Winning More Political Offices but Still No Agenda
By David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez
If the Latino political agenda has been to advocate increased Latino representation at all levels of government, It has been wildly successful. In 1994, the number of Latino elected officials in California rose to nearly 800, almost twice what It was a decade earlier. The number of Latino state and federal legislators has jumped from seven, in 1980, to 18 today. And within four years, Latino lawmakers could make up nearly 2D% of the state Assembly and one-third of all Democrats in Sacramento. But success in creating Latino political fiefdoms has riot translated into a consistent and coherent agenda on how to promote Latino interests or on how to better govern a changing state. Ironically, that absence signifies a growing political maturity.
Even before the highly politicized climate of the 1960s, politics was seen by many Latinos as an elusive quick fix with the potential to suddenly transform lives. "If we would only all unite, we could change the system." has been both a Latino mantra and lament for decades. Latino communities were seen as untapped political forces whose less than enthusiastic participation In electoral politics would invariably-election after election-wind up disappointing the politicians and activists who, courted and sought to lead them. Conversely, the absence of an active and informed electorate gave incumbent Latino elected officials some of the most secure political seats in the state.
But because of the grand hopes many. Latinos have invested.in electoral politics, their expectations have grown unreasonably high. The myth of unity also haunts Latino elected officials. Most bridle at the notion that they should vote in unison or legislate as a bloc. Although many blame the media for selling the idea of ethnic political unity, Latino leaders themselves have pushed that very ideal for years.
Understandably, the majority of elected officials loathe the pigeonhole of "Latino politician." None wants to limit his or her appeal by appearing too ethnically provincial. And even when some do choose to showcase their ethnic colors, their consultants invariably ask them to tone it down. During the battle over Proposition' 187, for example, Latino officials who actively opposed the anti-illegal Immigrant measure heeded a conservative consulting firm's advice not to publicly join the campaign to defeat the initiative. The consultants' advice- The Latinos' message would lack credibility and their faces would threaten Anglo voters.
Because few Latino-held districts actually have a majority of 1,atino registered voters living in them, most Latino office' -holders have to curry favor with Anglo and other non-LaUno voters. Los Angeles Assemblyman Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who was elected with both Latino and Anglo votes and represents an ethnically diverse district, presents himself as ideologically. not ethnically, driven.
A small but growing number of Latinos have seats in districts where Latinos are a decided minority. Liz Figueroa, an Assemblywoman in Northern California, represents a district that is 52% Anglo gnd 12% Latino. If she appeals to an "ethnic" constituency in her district, it is to the one-quarter of residents who are Asian. "My consUtuents don't even know I'm Latina," she says. Since her district has both a high concentration of college graduates and a low crime rate, Figueroa can approach issues differenUy from her colleagues in the Latino Legislative Caucus, who represent a more working-class constituency. Unlike state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala, who represents a majority Anglo district and derides the idea of the Latino caucus as self -segregation, Figueroa subscribes to a broad Latino political agenda.
That agenda consists generally of Democratic social-welfare and civil rights issues, with a few new emphases. State level politicians who subscribe to this agenda concede that it does not address the concerns of the roughly half of California Latinos who have reached the middle class. It was only a few years ago that Latino representatives felt it necessary to sit on committees that oversee social-service programs in order to protect their constituencies' interests. But shifting ideological winds, the declining faith in big government and the growing recognition that their poorer constituents are more entrepreneurial and hardworking than they are a static urban underclass all seem to have made Latino politicians more business and economic development-oriented. This shift has also been made possible by a larger Latino presence in Sacramento and a greater diversity in committee assignments.
While Latino state legislators do sometimes end up voting together, the Latino Legislative Caucus is not meant to be a voting bloc. Led by state Sen. Richard G. Polanco, it sets forth issues that its members should work on collectively. The caucus' strength, however, lies in its members' ability to network with well-placed colleagues. The multiplication of Latino elected officials has and will continue to bring a greater diversity of leadership styles and ideologies to the table. It should also destroy the myth of Latino political unity and inhibit future opportunists from scapegoating Latino Californians. In Washington, the four California Latino members of the House are connected more by regional interests and party loyalties than by allegiance to any agenda. On the state's majority-Latino city councils, local leaders quickly learn they can be as factional as any non- - Latino governing body.
Ironically, non-Latinos are more responsible than anyone else for inspiring what could be called a Latino political agenda. Republican wedge issues, which exploit white fears of a majority -minority society, have had the simultaneous effect of unifying Latino leaders on specific, identifiable issues and distracting them from more fundamental concerns. Proposition 187 and the upcoming battle over the California civil rights initiative, which would dismantle state-sponsored affirmative-action programs, have put the 'Latino political establishment on the defensive. Latino politicians complain that too much of their time goes to fighting others' issues rather than pushing theirs. Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia confesses to feeling "trapped" by the electorate's obsession with immigration. "But what am I supposed to do?" she asks. "Roll over and accept it?"
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says Latino leaders don't have time to develop an offense because they're too busy playing defense. He and a growing, list of influential Latinos are beginning to quietly advocate sacrificing short-term battles in order to create more proactive long-term visions, The civil rights agenda in this Republican-dominated era has been reduced to rear-guard efforts to maintain the status quo. Latino politicians demur when asked if Latinos would still need government protection from discrimination when they are half the state population. But while officials continue to assure Latinos that they will get their piece of the pie, someone has to prepare for the Latino-dominant future. The energy and wisdom required to rebuild society will not be found in a platform of representational politics. "I think it's good to think about the next step," says Rep. Xavier Becerra. "But I think if we try to go too far, we'll trip over ourselves."
You wouldn't know it by the political winds, but the future viability of California's society rests, to a great extent, on Latino labor and leadership. Latinos are at a crossroads today. While they have far greater political representation than a decade ago, their interests are still inadequately represented. Although a scapegoated minority now. Latinos, within 25 years, will outnumber all other groups and will be largely responsible for the well being of the state.
As such, Latino leaders will soon have to go beyond the current political trench wars and refocus on the fundamental building blocks with which a radically transformed California can rebuild itself. Perhaps they will bring to California politics what so many of their constituents bring to the United States-a youthful, forward-looking and productive vision of the future.
David R. Hayes-Bautista is executive director of the Alta California Research Center. Gregpry Rodriguez is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and at Alta California