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Lending a Credible Voice to Latino Issues : Ruben Antonio Smith: Spokesman for Hispanic Redistricting Comittee

Ruben Antonio Smith shook his head as he laughed.

No, he said, he does not fit the conventional mold of a political rabble-rouser.

But there he stood one day in August--a conservatively dressed real estate lawyer with a Newport Beach business address--before the Orange County Board of Supervisors. In a few short weeks, he had become a leading voice for Latinos trying to protect their voting rights during the redrawing of supervisorial districts.

Smith, 34, did not raise his voice or shake a clenched fist. He simply explained why he thought the county’s plan was inferior to any one of the three maps drawn by the Hispanic Redistricting Committee that he represented.

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The board rejected the committee’s plans, but Smith and his allies were not surprised--or discouraged. Their group is now researching a legal challenge to the board’s decision.

“I can look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘This is an issue I really believe in,’ ” he said after the vote. “I think there are a lot of people who feel honored to have been involved.”

Smith’s family moved to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was 4. After living in Texas and Nevada, the family settled in Huntington Beach just as he was entering the fifth grade. Smith said he excelled in school because his father, a miner, required that he work in the fields during summer breaks and on weekends.

“Do you want to be here, or do you want to go to college?” Smith said he remembers his father asking.

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He went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in public administration from the University of Southern California and a law degree from Yale University.

Through a variety of governmental jobs and internships, he also learned some practical political lessons.

While working in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs during the Carter Administration, Smith said, he realized that internal dissent among minority groups only thwarts political advancement.

During a stint in a Connecticut legal aid office, Smith witnessed the problems of the powerless--indigents and mental health patients whose benefits had been cut. And in the mayor’s office in Los Angeles, he learned that even the poorest communities can effect change if they organize and set goals.

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“It’s the same with redistricting,” he said. “There are a lot of people with a lot of talent out there, and it’s a matter of putting the people with the talents together.”

Those jobs also made him realize that he did not want to become a politician, believing that their ideals are compromised for the sake of reelection; nor did he want to become a “burned out” bureaucrat.

Instead, he chose a law career because the real shapers of public policy, he decided, were the credible corporate attorneys such as Warren Christopher, who recently headed an investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating.

“I want to be somebody who has credibility,” he said. “In order to have an impact, you have to have credibility. And so I want to try to maintain that in whatever I do.”

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