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Polanco Turns His Back on Chicano Tradition

Richard Polanco made many Eastsiders angry when he joined the state Assembly back in 1986. Now, as he prepares to move on, he’s got them angry again.

Polanco, running for the state Senate, has endorsed his chief aide, who is white, for his old Assembly seat. At a time when Latinos are working to increase their numbers in the Legislature, Polanco’s decision has angered political activists who believe he should have supported a Latino.

They aren’t mad at him for snubbing the Chicano backed by his longtime nemesis, County Supervisor Gloria Molina. That they can understand. They’re upset because a non-Latino with Polanco’s support could win a seat that has been held by Mexican American politicians for 20 years.

Some activists are so angry that they’re pushing Gloria Romero, a well-known Latina activist, to run against Polanco in the Senate race, which beforehand would have been a cakewalk for him.

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Polanco is unapologetic for his support of Bill Mabie.

“A Latino doesn’t necessarily have to represent the community,” he says. “Bill is the person who brings the type of community support and commitment to the (45th Assembly) District that the community deserves. I happen to think Bill will do more for the district than (Molina-backed candidate) Antonio Villaraigosa.”

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Polanco has this knack for getting people angry. He got into hot water within hours after he assumed office in 1986 following a bitter election to succeed Molina in the Assembly.

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After his swearing-in, Polanco was put on a committee considering the proposed construction of a prison near the Eastside. The plan had languished in committee for some time but suddenly found life when Polanco arrived on the scene. He supported the proposal, casting a decisive vote to send the measure to the 80-member Assembly for consideration.

Although he later voted against the prison, by then it was too late. The proposal easily passed the Assembly.

His committee vote outraged many who felt Polanco had double-crossed them. “He sold us down the river,” charged East L.A. activist Frank Villalobos.

Polanco’s explanation made people angrier. He said he only wanted to give the entire Assembly a chance to consider the issue. “Had I known we didn’t have the floor votes to kill the bill,” he said, “I would have voted differently in committee.”

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I thought Polanco should have apologized, a statesman-like gesture that would have put the controversy behind him. To this day, he disagrees, preferring to emphasize his role as the Latino caucus leader who ultimately persuaded the governor to abandon the prison after an eight-year fight.

In fairness, Polanco has worked hard in Sacramento. He battled for state monies for child care and AIDS victims. He won over suspicious constituents when he found funds for an air-conditioning system for City Terrace Elementary School.

And he has been a leading Latino voice against immigrant bashing.

But when I telephoned about the latest furor, Polanco’s answers had the same unapologetic tone as before.

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What about finding a Latino candidate to support?

He said he had approached several Latinos about the race, but they turned him down. I never heard of some of the people and when I mentioned Derek Alatorre, the 29-year-old son of the L.A. city councilman, Polanco acknowledged that he, too, said no.

What about the criticism that his support might lead to the election of a non-Latino in an area that has been represented by Chicanos since 1974?

“In this particular case, the people will decide who will represent them,” he said. “I have participated in increasing the numbers of Latinos in the state Legislature. All reapportionment did (in creating districts favorable to Latino candidates) is give the community a chance to pick the person of its choice. My endorsement doesn’t guarantee a seat for anyone.”

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I don’t buy Polanco’s arguments.

His decision to support Mabie as his successor is a slap in the face to all the Chicanos, including many who have supported him, who fought long and hard to gain a margin of political power for their community. What about all the court fights to open up the L.A. City Council and the Board of Supervisors? What about the fights in Bell Gardens, in Pomona and other cities where Latinos live?

What about helping your own kind, the same way veteranos like Alatorre and state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) helped Polanco in the beginning?

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By turning his back on that tradition, and the legitimate aspirations for Chicano power, Polanco shouldn’t be surprised that he’s got a lot of folks on the Eastside angry at him once again.


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