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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Now Latinos Are Changing the Face of Both Parties

November 23, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — First there was Cruz Bustamante, a moderate Democrat from Fresno. Two years ago, he was chosen the first Latino Assembly speaker in California history. And Nov. 3, he was elected the first Latino lieutenant governor in 128 years.

Next came Antonio Villaraigosa, a liberal Democrat and onetime street kid from East L.A. Last February, he succeeded Bustamante as speaker and, in 2001, may run for L.A. mayor.

Now comes Rod Pacheco from Riverside, the latest Latino to move up in legislative leadership and into the hierarchy of California politics. He's different, however. He's a Republican Latino, a rarity in partisan politics, at least until recently.

After getting pounded in the election--losing a net five seats--Assembly Republicans selected Pacheco as their new leader, the first-ever Latino to lead the GOP in the lower house. In fact, when Pacheco arrived in Sacramento just two years ago, he was the first Republican Latino lawmaker in 115 years.

It's the latest sign of growing Latino political clout--to the point, now, that even Republican Latinos are getting elected to partisan office. Three more GOP Latinos won Assembly races Nov. 3, quadrupling their seats.

In all, one in five members of the next Legislature will be Latino--24 total, up from 18 last session. There'll be 17 in the Assembly, seven in the Senate.

And for the GOP, Pacheco's rise, plus the three new Latino lawmakers, are among the few bright spots that have emerged from a disastrous election.

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The Republican party is desperate for credible messengers who can persuade Latino voters they shouldn't keep blaming the GOP for Gov. Pete Wilson's fiery crusades against affirmative action and illegal immigration, his doomsday TV ads warning that "they keep coming."

Consequently, there's considerable rooting for Pacheco within the party. The new minority leader still is an unknown--he has been a legislator only two years and nobody knows whether he can lead--but already there's speculation about a future statewide candidacy. For attorney general? Governor?

He's only 40. He's a former prosecutor who didn't lose a case in 10 years and sent five murderers to death row. He's a centrist who supports abortion rights and opposed Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative. But he backed Prop. 209 to end state racial preferences.

Pacheco's the kind of fiscally conservative, crime-fighting, social moderate who just might appeal to voters statewide. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, he pleads.

"Folks have said stuff like that to me," Pacheco says. "But you know how this place is: Every [legislative] member gets that--120 legislators wake up in the morning and see the next governor. That's partly their own ambition and partly everybody slapping them on the back.

"No. 2, I'm not sure that's my future. I live by the motto, 'Man makes plans and God laughs.' "

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Pacheco believes Latinos can be drawn to the Republican party because of common views about safer streets, family values, lower taxes, less regulation and better schools.

But if the GOP wants to use him as a party recruiter of Latinos, he's uncomfortable with that. "I don't think it's my role to carry the banner," he says. "That's up to the party. My best role is just to go about my business and folks may be encouraged by the fact I'm the Republican leader."

Like most Latinos, Pacheco says, he opposed Prop. 187 because it targeted schoolchildren and was promoted in a harsh tone. There was some logic to eliminating public services for illegal immigrants, he explains, but "I equate it to my days as a trial lawyer: Emotion moves people faster than logic. If I perceive I'm being attacked personally, I'm going to have difficulty relating to you in a rational and logical way."

Heading into the next legislative session, the deck's stacked against Pacheco and Republicans. They're down 48-32 in the Assembly and 25-15 in the Senate, with a Democratic governor.

Still, he says, "We need to be assertive. There's the possibility Democrats could be giddy with the elections and think we're irrelevant. But we won't be irrelevant because any bill [requiring a two-thirds vote] will need Republicans. I didn't come here to fight. I could have stayed in the DA's office and fought. But if Democrats don't reach across the aisle, we're probably going to fight more often than not."

The Democrat he'll be fighting with the most is another Latino, Speaker Villaraigosa. And that's a healthy sign for political diversity.

It's a new era in California politics--more moderate and more Latino. As for Republican Latinos, the GOP can only hope "they keep coming."

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