Now that Gloria Molina has won election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Latinos are looking ahead to other political races. For all the understandable focus on the state's largest metropolitan area, no one should overlook Santa Barbara, which last year almost elected the nation's first Mexican-American congresswoman.
Democrat Anita Perez Ferguson nearly defeated an eight-term incumbent in a district that has almost always sent Republicans to Washington. In making her showing, Perez Ferguson shocked political insiders and ignored so-called political wisdom that has been accepted as gospel for dogs' years.
Perez Ferguson had never run for office before. She didn't go the time-honored women's route of school board or library board. She garnered experience as a volunteer educator in Kenya, as a college administrator and as an aide to the local state senator, Democrat Gary Hart. Then she just up and ran for Congress.
Perez Ferguson is Latina. Despite the fact that Latinos make up 25% of the population of California, only three of the 45-member California congressional delegation are Latinos, none a woman. Only 12% of Perez Ferguson's district is Latino. Conventional political wisdom would call this a "no win possible."
Perez Ferguson had none of the cultivated sources of money successful players are supposed to have. She had to raise small amounts from many people. Her efforts brought in around $200,000; her opponent, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, spent slightly more than $500,000. Conventional political wisdom hates it when candidates are able to do this, because it challenges their favorite maxim that "money is the mother's milk of politics." And campaigns and candidates who don't have money can't hire expensive consultants, and expensive campaign consultants are, after all, the experts who decide what conventional political wisdom is.
Hart had run against Lagomarsino in 1988, and spent $1.5 million, as did Lagomarsino. Hart received 48.5% of the vote to Lagomarsino's 51.5%. An unknown minority woman without any significant money shouldn't have been able to do much in that political arena. Conventional wisdom thus wrote Perez Ferguson off as a sacrificial Latina who would keep the volunteers busy until Lagomarsino retired and a real candidate could run against a non-incumbent.
Lagomarsino had not scandalized the community. He had represented the elite of Santa Barbara and environs well and faithfully for 16 years. He had voted for defense and space spending whenever he could, which set well with the folks at Vandenberg Air Force Base in the northern part of the district. He opposed abortion, not unpopular with the home folks he heard from most. He sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He knew the community leaders, and he took care of his constituents' problems with the federal bureaucracy. In short, he was not considered an easy mark.
Neither the Waxman-Berman machine in Los Angeles nor Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's organization picked Perez Ferguson for nurturing with money or operatives. Perez Ferguson was the official Democratic candidate, but none of the organizations pitched in with any significant help. So what did she have? Volunteers who had supported Hart in the last campaign came forward, as did young Latinos never politically active before and assorted biennial campaigners.
Seven days before the election, the polls had Perez Ferguson 20 points behind Lagomarsino. By election day, the gap had narrowed to eight points. How did that happen, and what might it mean to other candidates?
Perez Ferguson, an articulate candidate, insisted on being heard on the human issues she cared about. She attended every meeting that would have her. "Lagomarsino has always taken a strong anti-abortion position," she explains. "I believe that choice is every woman's, every family's, right. I talked about choice at every meeting and in every interview. Our analysis shows, and intuitively I know, that Republicans came over to vote for me on that issue alone."
She brought in a campaign manager from Washington, Sam Rodriguez. He talked about the race: "Anita would go to meetings with other Hispanics and mothers and fathers would bring their children to see 'mijita Anita. ' Roughly translated that means 'my little daughter, Anita.' It is said with great pride and respect. They wanted their children to see what they, too, could do. It was moving, and we made a bumper sticker that said 'Mijita Anita al Congreso.' "
Individual Democratic office holders did come forward. Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi, members of Congress from the Bay Area, and state Senator Lucy Killea--veteran of her own pro-choice controversy with the Catholic Church--were helpful. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina went way out of her district to help another Latina. Latino Reps. Ed Roybal and Esteban Torres, both Los Angeles Democrats, helped solicit contributions.
Rodriguez is enthusiastic about Latinos' political futures. "We had 500 volunteers in a congressional race. That's fantastic. We had more Hispanics involved than ever had been before in Santa Barbara or Ventura. We came from nowhere and closed to within eight percentage points of the incumbent winner. We didn't run as an Hispanic candidate, or a woman candidate; we ran as a candidate who cared about human issues, family issues. We did very, very well with Hispanics, but our support came from Democrats, Republicans, men and women who wanted to register their dissatisfaction with business-as-usual in Washington.
"In the next five years the Hispanic community will take its place as a rightful power in statewide politics," says Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. "There are now 1.5 million registered voters of Hispanic descent. By 1996, another 3 million will be eligible to register. Many of those will be new citizens, a group that has historically shown a greater than average voter turnout."
Molina has just won the most powerful elective office any Latino has held in modern-day California and that any Latina holds in the entire nation. Perez Ferguson made a strong showing in a race for Congress, and is an all-but-announced candidate for 1992. No wonder, then, that Latinos are as optimistic about their political prospects in the Golden State as they have ever been since the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, surrendered his office in 1846.