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Rosario Marin: a Republican to Put Democrats Off Balance

The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

February 16, 2004|George Skelton

Sacramento — If a good personal story were the ticket to a Senate seat, Rosario Marin already could be drafting her swearing-in speech and calling Washington real estate agents.

She'd be the heavy favorite to win the Republican Senate nomination March 2 and send Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer packing in November.

Marin, 45 -- charming, articulate and tenacious -- has a compelling American Dream story with many subplots, as emerging Latino politicians often do.

She migrated with her family legally from Mexico City at age 14. "I cried for two days on the bus," she recalls. "No child who is 14 wants to leave her customs and her friends. Today, I know I was very lucky."

The family settled in Monterey Park. Her father was a janitor, her mother a seamstress.

Rosario excelled in high school, but was asked to help support the family rather than attend college. She did both, attending night school for seven years and earning a business degree from Cal State L.A.

She ventured into politics after her first child, Eric, now 18, was born with Down syndrome. She advocated for the disabled in Sacramento and impressed Gov. Pete Wilson, who hired her.

Marin also became a supporter of abortion rights while counseling pregnant women of disabled children. She'd never have an abortion, Marin says, but "I found out I could not impose my own beliefs on a mother who faced the most excruciating, painful decision of her life."

But although a good story can spark interest, it takes much more to make a senator: campaign money, name ID, credentials. Marin falls short with each.

That's why she's a distant dark-horse in the GOP primary race, trailing former Secretary of State Bill Jones, 54, a veteran of 12 years in the Legislature and eight in statewide office.

Marin's resume is much lighter. President Bush appointed her U.S. Treasurer, a largely ceremonial job. Her only elected post was on the Huntington Park City Council. She served seven years, including one as mayor. She worked seven years for Wilson as a legislative and public liaison.

After Wilson aggressively pushed Proposition 187 -- designed to deny public services to illegal immigrants, but mostly tossed out by courts -- the GOP governor was demonized by Democrats among Latinos.

Marin opposed Prop. 187 -- "I couldn't see taking children out of school" -- but she still was tarred with the distain for Wilson.

"Being the voice of the governor in the Latino community was brutal -- brutal," she says. "I have been a Republican when it wasn't cool to be a Republican."

She registered as a Republican at the suggestion of her boss, after becoming a citizen in 1984. President Ronald Reagan was running for reelection, she remembers, "and every time I watched him on TV, I thought he was talking to me personally. He made me feel welcome, like I belonged in America."

Marin says she subscribes to Republican "values: Personal responsibility. Small government. Strong national defense."

And low taxes. She constantly attacks Jones for helping Gov. Wilson pass a huge tax increase in 1991 that closed a budget hole. She'd never vote for any tax hike, Marin vows, even if a Republican president begged.

Many politicos think she should have remained U.S. treasurer through this year's elections, then run in 2006 for California treasurer, a job more within her reach.

In the Senate primary, she's also up against two other dark-horses: Former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey and former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian of Carlsbad. Like Marin, Casey supports abortion rights and the two women are competing for moderate votes.

Realistically, a second-place finish would be a victory for Marin and leave her in good position to run for state treasurer in 2006. No Latina has ever won statewide office in California.

Neither has a Latina -- or Republican Latino -- ever been elected to the U.S. Senate.

Marin is trying to persuade Republican voters that she's Boxer's "worst nightmare."

If Jones were the GOP challenger, she says, the liberal senator would fall back on her favorite playbook: painting her opponent as a right-wing extremist who's anti-abortion rights and anti-environment -- a good ol' boy from the San Joaquin Valley.

Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster), who has endorsed Marin, says Jones "is kind of a Gray Davis Republican. All he's done is work in the political world. People want somebody different."

Another supporter, Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea), says Marin would force Boxer "to debate the issues, not just all those cliches you hear."

Contends Marin: "I take away [Boxer's] women's issue. I take away the minorities' issue. And the working poor.

"What does she know about growing up poor? What does she know about the struggles? I know the struggles. When we came to this country, we bought our furniture at Goodwill."

This is not only a personal story. It's the story of rapidly changing demographics and a shifting political landscape, increasingly more brown-skinned and less white.

Republicans have been slow to adapt, but must to succeed in the new century.

Marin is part of the evolving California story.

*

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com. Read previous columns at latimes.com/skelton.

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