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California and the West

State Will Test Parties' Appeals to Latinos

Election: California is home to a third of the national population of a group that defies political categories. Republicans hope to make up ground lost in the '90s.


California, home to more Latino voters than any other state, is poised to show the nation a slice of its future this November.

Republicans are courting these voters as never before, and, because a third of America's Latino voters live in California, the state will provide a key testing ground in this year's general election.

Democrats have a strong hold on California's Latinos for now. But California Latinos may be up for grabs--if not in this election, then in future ones. The fastest-growing group in the electorate, Latinos are an unpredictable group that defies easy labels.

Their ranks include people such as Gloria Balbuena, a Mexican-born mother of nine and working-class Republican, and Richard Verches, a UCLA-educated attorney and pro-business Democrat.

They are independent-minded voters such as Manual Jerez, a carpenter from Guatemala, who can discuss the fine points of U.S. presidential politics all the way back to Watergate.

They are voters whose interests cut across class lines, such as Joe Medina, a white-collar worker in a downtown high-rise, who was raised in a tough section of East L.A.

Republicans must make up for lost ground among these voters. Until the late 1990s, when they handed Democratic candidates super-majorities of 75% or more, California's Latinos were more conservative, and their party loyalties more likely to shift. In the 1980s, Republican candidates such as Ronald Reagan were able to claim more than 40% of their votes.

That is enough to fuel giddy Republican dreams that Latinos could be the next Reagan Democrats. One current GOP theory holds that if a sizable number of Latino voters break with the Democratic Party in November--say, 40%--that could tilt the balance toward George W. Bush in what appears to be a close California race.

Demographic realities make that a tantalizing possibility for Republican strategists.

Sometime in the last two years, according to census figures, California reached a historic marker: Whites slipped below the 50% mark as a percentage of the population. Latinos, now a third of all Californians, will outnumber whites in the next two decades. They still are a minority, but now, everyone else is, too.

That is "challenging fundamental beliefs," said Verches, president of the Latin Business Assn. "The leadership of this community knows we need to think and act, not as a minority, but as the majority. There are responsibilities with that."

How Latinos choose to exercise those responsibilities may depend on which of two competing ethnic identities they ultimately adopt: One vision is of Latinos united as a beleaguered ethnic minority; the other sees Latinos as upwardly mobile immigrants.

2000 Election is Key to Future

November's vote is considered key to their future. Will California's Latinos remain firmly Democratic, as have African Americans? Or, like Italian Americans, will their children and grandchildren begin to behave more like whites, voting on the basis of economic class, not ethnicity? "It's a very difficult choice for this generation," Verches said.

"Latinos want to be like everyone else," said Harry P. Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "But they keep being reminded they aren't."

Latinos constituted 14% of all California voters in the 1998 election, up from single digit percentages in the 1980s.

California's Latino population is growing. But Latinos also have gained political strength through changing behavior: Although only 3 million of California's 10.7 million Latinos are eligible to vote (the rest are noncitizens or younger than 18), more and more are registering.

These new California Latino voters are disproportionately young, poor and foreign-born. They have been voting for Democrats but increasingly are likely to register as nonpartisans or with third parties. They tend to be economically liberal and socially conservative, just when both parties are straining to be the reverse. They are ethnically homogenous--more than 90% Mexican American--but split along generational lines.

Most observers say California Latinos' political involvement hit a turning point in 1994, with Proposition 187, the measure to bar illegal immigrants from attending schools and using other public services.

A rush to citizenship among legal Latino immigrants and a mobilization of Latino voters followed. A recent study by the Tomas Rivera institute showed the magnitude of change: Between 1994 and 1998, Latino voter numbers in Los Angeles County grew at more than five times the rate of population growth among eligible Latinos.

These new voters favored Democrats even more strongly than their predecessors. They defied conventional political wisdom, which says that poor and uneducated people are far less likely to vote than others. About 40% had less education than is needed for a high school diploma, according to the Field Institute.

They are what some analysts call "the 187 cohort"--a voting group radicalized by Gov. Pete Wilson, who strongly supported the measure.

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