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California and the West

Latino Democrats in Capitol Flex Muscle as Numbers Grow

Politics: Now with a 22-member caucus, they push laws on education, health and immigrant rights.


SACRAMENTO — Latino Democrats, now mainstream players in the California Legislature after decades of fighting for fair representation, are mounting a concerted push for change in education, health care and immigrant rights policies.

The Democrats' Latino Caucus, larger and more diverse than ever after last year's elections, has united behind a package of bills that represents the group's most ambitious attempt to pass new laws.

With bills to further expand health care to Californians without insurance, cut the number of uncredentialed teachers at low-performing schools and grant in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants living in the state, the Latino Democrats promise to leverage their new numbers to help working families enter the middle class.

"When the caucus was small, there was a great emphasis on elections and empowerment," said Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier). "We have accomplished that, and now our goals are somewhat bigger."

The bills are bound to put the lawmakers at odds with Gov. Gray Davis, who has rejected similar legislation before.

And the budget-draining energy crisis will make it difficult, if not impossible, for legislators of all persuasions to expand government spending this season. But the lawmakers are undeterred.

"While the energy crisis does place certain parameters on the [spending] decisions that we make, we believe these issues should receive top priority," Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) said Thursday at a Capitol news conference.

Founded in 1973 by five Democrats from Southern California, the Latino Caucus is now larger than ever--22 members strong--and makes up a fifth of the Assembly's 80 members. It is also more varied than ever, representing rural as well as urban swaths of the state, and an increasingly broad spectrum of political opinions.

"Our meetings are very crowded, but that's a good thing," Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) said with a laugh. "It's great to see more of our lawmakers are from families where they were the first to get a good education, first to own their own businesses--part of the mainstream, but not too far removed to know what a lot of people are going through to get somewhere in this country."

The Legislature's four GOP Latinos are not part of the group and have their own Hispanic Republican Caucus. One of its members is Assemblyman Rod Pacheco of Riverside, the first Latino to serve as Republican leader in the lower house.

The Democrats' caucus has been led since 1991 by powerful Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who is widely credited with helping boost the number of Latino legislators.

His approach was simple: grooming candidates at the local level and making sure they had the financial resources to compete for state office. But it often put him at odds with party leaders who favored other candidates.

In fact, some newcomers such as Assemblyman Simon Salinas (D-Salinas) had to overcome Polanco-backed candidates in their Democratic primaries to make it to Sacramento.

Polanco, who has recently become embroiled in controversy over revelations that he fathered a child with one of his staffers, is being forced out of the Legislature by term limits next year. So Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles), a Polanco protege who once worked on his staff, has been elected to succeed him as caucus leader.

Many of the Latino gains in recent years were made in the rapidly growing Central Valley, where lawmakers espouse moderate, pro-business views far different from the liberal, pro-union stands of most Los Angeles Latino legislators.

As a result, Latino Democrats engaged in a lively exchange of ideas at a San Diego retreat several months ago to determine their priorities for this year's legislative session. The end result was the caucus' most far-reaching agenda ever.

"We don't have to have a discussion about the alarming number of uninsured families in California," said Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), who represents a district where only 16% of residents and 6% of voters are Latino.

"We don't have to discuss the conditions of education for the poorest students in California. The very sad and sobering reality is that Latinos are overrepresented in these areas."

The Latino Caucus is proposing to:

* Cover half of the roughly 6.8 million Californians without health insurance by expanding the number of people eligible for the state's Healthy Families program to include those earning up to 2 1/2 times the federal poverty level.

* Provide tax breaks to businesses that expand employee health benefits with group arrangements or other cost-saving measures.

* Ensure that at least 25% of money from new education bonds is spent on the schools that rank in the lowest 20% on the Academic Performance Index.

* Allow illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who are in the process of becoming U.S. citizens to obtain state driver's licenses, and allow the same groups to obtain in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

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