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Viewpoint by Thomas Elias: Redistricting reveals a ceiling for Latino clout

November 13, 2001

For almost 10 years, it's seemed as if only the sky would be the limit on the growing Latino political clout in California.

But the new redistricting plan worked out primarily by Democratic Party map makers demonstrates that so long as Hispanic politicians rely for support almost exclusively on their fellow Latinos, they will never achieve the ultimate heights of power in this state.

For the new districts due to take effect in next year's election will likely result in only one or two new Hispanic members of the state Assembly, plus one new Latino state senator and member of Congress.

Not that Latino power is in any danger of disappearing. It's all but impossible for the ethnic group to lose any of the legislative seats gained during the 1990s, when membership in the 80-member state Assembly rose from just 8 percent Hispanic to 24 percent, while membership in the 40-member state Senate climbed from about 4 percent to today's 17 percent.


But where can any further gains come? The 2000 Census revealed that new Latino population in California concentrates mainly in formerly black portions of south Los Angeles and near the Mexican border. Aside from those areas, most of the growth as Latinos swelled to 32 percent of the state's populace came where Latinos already were present in big numbers.

So unless Latino areas had been carved up and divided among several legislative districts, where previously they lay within single districts, there wasn't much room for growth in the numbers of Latino officeholders. And Hispanic politicians loudly resisted having their numbers lessened in any of the districts where they held either a plurality or a majority. They felt that would have rendered victories in Democratic primary elections — usually tantamount to election — far more difficult for them.

One example is the congressional district long represented by Democrat Howard Berman in the northeast San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. Latinos have been a majority of the voters in this district since the 1990 reapportionment. Their political leaders figured the moment Berman retired, his seat would be theirs.

Prior to the Legislature's vote on the new congressional districts, Xavier Flores, a leader of the local chapter of the Mexican-American Political Association, even warned against any effort to "water down Latino population so we'll have less influence. We'll have a problem with that."

A Latino probably will eventually take Berman's seat, even though his district has been shifted slightly and its Latino population reduced to a mere plurality. But they might have had a shot at one or two other neighboring seats if they'd been willing to see their population concentration split a bit more.

The Latino resistance to any significant splintering of their population base is a sure sign that most Hispanic political leaders either realize they don't appeal much to other ethnic groups or are unwilling to form alliances outside their own communities.

So long as they retain those attitudes, they can never achieve the ultimate heights of political power in California: election to the governor's office or a seat in the U.S. Senate.

No one wins those jobs without appealing beyond his or her immediate base of power. Sen. Dianne Feinstein makes a classic example. Her unquestionable base of power is San Francisco, where she was a popular county supervisor and mayor before seeking statewide office. But when Feinstein began running statewide — starting with her unsuccessful 1990 try for governor — she immediately bought a Los Angeles condominium and took up part-time residence there. Soon she was as much a presence in Southern California as in her own city. The result has been a string of three straight electoral victories and plenty of national influence.

Latinos must do the same sort of thing to advance. No, they don't need to buy housing away from their current homes. But they will have to find ways to appeal to voters in areas other than their own.

Latinos already control all but a few districts where they enjoy a clear-cut population majority. To go farther, they'll need to follow the examples of Antonio Villaraigosa, who narrowly missed becoming mayor of Los Angeles this summer, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Both are former speakers of the state Assembly and both embrace a multi-ethnic political approach.

Bustamante, however, tripped over his own tongue last spring, when he used the "N-word" during an Oakland speech. It remains to be seen whether he can overcome that slip-up.

Still, other Latinos will have to adopt Bustamante's frequent call for a "one-California" approach embracing all the state's myriad ethnic groups, or they'll never advance far beyond the levels of power they enjoy today. If they didn't know this before, surely the new reapportionment maps will have made the point in a way few could miss.

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