New Voices Heard in Smog Debate

The growing power of Los Angeles County's Latino community can be seen in the debate over the future of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Southland's powerful smog control agency.

This intriguing development is not easy to spot in the Capitol, a place where life seems unchanging, dominated by a familiar old cast of lobbyists and big-shot legislators. Deja vu ought to be the motto here instead of the official state slogan, Eureka, with its evocation of discovering something new.

For on the surface, the smog fight looks like the same old cast of characters drawn to pollution disputes--business vs. environmentalists, liberals vs. conservatives.

Leading the assault on the conservative business side is the California Manufacturers Assn., composed of big companies that make everything from rockets to beer. Predictably, the influential group complains that the district's regulatory machinery is too complex and slow.

The CMA's president is the prototype Capitol good old boy, the San Gabriel Valley's gregarious Republican ex-state Sen. Bill Campbell, privileged to prowl the Senate and Assembly floors by virtue of his old job. Behind Campbell is a back shop of CMA legislative technicians, plus lobbyists on the payroll of CMA member companies.

On the other side are the familiar environmentalist veterans of many a fight against the state's business interests.

But when I talked to Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), I saw that there was another element to this particular fight.

Polanco, who represents a heavily Latino district in east and northeast Los Angeles, is a friendly, talkative man who has been in the Legislature since 1986.

Polanco's advertisements earned him a reputation for mean politics in his winning campaign. That, and a state fine for violating campaign contribution laws, didn't help his image.

Rebuilding his image in Sacramento, he took on serious issues. Lately, he's become a major player in the South Coast district fight. At a committee hearing Polanco presided over recently, he was especially interested in the district's impact on small manufacturing companies. Jobs are the reason. "Our community is not strong unless we have an economic base," Polanco said.

These businesses have been the district's most controversial targets.

It's easy to understand why. When AQMD inspectors hand new rules to Northrop or Anheuser-Busch, those giant firms have the environmental vice president figure out cost-effective ways to implement them.

But when district enforcers hit Joe's Machine Shop in San Fernando, with 50 workers, implementation is left in the hands of Joe and, if he's lucky, his kid. Joe doesn't have an environmental vice president to run out to district headquarters in Diamond Bar and argue with the scientists.

As it happens, the Joe's Machine Shops and other small businesses employ thousands of Polanco's constituents, and many more Latinos throughout the Southland.

Small businesses, especially small manufacturers, are a driving force in Los Angeles County's economy. Jobs in Los Angeles County firms employing 500 or less outnumbered those in bigger companies 2.6 million to 1.6 million in 1990, the last year for which figures are available. In the '80s, job gains in the smaller firms outpaced those in larger companies by 4 to 1.

That is why Polanco, the liberal Democrat from a working-class district, is joining big business in this effort.

Latino legislative influence will become more important in the future. New districts, drawn to reflect Latino population growth, may result in the election of three more Latino Assembly members from Los Angeles County in the next election, doubling the size of the Latino delegation.

Gov. Pete Wilson is sympathetic to business' complaints about the district, although he hasn't decided how to respond. The additional Latino legislators, joining with black lawmakers, who also have many blue-collar constituents, extend support for change beyond the business community--and the Republican Party. The African-Americans and Latinos are expected to be solidly Democratic.

The South Coast district is aware of the pressure from Sacramento. Last December, the district board speeded up permit procedures and began helping small businesses through the regulatory maze. Next month, the district board will consider additional ways to make regulation more user-friendly.

This is an instance of where the changing demographics of Los Angeles County is changing public policy in a way that affects everybody.

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