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Minorities, Women Gain in State Races

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember that three-way Democratic contest for secretary of state?

If you looked closely, you could see the California of the 21st Century in its top contenders, among them a gay man, an Asian man and a black woman.

“If there had only been a Latino (as a major party candidate) in the race, it’d been perfect,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “It is the constituency of the future.”

The Californians who cast ballots in the primary election--the few, the proud, the high-propensity voters--were predominantly white, prosperous, older and, among Republicans, male. But, in dozens of races, statewide and otherwise, they sent into the November election many candidates who are women, minorities and gays.

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Together, this month’s primary winners may rack up as many firsts in November as the old East German Olympic team. California could have:

* The first Latino statewide officer in 120 years, if Democrat Art Torres is elected insurance commissioner.

* The first openly homosexual constitutional officer, in Democratic acting Secretary of State Tony Miller.

* The first woman lieutenant governor, in Republican state Sen. Cathie Wright.

* The first Latina state senator, if Democrat Hilda Solis moves up from the Assembly in the predominantly Democratic 24th District.

* The first openly gay legislator, if Sheila Kuehl is elected in the 41st Assembly.

Women bulk up the top of the Democratic ticket: Kathleen Brown for governor, Dianne Feinstein for Senate and Kathleen Connell for controller.

And the nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction sends former Democratic Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin and Gov. Pete Wilson’s secretary for child development and education, Maureen DiMarco, into a November runoff.

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In the legislative contests, term limits have blown open the doors to both houses. Women ran in major party primaries for 15 of 22 open Assembly seats, winning eight (six are favorites to win in November). Women also ran in three of four open Senate seats, taking two. Only Solis is expected to win this fall.

Katherine Spillar, who heads the Fund for the Feminist Majority, which charted this year’s races, sees a steady climb from 1992, the “Year of the Woman.”

“The significance of women winning this year, running key primary races in open seats, no longer (being) throwaway candidates--I think what we saw was a precursor to 1996, and the massive turnover in the Assembly,” Spillar said.

But even as these groups are celebrating, they are also striving for ways to appeal to all voters.

The key for a woman or minority candidate is “crossover,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center at Claremont Colleges. “Here in California, nearly half of all elected Latino officials do not have Latino-majority districts. You have to (make your priorities) to be an elected official first, and then a Latino second, or a woman second, or whatever.”

Each constituency has its distinctions.

* Beginning in the 1980s, the gender gap helped to tip the balance to women among registered Democrats, who the Los Angeles Times Poll found now hold a 58% to 42% numerical advantage over men.

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* UCLA political science professor John Petrocik contrasts the low voter turnout in Latino communities with popular Latino candidates who have fared well--”elites without a well-developed constituency. They’re there by virtue of their own energy and ambition, not a real (Latino political) apparatus.”

* Rand Martin, chief of staff to Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), has worked on campaigns of several gay candidates and believes that they should “campaign on the broadest base they possibly can, never ignoring or apologizing for the fact they’re gay or lesbian. . . . But I don’t think any politician does very well as a single-issue politician.”

As early as 1990, women and minority candidates began to look formidable, and opponents’ campaigns began to change because of it.

Campaigns and Elections magazine that year suggested techniques for running against women or minorities, among them: “Accent the negative predispositions voters have about women or black politicians by emphasizing your candidate’s qualifications and depicting him or her in demanding situations requiring cool judgment. . . . Emphasize ‘macho’ middle-class issues” such as crime and free enterprise, or take the “offer-your-handkerchief” tone, saying “something soothingly paternalistic to suggest they have lost composure.”

But the assumption of a constant, hidden anti-woman, anti-minority vote may have been overtaken recently by the anti-incumbent vote.

Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communications and political science at UCLA, said: “In general there’s such a bad taste in most people’s mouths with politics and incumbents, my own opinion is that it would be a plus to be considered different.”

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Times Poll director John Brennan said results of telephone surveys since 1990, when Feinstein ran for governor, have changed noticeably. Four years ago, registered voters agreeing that it was time for a woman governor never topped 40%.

Now, he says, registered voters agree 46% to 40%, and Democrats--with far more women registered than men--agree by 58%. Republicans, with a preponderant male registration, disagreed by almost the same factor, 56%.

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