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Latinos Find New Paths To Power

At The Polls

The ceiling fans were no match for the heat, and the finger food didn't hold up well sitting in buffet dishes for over an hour. In all, the typical ambience for another "candidate forum" in California's election season.

But the substance here was anything but ordinary:

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Dan Lungren, running to extend the Republican Party's 16-year grip on the governor's office, apologized to the crowd gathered by the Hispanic Law Enforcement Coalition. Of the GOP's pitifully low support among Latinos in the last presidential election, he said: "Frankly, I'm embarrassed."

Cruz Bustamante, California's first Latino Speaker of the Assembly, said while he wants to be the next lieutenant governor, and thereby the first Latino elected statewide in 120 years, he's a little tired of "firsts." The Democrat looks forward to an era when a Latino in a top position is not noteworthy.

And Ruben Barrales, running for state controller, proved in the flesh that a Republican Latino is not an oxymoron.

All are signs that November 1998 represents an important marker for California, and indeed the United States, regardless of who wins at the polls here.

Just as the empowerment of Southern blacks during the civil rights era changed the nation forever, California is in the throes of a new phase of ethnic political transformation. The process here is on a larger scale and farther along than anywhere else in the country, and it will have its own historic repercussions.

Some of those changes were evident at the Sacramento gathering: a concerted Republican outreach to overwhelmingly Democratic Latinos; a record crop of Latinos running for statewide office; and a maturing sense among Latinos themselves that the issue is no longer purely attaining political power, but its extension and application.

More broadly, this election is a small glimpse into a larger race, one that finds the nation's largest and most diverse state struggling to see if its politics can keep pace with its demographics.

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"We're discovering new ways of getting along," says Peter Morrison, a demographer with Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "People are beginning to recognize there are ways to make this work. But there is tremendous baggage. Still, I'm more optimistic than I was four years ago."

Four years ago, Californians passed an anti-illegal-immigrant initiative regarded as something of a watershed in ethnic politics here. Latinos felt under attack. But rather than retreat, they responded with a steady, dramatic rise in political participation.

"Ironically, it was a turning point for Hispanics," says candidate Barrales, whose Republican Party backed the measure and has struggled to win back Latino support since. The son of a Mexican immigrant, Barrales is part of that GOP rebuilding effort. "I feel strongly that immigration is a good thing," he says.

A minority majority

The demographic changes under way in California are stunning. It's on the cusp of becoming the first major state where Anglos are not a majority.

That has already occurred in Los Angeles County. Statewide, it's already true in the schools because of the disproportionately larger number of young Latinos and Asians.

State librarian and historian Kevin Starr calls California the world's first truly ecumenical society, in terms of the breadth of its ethnic composition. But reflecting that in who actually sets policy for the state - by voting and by legislating - is the challenge.

Whites dominate the electoral process by a huge and disproportionate margin (77 percent of voters; 51 percent of the population). And while the number of Latino and Asian voters is increasing, they are not doing so nearly as rapidly as their overall numbers are rising, partly because many are noncitizens.

"This will takes years, even generations" to reach the point where ethnic groups vote close to their proportion of the population, says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute. "Like the Irish and the Italians, it took a generation for their kids to vote in the same proportions as everyone else."

Still, Latino and Asian political analysts say optimism rather than disenchantment pervades those communities.

"There is still underrepresentation, but we have passed a threshold," says Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University in southern California. Mr. Guerra tracks the top 300 elected offices statewide and says Latino and Asian representation doubled between 1989 and 1997. In short, he says ethnic representation in positions of power has moved beyond a few symbolic figureheads to the ability to affect substance in everything from education to taxation.

Indeed, this election is notable for an Asian-American now favored to become the next US senator from California, four Latinos running for statewide office, and numerous candidates of color for lower offices, including the likelihood of greater party balance among Latino officeholders.

For years, Latinos have been "patronized by the Democrats and excluded by Republicans," says Diane Martinez, candidate for state insurance commissioner. "This election, we're not being recruited as tokens by anyone. We're finally starting to see something at the polls that is reflective of the population."

Changing city council

Mr. Morrison has chronicled remarkable political transformations of a number of California communities. In the southern California town of El Centro, Latinos are the largest group, but whites dominate the voting. Nonetheless, Latinos, Asians, and blacks have so mobilized that of the 20 city council members elected over the past eight elections, 11 have been people of color. Morrison sees that as an example where coalition building is helping non-Anglos achieve political representation close to their proportion of the population.

Despite the assessment of most analysts that California's non-Anglos are gaining clout fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of frustration, some wonder what the implications of an economic downturn might be. The recent surge in Latino and Asian participation has occurred largely since the nation's economy took off in the early 1990s.

Looking back to the state's last downturn, Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine University says, "Getting out of recession was slow because we lacked a certain kind of leadership across ethnic boundaries." Another period of economic decline will test whether that has changed, he says.

That test notwithstanding, many Latinos feel increasingly sure-footed as state leaders. As Ms. Martinez puts it, "Latinos aren't coming of age. California is coming of age."

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