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Latino Clout Depends on GOP Remake

November 15, 1998|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

At long last, California's burgeoning Latino population has captured national headlines that are not about illegal immigration. Because they now comprise 13% of the voters in the most politically potent state in the union, Latinos are outgrowing their image as America's "silent minority." But other than their evident desire to see more Latinos in political office, it is unclear what their voice is saying and how it will influence state politics.

The relative newness of the Latino electorate makes predicting difficult. Fully 30% of the state's Latino voters have entered the electorate since 1994. Yet, several recent opinion surveys indicate that, politically speaking, Latinos look much like other Californians. Few Latino voters, for example, place themselves at either end of the political spectrum. According to an April survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 28% consider themselves liberal, 36% moderate and 35% conservative.

Surveys also show the Latino electorate skewing moderate on social issues, even while preferring an activist government. Latinos, for example, are less likely than Californians as a whole to believe that the choice to have an abortion should be left to a woman or her doctor. Yet, they are more likely than other Californians to be in favor of raising taxes and spending more money on social programs like health care, Social Security and unemployment benefits.

Within the Democratic Party, growing Latino political influence is likely to push the agenda toward the center. "This is a big swing away from Barbra Streisand liberalism," says Leo Briones, a Democratic strategist. "Latinos centrify the Democratic Party." In other words, Latinos will keep the party focused less on, say, environmentalism and more on old-fashioned, bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, education and crime.

On Nov. 3, coalitions of Anglo and Latino voters in three distinct regions of the state elected a new brand of Democratic Latino leader. Dean Florez, freshmen assemblyman from the southern San Joaquin Valley, Assemblyman Lou Correa of central Orange County and Ron Gonzales, mayor-elect of San Jose, are all pro-business moderates whose presence could help steer the state's growing cadre of Latino officials away from their more liberal, activist origins. "What you're seeing is a more moderate, conservative, private-sector approach to government," says Florez, who holds an MBA from Harvard. "I want to make sure that the Latino caucus will stay in the middle."

The success of Lt. Gov.-elect Cruz M. Bustamante should be instructive to any ambitious, young Latino politician. The former Assembly speaker became the first Latino statewide officeholder in this century by running as a rather bland, middle-of-the-road candidate.

While a much smaller presence on the other side of the aisle, the new Republican Latino caucus will also serve to counterbalance GOP extremism. Although its strategy could not overcome the legacy of Gov. Pete Wilson in the minds of Latino voters Nov. 3, the state Republican Party, for the past two years, has taken steps to appear more inclusive and moderate on issues affecting Latinos. Even when he was the sole Latino member of the Assembly Republican Caucus, Rod Pacheco contends that his mere presence served to remind his Anglo colleagues of the need to take into account minority opinions before jumping headlong into potentially racially charged issues. Now that he will head the new Republican Latino caucus and serve as Assembly minority leader, the pro-choice former prosecutor is likely to have an even stronger moderating affect on the culture of the state GOP.

While it is indisputable that Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative, and Wilson's embrace of racially charged wedge issues boosted their political participation, Latinos' inability to move beyond these motivators could block them from gaining even greater political influence. By championing the anti-immigrant movement in 1994, both in California and in Congress, the GOP wiped out what inroads it had made among California Latino voters during the Reagan years, when statewide Republican candidates could sometimes garner up to 40% of the Latino vote. But, nationally, Latinos are not voting as lopsidedly Democratic as they currently are in California.

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