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Hispanics: a Political Force Waiting to Be Harnessed

IN the driveway of her small tract home here, Lena Salorio rattles off her list of voter concerns for 1992: stopping drugs, easing unemployment, halting crime, pushing for health-care insurance, and improved education.

"The population here has doubled in a few years and everything has gotten worse," says the lifelong resident of Riverside County. How does she find the politicians that can help?

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"We don't try, we are not active politically," says the registered Democrat. "Sometimes we vote, but we can't all the time."

"We are angry at the politicians," says her mother, Mercy Vasquez. "They say they are going to do this and this, but then they go back to their million-dollar homes and nothing happens. No matter who you vote for."

From 1980 to 1990, the Latino population of Riverside County has more than tripled (to 307,000), growing far more than any other ethnic population. But because of a lack of voter registration, low election turnout, and a high percentage of illegals, those of non-voting-age and noncitizens, Latino clout has not increased commensurate with its numbers.

"The Latino voter for the most part does not yet participate in the American political process in conventional patterns," says Lorn Foster, a professor of government at Pomona College. About 26 percent of Californians are Latino and voting districts are required to provide registration forms in Spanish, but only 10.4 percent of registered voters are Latino. Only 6 percent of the state's top elected officials are Latino.

Armando Navarro, executive director of the Institute for Social Justice, says several organizations statewide are calling the 1992 presidential election the most important election day since the New Deal. Recession-generated malaise can be the catalyst to a Latino renaissance if harnessed properly, he says.

"We have to break down the negative feelings about politics many of these [people] have left over from the regimes they are fleeing," says Mr. Navarro.

Political organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund are this year pooling resources with private-sector groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to galvanize support through registration drives and coalition building.

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"Extra-political entities are giving the cues," adds Professor Foster. "Mostly the churches."

One million more registrants statewide could double the number of Latino voters in California. Countrywide, 220 pivotal electoral votes that could be decided by Latinos "could decide who sits in the White House," says Navarro.

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