has probably never been more acutely race conscious than it is today. Candidates from both major parties are making unprecedented appeals to ethnic and racial groups. There have been more polls of Latino voter sentiment this year than ever before. Newspapers have published story after story on the presumed significance of the growing Latino and Asian electorates. Nor is it mere coincidence that the field of contenders for statewide office this year may well be the most ethnically diverse in the state's history. Four non-Anglo statewide candidates won their party's nomination last June, and another forced a runoff for state school superintendent.

With all the attention being paid to ethnic distinctions among voters and candidates, one might expect that California is becoming more racially Balkanized. Paradoxically, the heightened awareness of ethnicity is at least partly responsible for the period of racial detente that California appears to have entered.

Changing demographics and this decade's bruising initiative battles have given rise to a new political environment in which nobody wants to fire the first racial shot. It's not that Californians have learned how to love one another. Rather, it's increasingly evident to the political establishment that playing the race card no longer ensures a winning hand. In 1996, punishment at the hands of the expanding Latino electorate forced the state Republican Party to rethink what could only be described as its callous approach to race. Two years earlier, Gov. Pete Wilson had risked alienating Latino voters by tying his reelection campaign to Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative. This year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, in ads airing on Spanish-language television, touts his support as a member of the House of Representatives for the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which, among other things, granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

In addition to recognizing the political benefits of acknowledging race and appealing to diverse sectors of the California electorate, state Republicans are grappling with the changing face of their own party. This week, the number of Latino Republicans in the state Assembly will likely quadruple. Rod Pacheco, who in 1996 became the first Latino Republican elected to the body in 115 years, is considering leading the formation of a Republican Latino caucus, which would be a first. Sensitive to the dangers of being pigeonholed ethnically, Pacheco nonetheless contends that such an ethnic-based caucus would strengthen the party. The state Republican leadership, though committed to the principle of a colorblind society, is not likely to push principle too hard and fight the idea. "It wouldn't normally be accepted by Republicans," says Kevin Spillane, a GOP political consultant. "But in the current context, I think they'll embrace it, if not trumpet it."

No one better embodies a sophisticated Republican approach to race than the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Matt Fong. Fong, whom Jack Kemp calls a "21st-century Republican," deftly plays both sides of the race card. He explicitly invokes race in his appeals for votes and donations to Asian American audiences. "How American do you have to be to be considered American?" he recently asked one group of Asian supporters, referring to the anti-Asian bias many believed lurked behind the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. "Do I have to wear a blond wig to be considered American?"

Fong manipulates ethnic sensitivities in the same way Democratic ethnic candidates have done for decades. The only difference is that he steps back and points to his June primary victory as a sign of America's racial fairness. "Obviously, the Chinese and Asian American vote was not enough to win," he told an audience recently, referring to his non-Asian support. "I won here in America."

For all the talk of ethnic electorates in California, there has been scarcely a mention of Anglo voters becoming increasingly comfortable casting ballots for nonwhite candidates. Sure, there have been successful nonwhite statewide candidates in the past, but their campaigns were not nearly as explicitly identified with specific ethnic fund-raising or voter bases as are the campaigns of Fong or Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

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