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The 2001 Challenge for California Latinos

Reapportionment:Will Democrats follow their pattern of ignoring ethnic boundaries?

November 08, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

For now, Latino activists and Democratic Party leaders have reason to celebrate last Tuesday's election results. They saw not just unexpected Democratic victories in voting for Congress but continuation of the recent trend of high voter turnout by Latinos.

So far these new Latino voters have favored Democrats more than Republicans. On Tuesday, for instance, the GOP ticket in California got less Latino support than it aimed for. Despite an outreach effort by Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, he got only 17% of the Latino vote. U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong did a little better at 19%, but even that is far short of the 30% Latino support that victorious Republicans like Ronald Reagan got in past elections.

But before Latino Democrats proclaim the emergence of a new coalition that will dominate California politics for years to come, there is a very big and very complex political issue that must be dealt with. And it has bitterly divided Latinos from Democrats in the past.

The issue is reapportionment--the redrawing of district lines for seats in the Legislature and for California's delegation in Congress. This redistricting is done every 10 years by the Legislature, based on results of the previous U.S. census. The next reapportionment is due in 2001.

By increasing their majorities in the state Assembly and Senate on Tuesday, and with fellow Democrat Gray Davis as governor, Democrats are assured of controlling the 2001 redistricting. But Democrats think that getting any Democrat elected is good and have followed that philosophy in reapportioning California ever since the 1960s.

That is why, over the same period, Democrats have faced not just the expected Republican criticism over redistricting but the anger of Latino activists who care more about getting Latinos elected than about what party they belong to.

In that stance, Latinos reflect a view espoused by one of their most effective political organizers, the late Willie Velasquez, who founded the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project in 1974. Velasquez argued that a key element in getting more Latinos out to vote was giving them Latino candidates they can vote for.

"Mexicanos turn out big numbers when they vote for other Mexicanos," he once told me using the vernacular of his native Texas.

In California, the argument over which philosophy is better suited to Latino empowerment takes on added passion because of Latino bitterness over past reapportionments in which they felt betrayed by Democrats. No such experience angers Latinos more than what happened to Phil Soto in 1965.

Soto, who died last year, was a city councilman in La Puente when he won election to the Assembly in 1962, one of the first Latinos elected to the Legislature in this century. But in a 1965 reapportionment, fellow Democrats pushed Soto's district further east into Anglo parts of the San Gabriel Valley. He lost there in a 1966 GOP landslide.

To this day, veteran Latino activists believe that Soto's defeat delayed the political development of Latinos in California for years. And their anger resurfaces whenever Democratic Party leaders take Latino voters for granted.

Of course, these days some of those leaders happen to be Latino, like Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and state Sen. Richard Polanco, both of Los Angeles. And they will try to reassure Latinos that the future is in good (i.e. their) hands.

But it helps to have a long memory in politics, and just in case Villaraigosa and Polanco forget the past, they will soon have a living reminder of it at their sides.

For among the new Latino faces elected to the Assembly on Tuesday was a member of the Pomona City Council who happens to be the spry 72-year-old widow of Phil Soto. And rest assured that Nell Soto has not forgotten what happened to her husband.

"Phil was such a nice guy, a gentleman," she recalls. "He tried to make the best of that new district. He just couldn't believe other Democrats would do that to him.

"But I was mean enough to think they could," she adds with a mischievous laugh. "So I won't ever let them do it to me."

After Tuesday's voting, the number of Latinos in the Assembly is 17. But it's worth noting that four of them are Republicans. And the man Assembly Republicans elected Thursday to be minority leader is their most senior Latino, Rod Pacheco of Riverside. So there is now a Republican Latino Caucus to counterbalance the long-standing Latino Caucus dominated by Democrats. And you can expect Pacheco and the other Latino Republicans also to keep a wary eye on the Democrats.

If the current generation of Democratic leaders are smart, they'll listen to the voice of experience that Nell Soto represents. And also keep their partisan priorities in line with the rising--and bipartisan--aspirations of California's emerging Latino majority.

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