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Fast-Changing Political Scene Could Benefit Latinos

In one of the most interesting political moves of the year, Latino leaders are trying to elect candidates pledged to choose a Latino state Assembly speaker.

There’s never been a Latino Assembly speaker in California. But there’s never been a time like this in the wild world of California legislative politics.

The Legislature has always been a place for the tough and ruthless. Its battles, however, have been waged in back rooms by powerful legislators and lobbyists.

Term limits have changed that. Unbeatable veterans have been forced out. Inside politics are being replaced by outside politics in the form of fierce contests for vacant seats.

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Into this new world has stepped the Latino legislative caucus, led by Sen. Richard Polanco,(D-Los Angeles), a shrewd political operator with a pleasant, friendly manner that masks a fierce determination to increase Latino power in Sacramento.

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It won’t be an easy task. Republicans control the Assembly. The Latino legislators are all Democrats. So, the Democrats would first have to regain control of the Assembly in the November election for the plan to have a chance.

Then, the Latino Assembly members, a minority on the Democratic side, would have to persuade other Democrats to join with them in putting a Latino into the speakership. The majority party usually names the speaker.

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A decade ago, Latino chances would have been slim. Chances have improved since then, however.

The number of Latino lawmakers has doubled from seven to 14 since Polanco was first elected to the Legislature in 1986. There are 10 in the 80-member Assembly and four in the 40-seat Senate. If a few more Latino Assembly members are elected, they could wheel and deal to bring enough non-Latinos along to achieve the goal.

Still, the Latino lawmakers fell short in December when their candidate for Democratic Assembly leader, Cruz Bustamante of Fresno, was defeated by Richard Katz of Sylmar.

Despite that defeat, a confluence of growing political and economic power makes a Latino speakership achievable. “Our community is emerging both politically and economically,” Polanco told me.

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In the past few years, a political revolution has been taking place in areas with substantial Latino populations. In the San Gabriel Valley, for example, Latinos serve as mayors and as members of city councils and school boards. The same is happening elsewhere in the state.

“We have a tremendous network that has developed up and down the state,” Polanco said.

Economic power has been growing, too. Statistics and stories in the business pages record the growth of Latino-owned businesses. Lawyers, engineers, architects and doctors are swelling the ranks of Latino professionals.

I saw this at work for the first time a couple of years ago at a tribute to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, hosted by Latino engineers and other professionals. The Biltmore’s Crystal Ballroom was full of men and women who held top-level corporate jobs and owned substantial businesses.

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A Latino “financial infrastructure” is emerging in California, Polanco said, and he aims to harness it to finance the political drive.

Two of the Latino target districts are in Los Angeles County.

One is the northeast San Fernando Valley’s 39th District, where longtime incumbent Assemblyman Richard Katz is leaving. The Latino legislative caucus is backing Tony Cardenas, 32, an engineer who owns a real estate firm. If Cardenas wins the primary, he is all but assured of election in the heavily Democratic district.

In the second race, the Latino caucus is supporting an African American, Bob Campbell, who is battling in a crowded field of well known candidates for a South-Central Los Angeles seat being vacated by Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson.

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The caucus is also pushing a Latino candidate in the Watsonville-Salinas area.

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Political consultant Alan Hoffenblum, an expert in legislative races, said Polanco is on the cutting edge of politics in taking advantage of the term limit anarchy. Term limits, he said, give an advantage to Polanco and others with electoral skills.

“Those who master the electoral process will have great impact in determining the partisan and philosophical makeup of the Legislature,” said Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, an analysis of congressional and legislative races.

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And, the old rules for electing speakers are out.

Today, a sophomore, even a freshman, possessing the indefinable qualities of legislative leadership and rough enough to push others aside could sweep into the speakership.

With such opportunities available, asks Polanco, why not a Latino?


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