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May Screen Candidates : Latino Coalition Seeks More Clout

Times Staff Writer

Latino officials and activists from Southeast cities are banding together to increase their political leverage and pressure legislative candidates to pay greater heed to the area’s sizable Latino population.

In the last 10 days, city council members, school trustees and community activists from Cerritos to Whittier met twice to discuss the goals and tactics of their group, which they are calling the Southeast Hispanic Political Coalition.

Although the fledging organization has only about 25 members, leaders hope to use the power of endorsement to enhance the group’s political clout. Since most coalition members are locally elected officials, they hold sway over their own constituencies, which could ostensibly be molded into a potent voting block.

The coalition’s co-chairmen and official representatives, Little Lake school board members Sara Mendez and Alex Morales, either could not be reached or declined comment as premature. But sources said coalition members believe that area legislators court Latino voters during elections, only to forget about them after they win.

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There is particular concern, one source said, that the area’s substantial Latino population is not reflected in legislative staffs or state board appointments.

The coalition apparently hopes to interview each of the area’s legislative candidates about their views on Latino-related issues. Depending on the candidates’ positions, the coalition would either give or withhold an endorsement.

The incumbents in both the 33rd Senate and 63rd Assembly districts are running for reelection in races expected to attract considerable spending and effort.

Representatives of Sen. Cecil N. Green, (D-Norwalk), Donald Knabe of Cerritos--Green’s Republican challenger in the November election--and Democratic Assembly candidate Robert Epple of Norwalk--challenging Norwalk Republican Wayne Grisham--met briefly with the coalition Wednesday night.

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Knabe and spokesmen for the Green and Epple campaigns all indicated they didn’t know enough about the group or its agenda to comment on the coalition. But they all expressed a willingness to listen to the coalition’s concerns.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Knabe said, adding that members of other ethnic groups were similarly interested in strengthening their political influence.

Green, who won his 33rd District seat in a special election last year with Latino support, has since hired four Latinos out of 16 full- and part-time staff members, press spokesman Larry Morse said. Two have since left.

Among the local politicians who belong to the coalition or have been invited to join are members of the Norwalk and Sante Fe Springs city councils, the Cerritos College board and the Norwalk-La Mirada school board. Several of those officials wooed the Latino vote to get elected.

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Briefly an Assembly candidate in the 63rd Democratic primary earlier this year, Morales was among those who complained bitterly that Latinos were being shoved aside in the state Democratic Party’s eagerness for Epple to win the primary.

Morales and other politically active Latinos endorsed Marshall Story of Cerritos, only to watch him also withdraw in the face of the Democratic Assembly leadership’s support of Epple.

Most coalition members are Democrats. They have not decided whether the organization should be partisan or nonpartisan.

In addition to monitoring legislative candidates in Southeast, the coalition will also keep an eye on the area’s congressional races, sources said.

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