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An Uneasy Electoral Alliance

The Democratic Party and California Latinos have a history of uncertainty.

October 05, 2003|Frank del Olmo

Somewhere, the ghost of Enrique "Hank" Lopez, honorable liberal that he was, is fretting over what will happen to the often uneasy relationship between two of his great loves, the Democratic Party and California's large Latino community, as a result of Tuesday's historic recall election.

If recent opinion polls are accurate -- and that is a big if, to my mind -- Democratic Gov. Gray Davis will be recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Already, some non-Latino Democrats are pointing fingers at the outsized ambitions of Latino Democrats -- both Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only Democratic officeholder who had the temerity to run to replace Davis on the recall ballot, and members of the Legislature's Latino Caucus who pressured Davis into signing a controversial bill allowing illegal immigrants to apply for California driver's licenses.

That thinking is behind a rumor that dogged Bustamante last week: that top Democrats are urging him to drop out of the race. The reasoning is that if Bustamante drops out, that would frustrate the Democratic voters -- many of them presumably Latinos -- who might vote yes on the recall either out of ethnic loyalty or because Bustamante gives them a Democratic alternative to the unpopular Davis. If enough of these frustrated voters stay home on election day, the cynical thinking goes, the margin favoring a recall might drop enough for Davis to survive.

My colleague George Skelton has written how desperate and unrealistic that theory is, correctly noting that Davis' big problem is not folks who may vote for Bustamante but the large number of voters who see Schwarzenegger as a fresh alternative to Davis.

Still, the persistence of the rumor about Bustamante dropping out reminded me that, for all the valid criticism California Republicans get for having alienated new Latino voters by pushing divisive issues like Proposition 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from public services, Democrats also have a decidedly mixed record of dealing with California Latinos.

Which is where sad memories of Hank Lopez come in.

Lopez lived before his time. He was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua but raised in Denver by parents who fled the Mexican Revolution. He is believed to have been the first Mexican American to graduate from Harvard Law School, in 1948.

Lopez moved to California at the urging of law professors who told him that its growing Latino community needed his talent and penchant for activism. He lived and worked here until his death in 1985. But the high point of his public career was a campaign for California secretary of state in 1958, the year Gov. Pat Brown led a triumphant slate of Democrats who won every statewide office, except one.

Lopez was the only Democrat who lost, and veteran Latino activists still blame his defeat on a lack of support from his own party. One of those activists reminded me recently that Brown consistently refused to appear on the same podium with Lopez during the campaign.

The most bitter among the veteranos blame anti-Mexican bigotry for Lopez's shabby treatment. Though bigotry no doubt played some role in Lopez's defeat, the uncertainty that non-Latino Democrats have about the loyalty of Latino voters was probably a factor too.

That uncertainty was perfectly summarized by no less a Democratic political genius than San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. While speaker of the state Assembly in the 1980s, Brown once said a political district with lots of black voters was a safe Democratic district, while a district with lots of Latino voters was "a Democratic district -- maybe."

That "maybe" still haunts Latino Democrats. The only thing that could dispel it would be a strong turnout of new Latino voters, young adults or older but recently naturalized citizens, who boost either Davis or Bustamante to victory.

I'm not about to bet my retirement income on that outcome. Yet I wouldn't be surprised if the efforts of organized labor, many of whose leaders are Latinos, and the Latino Caucus, which is determined to repay Davis for signing the driver's license bill, get enough Latino voters to the polls to make the election closer than a lot of people expect.

Even if the recall passes and the lieutenant governor loses, a big Latino turnout for Democrats Davis and Bustamante would send a warning to the GOP, in Sacramento and Washington, that it still must deal with a large and growing population. The message would be, to paraphrase one of Schwarzenegger's movie lines: "We'll be back."

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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