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Latinos, Flexing Political Muscle, Come of Age in L.A.

A new generation of leaders now debates how to use its power to shape public policy.

June 27, 2005|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

When Latino leaders gathered recently to celebrate the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles, White House aide Ruben Barrales told them it was great to welcome "a dynamic Latino leader" with "unlimited political potential."

"But enough about Alex Padilla," he concluded, nodding at the Los Angeles City Council president.

The joke underscored a point not lost on the Latino community: The wealth of Latino political talent in key offices in Los Angeles is unprecedented in the city's modern history.

When Villaraigosa takes office Friday, Latinos will hold the positions of mayor of Los Angeles, president of its City Council, Los Angeles city attorney, president of the Los Angeles school board, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, county sheriff and chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

And that does not include the state Assembly speaker, Fabian Nunez, who is also from Los Angeles.

Seven years ago, only one of those eight jobs was filled by a Latino: Villaraigosa was then Assembly speaker.

"It's a huge accomplishment," said Jose Huizar, who heads the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. "I remember in the '80s people were talking about the decade of the Hispanic but, really, 20 years later it's finally coming to fruition in terms of political advancement."

Gloria Molina, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, talks of a "new era" and tells of being stopped in the supermarket by Latino constituents who talk excitedly about the remarkable alignment of Latino political stars.

Much was made during the election of the possibility that Villaraigosa would be the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872.

But Padilla is the first Latino president of the Los Angeles City Council since 1868, and Rocky Delgadillo's staff can find no record of a Latino city attorney as far back as 1851.

Beyond the excitement and the ethnic pride, the dramatic shift in the political landscape has Latino politicians debating how to use their new power to shape public policy, how this wave of Latino leaders will change Los Angeles and the state and who will advance to higher office, becoming, say, the state's first Latino governor since 1875.

Delgadillo is eyeing a bid to become the state's first Latino attorney general, and Padilla is weighing a run for state office.

Villaraigosa hasn't taken office, and already there is talk of whether he will run for governor. In an appearance before the National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists, he was asked about the White House.

"I am focused on being the mayor of Los Angeles," he said, when asked about higher office.

Los Angeles has reached a point in the maturing of its Latino political class at which it has an ever-increasing talent pool. "There is a much stronger and deeper bench preparing to take the reins of responsibility," said public affairs consultant Mickey Ibarra, a friend of Villaraigosa and former director of intergovernmental affairs for the Clinton White House.

In the 45th Assembly District, where incumbent Jackie Goldberg will be forced out by term limits, candidates lining up include two Latinos, one of whom is United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez's granddaughter Christine Chavez Delgado.

Maria Lou Calanche, 36, who has been teaching political science at East L.A. College for eight years, said she will run for Huizar's school board seat if he wins his race to replace Villaraigosa on the City Council. Calanche said one of her closest friends, Monica Rodriguez, who works for the California Assn. of Realtors, is prepared to run for Padilla's council seat if he wins higher office.

"There are a lot of us out here," Calanche said.

Molina recalls that she became interested in politics in the 1970s as a Chicana activist.

"At that time, we were basically outside the system throwing rocks at it," she said. "We've all learned to work within the system. You have to understand the responsibilities and duties aren't just to Chicano power any more."

Molina, who founded a Chicana feminist advocacy group called Comision Femenil de Los Angeles, was one of the pioneers. She won election in 1982 as the first Latina in the state Legislature, in 1987 as the first Latina on the City Council and in 1991 as the first Latina on the Board of Supervisors.

The last two wins were made possible when seats were created after suits challenged districts that diluted the voting strength of minorities.

Term limits and the gradual growth in the Latino vote also opened opportunities to new political talent, said Ricardo Ramirez, a USC political scientist.

The percentage of voters who are Latino reached a record 25% in the May 17 mayoral election, up from 10% a dozen years ago.

Early Latino victories made it easier for those who followed.

"There is a symbiotic relationship that we all have with one another," Villaraigosa said. "It was Alex's [Padilla's] election, the election of Rocky Delgadillo as city attorney, that served to lay the foundation for my own election."

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