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17 Bills by Hispanic Caucus Aim to Boost Latino Power

Times Staff Writer

After years of proclaiming the political influence of Latinos in California, the Legislature’s Hispanic Caucus unveiled an ambitious agenda Tuesday focused on measures to bolster Latino strength in local elections and improve education for minority youth.

The package of 17 bills--the first that has drawn united support of the seven-member caucus--came, however, with a stern warning that the Democratic Party no longer can take for granted the loyalty of Latino voters.

“I think we are sending a very clear message,” Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said. “We are unified and we’re together and if the Democratic Party wants to continue to count on our votes, it has to deliver programs and agendas not only for us but for the future of California.”

Added Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra): “The Hispanic vote is up for grabs and I think the Republicans understand that better than the Democrats.”

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The caucus’s legislative agenda, developed in conjunction with Latino leaders in six urban areas of the state, covers a broad range of issues, from providing more affordable housing to establishment of special preschool education programs for “at-risk” students from poor and minority communities.

The legislative package gives top priority to several bills that would profoundly affect the way elections are held.

Among these are measures that would allow voters to register up to and on the day of a statewide general election and establish district rather than “at-large” elections for city councils and school boards. Latino leaders have long complained that electing representatives on an at-large basis tends to dilute minority political power. Other bills in the package would establish programs to ensure that Latinos, including illegal immigrants, are counted in the 1990 census. One of these bills calls for a moratorium on immigration raids during the census process.

Most of these measures face political problems, in part because of concern among Republicans that more Latino power generally translates into more Democratic votes. Moreover, some of these measures would upset the system that brought the current crop of political leaders to power, Democrats as well as Republicans.

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“There will be members on our side of the party who will see it as a threat,” said Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who is carrying a bill that would require elections for members of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees by single-member districts.

Underlying the Latino lawmakers’ latest push is a growing sense that they are under-represented in a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic minority. Latinos account for about 24% of California’s population, a figure that is expected to grow to 40% by the year 2040.

Yet Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego), who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, said Latinos hold 6.5% of city council seats and 6% of seats on school boards. The size of the Legislature’s Hispanic Caucus--only seven Latinos in a 120-member Legislature--underscores the disparity.

The fact that this is the first time the small caucus has been able to even agree on a legislative agenda illustrates another difficulty--a lack of unity that has kept Latino power at the state level diffuse. During Tuesday’s press conference, which was orchestrated to show a new spirit of Latino solidarity, two of the seven caucus members failed to appear.

“This is hurting our community,” Chacon said of the twin problems of disunity and under-representation. “The services are allocated to the majority community that dominates local government.”

Among the bills in the caucus package that are expected to draw strong opposition is one aimed at allowing cities that are facing federal Voting Rights Act lawsuits to move toward district elections without submitting the question to voters. There is nothing in the law now to prevent cities from taking action on their own, but Chacon, the bill’s author, said he wanted to clarify the issue.

“It’s rather far-fetched to believe a majority community will be changed of its own volition,” Chacon said.

The Latino lawmakers hope to sell their legislative program, not so much by talking about the problems created in the Latino community, but by focusing on the problems that might be created for the rest of the population if Latinos remain poor, uneducated and without political representation.

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