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Great Latino Hope Is the One Bright Spot for the GOP

November 03, 2002|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

The Republican Party's prospects in Tuesday's election look pretty bleak. Most public opinion polls indicate that the only gubernatorial candidate more unpopular than Democrat Gray Davis is the GOP's rookie candidate, Bill Simon.

Little wonder, then, that Republican activists are already looking elsewhere on the GOP ticket for hopeful prospects. And the brightest is a young attorney from the San Gabriel Valley named Gary Mendoza.

He's running against Democrat John Garamendi for state insurance commissioner, a controversial post whose last elected incumbent, Chuck Quackenbush, was forced to resign because of a political scandal.

That fact alone guarantees that the job will be a political hot seat for the next four years, no matter who wins it.

But when things go as badly as they have lately for the California GOP, you look for hope wherever you can find it. Especially when he also happens to be a Great Latino Hope.

Mendoza is a Mexican American from Temple City who graduated from Claremont McKenna College and Yale Law School. He worked for a couple of major Los Angeles law firms, served for two years as then-Gov. Pete Wilson's state corporations commissioner and was deputy mayor for economic development under then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

He came through the stints in public service with high marks for honesty and effectiveness. Mendoza is citing his public service as evidence that he can handle any difficulties the next insurance commissioner will face.

Past government experience is Garamendi's strong suit. He was a state legislator and California's first elected insurance commissioner, leaving the post in 1994 to run unsuccessfully for governor.

Most polls show Garamendi leading. But enough of them show Mendoza within striking distance that the state GOP kicked $1.2 million into Mendoza's campaign last week.

"This thing is definitely winnable," Mendoza says. And he is fully aware what a top-level Latino officeholder could mean for the California GOP: "If I'm successful, we can reposition the party."

That's Mendoza's polite way of saying he could help pull California Republicans back from the abyss.

The California GOP has teetered on the edge of political irrelevance since 1996. That is when thousands of newly naturalized Latino citizens began showing up at the polls to vent their anger at Republicans for the harshly anti-Latino tone of the campaign that Wilson ran in 1994, when he focused his reelection bid on Proposition 187, the initiative that would have denied education and other public services to illegal immigrants.

Mendoza opposed Proposition 187 and, like a handful of farsighted Republicans, tried to dissuade Wilson from hitching his political star to a dubious initiative that was eventually nullified by a federal court as unconstitutional.

But Mendoza is only the latest GOP leader to try to "reposition" the party with a Latino electorate that continues to grow and continues to vote heavily for Democrats. The record so far is decidedly mixed.

President Bush made a strong appeal for Latino support in 2000, but even his respectable showing of 35% to 40% among Latino voters nationwide got the national GOP back to only the levels of Latino support that it had under popular Republicans like President Reagan.

Earlier this year, Riordan made his appeal to a broad range of non-Republican voters, including Latinos, part of his campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He lost when the GOP's rank and file opted for the more conservative Simon.

And even Simon flirted briefly with a campaign that would appeal to Latinos, running ads on Spanish-language television stations. But whatever goodwill those ads may have created for his campaign was effectively nullified when Simon, in the latest of many inept campaign moves, hauled Wilson out of the GOP closet for a last-minute endorsement. That may win Simon a few more right-wing votes. But not enough to offset the Latino votes it will lose him now that the ever-opportunistic Davis campaign is making large photos of Simon with Wilson the centerpiece of its final Spanish-language advertising blitz.

So Mendoza is not only the GOP's Great Latino Hope; he may be its only hope.

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