When the L.A. metro chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn. handed out its endorsement for mayor Saturday evening, the reactions were understandable. Mike Woo's supporters let out a holler when he won the group's nod. Julian Nava politely declined to talk about it afterward.
John Borunda, Frank Teran, Oscar Valdes, Leonard Shapiro and Ted Hayes--who aren't as well known as Woo and other officeholders in the race--said they weren't discouraged.
At first glance, it would seem MAPA's endorsement of Woo is another sign that the Hollywood-area councilman has broad support among Latinos and other minorities. He can revel in the fact that MAPA chose a non-Latino over Nava and former deputy mayor Linda Griego, two well-known Latinos who could expect Mapitas to be sympathetic to them.
But there is a hollow ring to all of this that may not sway many voters. For openers, MAPA doesn't command the influence it had in the 1960s and '70s. Its membership rolls, once in the tens of thousands, is hardly that now. It can no longer deliver key contributors.
Instead of talking of what they could do for Woo and the other endorsed candidates, MAPA members at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown L.A. considered asking leading Latino politicians to each contribute $1,000 to help fatten MAPA's treasury.
It wasn't always that way for MAPA. Formed in 1960, MAPA became a player in California politics as a major voice for Chicano aspirations and concerns. It backed Chicanos for public office from the Bay Area to the Imperial Valley.
MAPA's roots ran particularly deep in East Los Angeles, where many of its members first got involved in politics working for a young upstart named Edward R. Roybal.
In the early '60s, MAPA enthusiastically embraced presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson at statewide endorsement conventions and turned out thousands of volunteers to work for them.
Democratic presidential nominees continued to appear before MAPA conventions for support through the years but the endorsement meant less and less.
Factions within the group, including one associated with the son of farm workers leader Cesar Chavez, eroded the association's influence and strength. Before long, MAPA became known for its symbolic standing as one of the oldest Latino political organizations in the state and little else.
In Los Angeles, the group was virtually missing in action in the 1980s as other groups appeared on the scene. The United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) fought for safe streets and better schools. The Mothers of East L.A. fought the proposed state prison near downtown. And ad hoc groups formed to protest police brutality.
Even MAPA's name, by emphasizing Mexican-American, seemed outdated to some Latinos; it ignores L.A.'s burgeoning Central American population.
As recently as two years ago, MAPA officials struggled to maintain a local office. Their bank account, by their reckoning, was down to $350.
There has been a comeback of sorts for MAPA. Officials point out that the group was responsible last year for the sign-up of 5,300 new voters in greater L.A. They also say MAPA provided some crucial get-of-the-vote help in Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's razor-thin supervisorial win last year over Diane Watson.
And young new leaders, such as metro director Victor Manrique, has given the group new hope.
MAPA old-timers growled "go home" when Woo appeared before the group Saturday. His supporters in the audience didn't seem fazed when he went against the prevailing mood within MAPA by opposing giving the right to vote in school board elections to non-citizen residents.
On the other hand, Nava got a deafening cheer with a ringing defense of his support for the vote for non-citizens. "What are they afraid of?" he asked. "(Opponents would say) . . . 'We can't give them the vote. We might have a democracy on our hands!' "
In the end, MAPA gave the nod to Woo, probably in recognition that Nava has no realistic chance of winning and that Woo is the perceived front-runner.
But its decline in stature makes the endorsement of questionable value. The councilman, MAPA officials explained, got the endorsement by garnering a majority among only 180 votes cast. They tried to put their best spin on the results, saying the turnout was triple what it had been a few years ago.
In a town where Latinos make up 41% of 3.2 million residents, MAPA will have to do dramatically better before its endorsement means as much to Woo as it did to Kennedy and Johnson.