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Latino politicians gain clout in US

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The election this week of Mexican-American Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles is the latest exclamation point in a story of Hispanic political empowerment that has been unfolding steadily nationwide for more than three decades.

The high-profile ascent of Mr. Villaraigosa to the top of America's second-largest city builds on steady gains by Hispanics in municipal, county, state, and national governments over the past 25 years.

Political analysts mark those gains by comparing the political landscapes of Henry Cisneros, who was elected mayor of San Antonio in1981, and that of two US Senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado, elected in 2004.

Between those political bookends, the number of elected Hispanics has grown 30 percent in the past eight years, from 3,743 in 1996 to 4,853 in 2004.

While Hispanics still don't exercise their rights at the ballot box in the same percentages as they fill the American population, such gains, punctuated by the Villaraigosa victory, reflect the nation's changing cultural and social makeup - and Hispanics' growing ability to appeal to an ever-widening range of ethnic groups. Many such groups of newer immigrants - Koreans, Pacific Islanders, Armenians, Iranians, Russians, Filipinos - embrace the new Hispanic politicians because they sense fresh openness to their own struggles, observers say.

"The new political face of America is looking South and West for its emerging identity rather than to Eastern Europe as it did in the country's first big wave of immigration," says Antonio Gonzales, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino-based think tank. "Many of the emerging immigrant populations see Hispanics as accessible and open to them in the way more traditional American politicians have not been."

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