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Latino Politicians Take Stock of Gains

Elections: Candidates say they raised voter turnout despite attempts to play on racial fears.

June 29, 2002|JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE — Candidates who lost historic races for mayor in three of America's largest cities delivered a message that was at once sobering and upbeat at a national gathering of Latino officials Friday.

Opponents played on racial fears, and the media called them Latino candidates, limiting their appeal, the leaders told the 19th annual conference of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

But each of them said their campaigns brought record turnouts of Latino voters and forged important coalitions with other groups, an indication that Latinos are making progress in their quest for inclusion in American political life.

"We opened a door that will never close again," said former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who was the top vote-getter in the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral primary but lost in the runoff, marked in its final days by ads implying that Villaraigosa was soft on crime and tied to gangs.

Joining Villaraigosa on a panel were Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president who lost a bruising Democratic primary last fall for mayor of New York City, and Orlando Sanchez, who lost in a heated runoff for mayor of Houston.

Ferrer said he tried to counter charges that he was borderline irresponsible, racially divisive and likely to raise taxes with television testimonials from some of New York's best-known Democrats, including former Mayor Ed Koch, past vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Republican Sanchez said his campaign was derailed in the final days when his opponent, Mayor Lee P. Brown, an African American, suggested that he was insensitive to hate crimes.

But Sanchez said he does not regret running a campaign that focused on such issues as public safety and city services.

"I never responded to any of the negative attacks. I chose to focus on the issues," Sanchez said.

While negative campaigning may work in the short run, there is a price to pay down the road, the candidates said.

Ferrer noted that many New York Latinos, along with blacks and many white Democrats, deserted their party's candidate in the general election, helping propel Republican media mogul Michael Bloomberg into the mayor's office. Ferrer said with obvious relish that Bloomberg called him at 1:30 a.m. the day after the election and invited him to breakfast that morning.

All three said candidates must reach out to other constituencies. Villaraigosa said he found it particularly galling to be continually described as the Latino candidate, or to have voters constantly reminded that he would be the first Latino mayor in recent Los Angeles history, sending the message that he was different and undercutting his vision of a unified city.

Villaraigosa said that James K. Hahn, the day after winning the mayor's race, was booed at a Los Angeles Lakers game. A few days later, Villaraigosa said, he attended a Lakers game and was applauded.

All three candidates showed they could energize Latino voters, who historically have a low turnout. In Houston, where Latino turnout previously was about 9%, 18% voted last year. Overwhelmingly Mexican American and Democrats, most voted for Sanchez, a Republican immigrant from Cuba.

Each said there was little, if anything, they would change if they run again. While none ruled out the possibility, none of them made any announcements.

Villaraigosa, whom some leaders are urging to run for City Council, said only that he intends to stay in public service.

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