Capitol Journal

All-powerful Democrats find new adversaries: each other

With ethnic shifts comes a political inevitability: Democrats are turning on each other in the fight for power

Latinos feel insulted by blacks. Angelenos are suspicious of San Franciscans. Democrats are squabbling. It's inevitable.

It's the unintended consequence of one-party domination in California. Democrats have conquered Republicans. So they're turning on each other in the struggle for political power.

While that's not new in party politics, the openly acknowledged battleground — ethnicity — is unprecedented, at least in modern times.

Moreover, we're witnessing a historic political evolution — even revolution — that's the natural result of massive Latino immigration in recent decades.

Latinos are demanding the political power that reflects their community's population explosion — indeed, plurality — in California.

Nearly 90% of California's population growth from 2000 to 2011 was Latino, according to the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Latinos currently account for nearly 40% of the state's population, roughly on par with whites and nearly six times greater than blacks.

Latinos never have turned out to vote in proportion to their population — unlike whites and blacks — but their voting numbers grew by 67% between 2000 and 2010, UC researchers found. In the 2012 presidential election, Latinos accounted for nearly 20% of the state's vote.

So Latino politicians are impatient and really don't like being told to wait their turn.

The drama is playing out in the early fighting to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has announced she'll retire in 2016 after four terms.

There's widespread belief in political circles that this is a once-a-generation opportunity — a rare window opening — although history doesn't necessarily support that thesis.

True, Boxer and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein both have been ensconced in office for 22 years. But before them, there was a string of California senators who served eight years or less: Pete Wilson, S.I. Hayakawa, John Tunney, George Murphy, Pierre Salinger, Clair Engle. And Richard Nixon.

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris — daughter of a Jamaican-born father and Indian-born mother — played it smart. She leaped into the Senate race almost immediately after Boxer's announcement.

Harris' campaign consultant, Ace Smith, also is the chief strategist for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. He told them both the same thing: If either coveted a Senate seat, don't hesitate. No tip-toeing around the edges. Dive in. Start collecting endorsements and money. Run in an open field unimpeded while still possible.

Newsom opted to wait and plot a race for governor when Gov. Jerry Brown is termed out in 2018.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signaled he was seriously considering a bid for Boxer's seat, as did other politicians. Some were still mulling as of Wednesday, including Villaraigosa, although many politicos expect him to run.

Southern California Latinos have smelled a San Francisco rat — a conspiratorial political machine including Harris (former district attorney), Newsom (ex-mayor), U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, state Democratic chairman John Burton, Willie Brown (former mayor and Assembly speaker), all trying to clear the field for Harris. "Coronate" her.

Baloney, say the San Franciscans. Harris is just playing good politics and trying to scare off competition.

But Brown — in his typically outspoken, too often undiplomatic way — really ticked off Latinos by telling a Sacramento Bee reporter that Villaraigosa should defer to Harris.

"His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that," Brown said. "I am hopeful that [Villaraigosa] will be rewarded with a statewide office — at some point."

Brown and Harris aren't just fellow black politicians. They used to date. And Brown was a mentor.

Another former Assembly speaker, Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), was among several Latinos who told me they were offended by Brown's comment.

"We know for a fact that there has been an effort to keep Antonio from running," Nuñez says. "Anybody who wants to run has a right to run. For Antonio to express an interest in running and they come back and say, 'Wait your turn' — what turn? There's no such thing as waiting your turn in politics.

"We ought to be more politically mature than to simply dismiss a potential Latino candidate as someone who has to await his turn."

Latinos also were upset when yet another former Assembly speaker, L.A. City Council President Herb J. Wesson Jr., announced his support for Harris. Wesson is a former Villaraigosa ally and an African-American.

Part of Harris' appeal, Wesson told Times reporter Michael Finnegan, is that she'd be California's first African-American senator. "This would be another historic first," he noted.

Never mind that Villaraigosa would be California's first Latino senator.

The ethnic elbowing and feelings of disrespect prodded the Latino Legislative Caucus to commission a poll aimed at showing that a Democratic Latino would be a viable candidate for Boxer's seat — and inspire normally apathetic Latinos to vote.

The poll wasn't necessarily a plus for Villaraigosa, however. It showed him running behind Harris statewide and only tied with her in the L.A. media market.

"Latinos are a big part of the Democratic base," says Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). "There was a feeling we were being discounted and discarded. Could we field a viable candidate? Yes."

Latinos are struggling to climb the last rungs of the political ladder. The trick is to do it without breaking the diverse Democratic coalition.

It's politics. And it's inescapable. It's a new chapter of California history.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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