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Democrats May Have Lost Latinos

August 20, 2000|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

The Democrats just blew the best chance they had to win over undecided Latino voters before this fall's election.

Think back to the convention they held here last week and try to remember anything significant that happened involving the many prominent Latino officials who are Democrats. I can summarize your answer in two words: Playboy Mansion.

To be fair, the Democratic National Convention did feature many more Latino speakers (and the obligatory entertainers) than the Latino variety show the Republican Party tried to put on two weeks earlier in Philadelphia.

But a lot more had been expected of the Democrats. They were, after all, meeting in the city with the biggest Latino population in the nation. And in a state where, two years ago, new Latino voters helped Democrats win control of both houses of the Legislature and every statewide office from governor on down, save one.

You wouldn't know that from the rude response the convention gave one of those California officials, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante--the only Latino given podium time during prime time on the convention's final evening. Bustamante's speech was supposed to counter the Spanish speech that another Latino Californian, Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), delivered on the final night of the GOP convention. Bustamante's remarks were every bit as heartfelt--a tribute to immigrant Mexican parents and the family values they instilled and a valiant effort to link those enduring values to his party and its candidate, Al Gore.

But although it was delivered in English, Bustamante's speech was largely ignored by the delegates, who talked loudly and tossed beach balls while awaiting other speakers. Afterward, the sense of disappointment among Latino delegates was palpable.

"I'm just so let down," said California state Sen. Martha Escutia of Whittier. "Cruz was the only one of us the Gore people gave a chance to speak."

So while the GOP left Philadelphia with Latinos talking about Maldonado's speech, or the surprise appearance of popular Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez, the Democrats left Los Angeles with Latinos talking about the Loretta Sanchez-Playboy flap.

Virtually every Latino Democrat I spoke to during convention week was sympathetic to Sanchez. Most are veteran politicos who know she made a serious political faux pas by not moving her fund-raiser from the Playboy Mansion once the Gore campaign made its unhappiness with the locale known. But there was also anger over with the heavy-handed way party officials pressured Sanchez to back down, even hinting that they might withhold support for her reelection bid to an Orange County congressional seat.

Contrast that with how carefully those same top Democrats handled another strong-willed local congresswoman, Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. She threatened to withhold her support from Gore over his choice of Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Leiberman as his running mate. Like other African Americans, Waters is worried about Lieberman's position on affirmative action, and was characteristically outspoken about it. The Gore campaign scheduled a public meeting between Lieberman, Waters and other black Democrats, where the senator clarified his stance and finally got Waters' endorsement.

Obviously, the Gore campaign saw Waters as a problem to be solved, while Sanchez was treated more like a pariah to be squashed. Not a good message to leave with Latino voters at a time when they are being heavily courted by George W. Bush.

And not a good message to leave with the Latino Democrats who Gore will need to campaign for him. For it is a glaring reminder of a problem Latino Democrats have complained about privately since the days of Jimmy Carter--that the Southern white Democrats who dominate their party these days understand only one minority, African Americans. And that only black voters fit into their political equations.

"I just don't think I can bring myself to vote for another Southern white guy," in the words of Joe Sanchez, a longtime Los Angeles political activist and fund-raiser, and no relation to the controversial congresswoman. Sanchez didn't say that last week. He said it last year at a Latino community dinner where he was honored, and where the keynote speaker was none other than Al Gore.

I checked in with Sanchez after the Democratic convention, and he hadn't seen anything to change his mind. "It was a nice party," he said. "But the same black-white thing."

Of course, there is a school of thought among some veteran Democrats that when facing an uphill fight, as Gore is in his race against Bush, they must appeal to reliably Democratic voters (like African Americans) rather than to swing voters (like many Latinos) who may or may not vote for Democrats--if, indeed, they vote at all.

So there may be a strategy behind the Democrats' seeming indifference to Latino voters. If so, Latino voters may have to wait four years for another candidate--maybe California Gov. Gray Davis--to pick up the pieces Gore and his cohort left scattered about the floor of the Staples Center like so much used confetti.

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