LA Times: Latino Caucus Gains Clout in Legislature as Population Shifts

November 13, 2013

Latino Caucus Gains Clout in Legislature as Population Shifts: Politics: A growing contingent of lawmakers played a key role in fights over immigration and schools, and authored significant legislation. A goal is to elect a statewide officeholder.


SACRAMENTO — A contingent of Latino lawmakers in the Legislature is flexing its political muscle for the first time in many years, and all signs indicate that the trend will continue.

The all-Democrat, mostly Southern Californian Latino caucus--buoyed this year by an increase from seven to 11 members--played a key role in political fights over immigration and the proposed breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Individually, Latino legislators also were authors of significant bills outside the area of schools and immigration, such as the mandatory bicycle helmet law.

"The Latino community definitely is a growing force as reflected by their increasing population," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City), "so it only makes sense for them to have a greater voice in the Legislature."

Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga also said he believes that Latino legislative strength will continue to grow.

"The number of Latinos in the Legislature will increase," Brulte said, "and Latinos will play an increasingly important role in decision making in California."

According to recent Department of Finance estimates, Latinos will become the state's largest ethnic group by 2020. The department estimates that there are more than 8 million Latinos in California today and that there will be more than 20 million in 2020.

Still, despite recent successes in the Legislature, Latino political strength can best be described in a word: potential.

There has not been a Latino statewide officeholder since Gov. Romualdo Pacheco, a Republican, took office on Feb. 27, 1875.

Among the objectives of the revitalized caucus is the election of a Latino statewide officeholder as soon as possible.

Until this year, the Latino caucus was regarded by critics as lacking much impact on legislation.

One veteran Capitol lobbyist, who declined to be identified, said: "In the old days, the Latino caucus wasn't very active. They only had a few members, which means that they didn't have enough votes to be a formidable force.

"But that's all changed now. They have more votes than the (nine-member) black caucus, and their long-range future outlook is very good."

Although the caucus is dominated by Democrats, Republicans say there is enough political diversity in the Latino community for them as well. GOP leader Brulte said he is looking for Latino Republicans to run for Assembly seats.

Last year's election not only brought new members but also a rush of new energy to the caucus, said one of the newcomers, Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Rosemead).

"When I first came up here," Martinez said, "I understood historically that the Latino caucus was rather dysfunctional and never worked very well.

"Initially, I really wasn't very interested about even attending meetings because I didn't know if we would be doing anything that would mean much to anybody.

"But when I started attending meetings, I was pleasantly surprised. They were dealing with things that were extremely important, like immigration."

Emergence of illegal immigration as an issue this year gave new caucus members a major target. It also showed that the caucus is not monolithic.

The caucus--made up entirely of Mexican Americans--ultimately split on some immigration legislation, such as the requirement that new applicants for California driver's licenses prove their U.S. citizenship or legal residency. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Freshman Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) helped write the driver's license measure, and Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Los Angeles), another newcomer, was a leading critic of the bill.

"We will not march in lock-step on issues," Escutia said afterward. "We will be split on some issues, but we will be united on other issues."

Said veteran state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), "I think the split is healthy. It goes a long way toward disproving the myth that we are a monolithic community."

The Latino caucus chairman, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), said next year the caucus will present a detailed legislative program to improve the state's economic climate, to create more jobs and to reduce the high school dropout rate.

"We will not be limited to the immigration issue alone," Polanco said. "We are no different than any other community. We will have our differences, and we will honor them, but sometimes we also will be united."

He said the caucus will oppose two proposed 1994 ballot initiatives aimed at reducing public aid to illegal immigrants for health care and public schooling.

On the issue of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Martinez noted that the Latino caucus joined with the black caucus to help block a proposal by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) to split up the sprawling district.