How Latinos Plan to Avenge a Loss From 30 Years Ago

To understand the intensity of the Latino drive to capture the state Assembly speakership, you have to go back through 35 years of political deal-making.

It's a story about gerrymandering, the arcane practice of drawing legislative districts to achieve a political end. Latinos have traditionally been the losers in this complex process. Lately, however, they've made startling gains. And, if the Democrats regain the Assembly in the November election, Latinos may have enough power in the Democratic leadership to make one of their own speaker.

I've written about the speakership campaign before, but it came into much clearer focus last Sunday when I attended an event honoring a veteran Latino politician, Phil Soto. In 1962 he became one of the first Latinos in the Assembly since the early days of California. Four years later, he lost the seat in an election that still angers some old activists.

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It was Soto's 70th birthday and his children and wife, Nell, a Pomona City Council member, had thrown a surprise party for him. More than 300 family members, friends and old political associates waited in a big room at the Quiet Cannon restaurant in Montebello for Soto to arrive.

As he approached, mariachis played and the audience began to clap in a slow, powerful rhythm. There was history in that clap. It was the farm workers' union call to action. Soto no doubt had occasion to clap that way many times when he marched with Cesar Chavez as a supporter from Delano to Sacramento more than 30 years ago in one of the union's most famous demonstrations.

When he realized it was a surprise party, Soto, a tall, broad-shouldered man, blinked in surprise and then smiled. In between greeting people, he told me his story.

Before he got into politics, he was in the appliance and television repair business in the San Gabriel Valley community of La Puente, active in Little League and in a number of local controversies.

In 1962, when Soto was elected to the Assembly, it marked the beginning of big changes in the San Gabriel Valley, which had been solidly white and Republican and was becoming more Democratic and Latino. Along with Soto, another San Gabriel Valley Latino, John Moreno, was elected to the Assembly.

Soto was dedicated to the liberal Democratic party goals of the time--providing plentiful and inexpensive public higher education; building freeways, water projects and other public works, and treating the poor with generous compassion.

But in four years, the San Gabriel Valley's political mood had changed. In 1966, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan swept the valley when he ran for governor and Soto was defeated in the GOP tide.

There was more to Soto's defeat than the Reagan victory, as I learned a few days after the party from Tony Quinn of Sacramento, a noted historian of legislative redistricting who was on the Republican Assembly staff in those days.

In 1965, Quinn recalled, the Assembly changed the boundaries of its districts.

Democrats drew lines that would ensure continued Democratic control of the Assembly. To do this in Los Angeles County, Quinn said, the predominantly Democratic Latino voters were parceled out among other districts. "They ran fingers of Latino voters out into the white heartland and this gave them about five additional Democratic seats, which in most cases were white. . . . The effect was to keep Anglo Democrats in power."

The new boundaries of Soto's 50th Assembly District made it impossible for him to survive the Reagan landslide.

Such changes were happening all over the country. Traditional Democratic leaders argued that the process was good for minorities. It resulted, they said, in a liberal, although overwhelmingly Anglo, House and Legislature. Such lawmakers, the leaders said, would approve liberal programs that benefited minority groups and stop conservative initiatives by Republican presidents and governors.

Latino and African American leaders objected, saying that it was more important to create districts assuring election of additional African American and Latino lawmakers.

It wasn't until 30 years later that the California Supreme Court was able to hand down a decision based strictly on this concept.

As a result of the court-ordered redistricting, Latino legislative representation increased, especially in the Los Angeles County delegation. It was a boon to the Republicans. "Apply the Voting Acts Right to the extreme, you increase the Latino seats and the Anglo Democratic seats become Republican," Quinn said. That helps explain why the Assembly is now Republican.

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Today, there are 10 Latinos in the 80-member Assembly and four in the 40-seat Senate. Although many are relative newcomers, they find themselves in an unusual position of strength. Term limits have eliminated most of the old Democratic powers in the Assembly. The Latinos are a new power bloc.

Whether they will be able to elect a Latino speaker is unclear. As I mentioned, the Democrats will have to first win the Assembly, a difficult task given the current legislative district boundaries. Then the non-Latino majority in the Democratic caucus will have to vote for a Latino for speaker.

But the fact that people are talking about it is a sign of how times have changed since Phil Soto lost his seat 30 years ago.

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