Vida En El Valle: The Numbers Game / El Juego de Números

March 26, 2014

By: Cynthia Moreno

When Romualdo Pacheco became California’s first Latino to serve as lieutenant governor in 1871 — and later the state’s first Latino governor in 1875 — little did he know that it would be more than a century later before a Latino won a statewide office.

That dry spell was broken when Cruz M. Bustamante, who had made history by becoming the first Latino to serve as Assembly Speaker, won the lieutenant governor’s seat in 2000.

The rapid growth of the Latino population — now the plurality in California — has not exactly translated into political clout. The state has not elected a Latino governor, and no Latino has been elected to the U.S. Senate. However, Latino political leaders see that changing in the near future based on a record number of Latinos 25 in the state Legislature and an increase in the number of Latinos registering to vote.

The groundwork for Latino political began in 1949 when World War II veteran Edward R. Roybal, fueled by the registration of 15,000 new voters by the Community Service Organization, won a 1949 election to the Los Ángeles City Council. He became the city’s first Mexican-American to win a council seat since 1886.

The momentum continued, albeit not as fast as the Latino population growth, with the founding of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) in the late 1950s in Fresno. Roybal, who would later get elected to Congress, served as the group’s first president.

MAPA was instrumental in mobilizing voters and became the primary voice for Latinos in the 1960s.

In 1968, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) was founded in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1974, William C. Velásquez founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which focused on getting Latinos to register to vote.

The five Latinos in the state Legislature created the Latino Legislative Caucus in 1973.

That, said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, helped take Latino political power to another level.

“For the first time in California’s legislative history, an agenda was formulated and legislative priorities were developed to protect and preserve the rights of Latinos throughout California,” said Lara, the caucus’ chair.

Collectively, these organizations that were born during the Chicano civil rights movement helped organize and mobilize Latino voters and aided Latino candidates. Those efforts paid off when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Latinos in record numbers during his first two terms (1975-83).

Two more events helped get more Latinos into public office:

In 1990, voters approved term limits for state lawmakers. That limited Assemblymembers to three 2-year terms and state Senators to two 4-year terms for a combined maximum of 14 years. (A ballot measure in 2012 reduced that to 12 years in either chamber).

In 2010, voters approved Proposition 28, which took redistricting duties away from lawmakers and gave them to an independent commission. The new Congressional, state Senate and Assembly districts went into effect in 2012 and resulted in Democrats gaining a super majority in both legislative chambers.

Arnold Torres, a policy consultant in Sacramento, said the cons outweigh the positives for any Latino politician.

“Bringing in new people into the legislator isn’t providing new leadership to the legislator and experience tells us that,” said Torres.

“When you have term limits, you have legislators who switch between serving in the Senate and Assembly or return to serve in their districts. But in the process, (legislators) lose institutional memory and knowledge of the legislative process. To lose that experience is harmful.”

Torres does not believe Proposition 28 is the answer.

“The idea that legislators can get a lot done in a few short terms in either house defies logic. I think it would be fair to allow legislators to serve 5 terms or 10 years in each house because the truth is, if a legislator is committed to getting a bill he is passionate about passed and if he or she can’t do it in 10 years, then you have a real problem,” said Torres.

Lara believes redistricting has helped.

“Redistricting certainly helped Latinos vie for political office and the creation of the commission was one of the best things that could have happened because it took the politics out of redistricting,” said Lara.

“The commission had to take into consideration the growing number of Latinos in creating legislative seats with the end result of benefiting people of color, but in a fair way. It means new lines reflect a new reality.”

However, perhaps it was two individuals — former state Sen. Richard Polanco and former Gov. Pete Wilson — who had much bigger impacts on Latino politics.

Polanco, then chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus when there were seven Latino members in 1992, led an effort to identify and support Latinos for state office. His success resulted in the nickname “The Godfather.”

His efforts contributed to the election of Bustamante as the first Latino to be elected to the state Assembly from the San Joaquín Valley since Bakersfield’s Ray Gonzales was elected in 1968.

Latino caucus membership jumped 11 by 1995. By 2011, there was a record 24 members. There are currently 25 Latinos in the state Legislator: 16 in the Assembly and 9 in the state Senate.

When Wilson backed Proposition 187 in 1994, the anti-immigrant measure was passed by voters but was ultimately gutted by the courts. It also woke up Latino voters, who registered to vote in record numbers and later exercised that right at the ballot box.

“It was the first time I understood the power of the Latino vote, the power to become active in our community. Thanks to Gov. Pete Wilson, he awoke this passion of activism within me. It politicized me, my parents and my entire family. It signaled that it was time to fight for our community,” said Lara.

Lara, who grew up in East L.A., said Proposition 187 made him political.

“The fear of the attack on my community woke me up and everyone else in the Latino community,” said Lara.

Despite tremendous growth, Lara said “Latinos are nowhere near representing the number of Latinos in California.”

“Am I satisfied with the number of Latinos in the legislature? No. We really need to step up and represent our population. We need more Latinas and we are working aggressively on that now,” said Lara.

Between 1994 and 2008, Latinos nearly doubled their total portion of the statewide electorate and their representation in the state Legislature. Between 1974 and 1994, the Latino population of California had tripled, but this rapid population growth did not immediately translate into increased political power.

Latinos have been and continue to be the demographic group that is always the key topic of discussion by both political parties. At both the Democratic and Republican Conventions held in Sacramento last year, both parties looked at ways to court the Latino community.

Both parties described their platform in detail and touted what each has done and could do in the future for the Latino voter.

Neither sold themselves short of getting another potential voter on their side.

Republicans touted their idea of strong family values and belief that all Latinos are inherently more conservative given their cultural beliefs and values. The idea that most, if not all, Latinos are “inherently Republican, but don’t know it yet” was thoroughly discussed. In their view, the only area in which they have failed to reach Latinos has been in their messaging and the how they communicate their message about their parties platform.

Democrats, on the other hand, slammed a party that has done little to acknowledge the Latino and pointed to key pieces of legislation and other legislative measures that were passed in recent years that stand to benefit Latinos including the 2.6 million unauthorized or undocumented community which makes up about 14 percent of the total population in California-with three-fourths being Latinos.

The Latino vote is now a key factor in statewide and national races.

“Latinos have always been here and it is time we begin to fight for every vote here in California,” former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, at last year’s Republican state convention. “It is not about changing our message, our values or what our party stands for, but the way in which we communicate that message to the potential Latino voter.”

The real story looking ahead is speculating how California’s future will look like with Latinos now being the majority. Voting patterns, issues that are important to Latinos and strong candidates will ultimately shape California’s political future.

Much of the attention that has always been given to the Latino community has been around voting patterns, voter registration and turnout. Still, “demographic changes will continue to be at the forefront of what they may mean to the growth of the Latino vote and for the Latino proportion of the electorate,” said Mindy Romero of the California Civic Engagement Project.

“We are living in a different and interesting time now. Latinos must continue to pursue their dreams, gain knowledge to contribute to the economy. The future of Latinos is the future of California,” said Lara.


CONTACT: Cynthia Moreno,