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An Endorsement That's Nothing to Crow About

January 27, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Mexicans say that someone who makes promises they can't keep is puro jarabe de pico. It means they speak nothing but syrupy phrases. An earthy equivalent in this country would be to say they're just shucking and jiving. Either description would aptly describe a recent endorsement by the Mexican American Political Assn.

MAPA used to be a real force in California, making endorsements on behalf of a Latino minority that was still unsophisticated in the ways of U.S. politics. Founded after World War II, MAPA's apogee was in the 1960s, when it helped elect Ed Roybal, the first California Latino in Congress, and was part of the coalition that helped elect John Kennedy president and Pat Brown governor of California.

It's been pretty much downhill for MAPA since. As the state's Latino population has grown dramatically (Latinos are one-third of California's 33 million residents), it also has grown more diverse--so diverse that no one group can stake out political positions on its behalf.

So why does MAPA persist in trying?

Cynics point to the ambition of a few MAPA leaders who want to use a well-known name with an honorable history to promote their own agendas. But the real reason is because political candidates who know MAPA's time has passed still maneuver to get its endorsement in the hope of swaying a few votes.

The latest pol to try this is California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who is fighting an uphill battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against better-financed candidates.

Although Jones is the only Republican who holds a statewide office, he trails former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in public opinion polls. Worse, many of those same polls have Jones barely outpacing businessman Bill Simon, the political neophyte who is the third GOP candidate.

Given Jones' increasingly desperate situation--the primary election is just weeks away--it's understandable he would play up any endorsement. But in trying to promote his backing by MAPA, Jones stirred up a campaign flap that has served to remind everyone how far MAPA's star has fallen.

Jones and Riordan engaged in a war of press releases last week that got attention only in the Spanish-language media. At issue was how Jones got MAPA's endorsement.

It happened by default. MAPA bylaws state that it endorses only candidates who show up at its convention. Jones attended the meeting earlier this month. Riordan, Simon and the man all three want to defeat, Gov. Gray Davis, did not. What galls Riordan--who is courting Latino voters--is that he tried to address the meeting via closed-circuit television but was foiled by technical problems.

By last week, when the Spanish-language daily La Opinion ran a front-page article on the controversy, the Davis campaign was putting out press releases quoting MAPA members who back the governor's reelection.

All of this led the newspaper's political editor, Pilar Marrero, to archly conclude that "never has so much paper, and saliva, been wasted arguing over something whose political significance is uncertain."

That is a polite way of saying MAPA's endorsement may not be worth spit, or the paper it's written on.

As the Latino population grows, Latino politics inevitably will mature. Many organizations will emerge to promote Latinos' varied interests. Already there are campaign volunteers and groups that raise money for Latina candidates, for labor union candidates, for pro-business candidates and even for non-Latino candidates.

That's the way politics has evolved in this country since the days of the Federalist Papers. It is the way I expect politics to continue as more Latino citizens step into the arena.

MAPA-istas can take great pride in the foundation their organization helped build for such progress. But it's time everyone gave up the pretense that MAPA's endorsement speaks for all Latinos.

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