Art Torres

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Cathleen Decker is a political reporter for The Times

For more than 20 years, Art Torres was one of the great hopes of his community, the home-grown Los Angeles boy who was envisioned by many to be the first Latino governor of California in the modern era.

Successes he had--eight years in the California Assembly, followed by 12 years in the state Senate. And then failures, too. There were two arrests for drunk driving--followed by treatment for alcoholism in 1989. Political woes followed: In the span of three years, Torres lost a special election for Los Angeles County supervisor and for state insurance commissioner. He disappeared from the political spotlight in late 1994.

Now, having been in politics long enough to appreciate the sweetness of resurrection, Torres, 49, is back, newly installed as chairman of the state Democratic Party as it heads into November’s crucial elections.


He is still the fiery and charismatic orator, a throwback to the days of hand pumping and back slapping, more affable than most of the current dour crop of politicians, with an infectious laugh that brays out regularly. But he is still not without controversy: On May 1, he had to relinquish a $150,000-a-year job after questions were raised about the Latino-owned company’s unsatisfactory work on a $3.2-million government contract.

As far as politics goes, Torres has his work cut out for him. Democrats, to be sure, are more optimistic than they have been at any time since their 1994 drubbing by voters. President Bill Clinton holds a wide lead over presumptive Republican nominee Bob Dole; Democrats here can talk about holding onto the state Senate and regaining control of the Assembly without drawing titters.

But Republicans are marshaling their future around the California civil rights initiative, an anti-affirmative-action measure on the November ballot that has drawn overwhelming support in polls.

Torres is in the unenviable position of having to press his strong opposition to the measure--while simultaneously trying to hold onto the sizable number of Democrats who support it, and reaching out to discontented Republicans.

Torres is modeling his effort on the one used successfully by Republicans in 1994--modulating disagreements over social issues to talk bread-and-butter economics. As the election nears, he will emphasize Democratic support for increasing the minimum wage and the higher prevailing wage among trade workers, and seek to target Republicans who would harm the elderly and shortchange the schools. And he will do so as the chairman of a party that, as recently as 1994, was so thoroughly defeated that its own members questioned its future. Torres is divorced and the father of two children.


Question: One blessing of being the party that’s essentially on defense--as Democrats have been for two years--is you don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty on many issues. The president said “no” to GOP bills, in some cases, without laying out specifically what he wanted and avoiding schisms in his party. Does it get tougher as you get into this year, on issues like affirmative action and welfare reform, where you have to merge your moderate and liberal wings?


Answer: I’m relishing the CCRI debate, because it again focuses on what the other side wants to do. It is not an issue of African Americans and Latinos and Asians and women. It’s more an issue of women . . . . As women’s groups will tell you, it essentially repeals the Equal Rights Amendment for women in California. So for us as Democrats, rather than getting embroiled in the fantasies of preferences and quotas--because they don’t exist in California--the only issue that’s left is what does this initiative really do.

Bakke [the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing strict admissions quotas at the University of California], for the most part, settled the quota issue back in the ‘70s. Yet, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan continue to talk about it. Well, it doesn’t exist, and preferences didn’t exist in California even before the [UC] regents took their position on affirmative action. There were really no preference guidelines for affirmative action under the University of California guidelines. [The goal] was developing a more diverse student body, right, so how do you get there? There were no legitimate preferences.

. . . As the campaign continues, yes positions. The party has already taken a position [against] the CCRI. The president has already said “yes,” it needs to be fixed. We can mend affirmative action. We cannot do away with it in order to deny equal opportunity across the board.

Q: No matter how you look at CCRI, a majority of Democrats now support it. You have strong minorities of a lot of Democratic constituencies who support it. Regardless of what the law says, they see in their minds’ eye a system of preferences.

A: Yes. That opinion, I believe, is based upon how this initiative has been characterized by the proponents in order to get signatures for it. Once we get out there and tell the truth about what this initiative does, Republican woman and moderate women, independent women will come around and see the folly of this initiative--what it does to them . . . . We need to reach out to those constituent groups with the reality of this initiative. Because what happens is, fables take over as truth. Many of the fables that Newt Gingrich used, that Rush Limbaugh uses, that [House Majority Leader Dick] Armey uses--once you begin to look behind the fable, you realize there is no truth there in terms of the story that justifies the action that’s being taken.

Q: Polls show Ross Perot pulls equally from Dole and Clinton in hypothetical matchups. Do you think the president has got this state wrapped up, regardless of who else is in the race?


A: It’s tough, historically. Because you always look at races in California in presidential years, they always tighten up--no matter how good a candidate may look. The dynamic that has to operate, though, is that those numbers will be reduced by a number of bumps, as I see it. The August bump for the Republicans being in San Diego [for the national convention] is going to have an impact. We have to be ready for that, as Democrats, to rebut whatever is being raised at the convention.

There’s obviously going to be an impact by Perot and certainly [Green Party candidate Ralph] Nader. It can be significant in a tight race. I look at races with tremendous caution. When there’s that wide of a lead, it’s going to get tighter. And what we’re trying to do now is prepare for that tightening. And that means having a very disciplined force out there among the party and grass roots.

Q: Does that translate into television ads going up in August talking about some of these issues, to get your spin on things out?

A: I think the president’s still deciding what to do on television stuff. But what we are deciding to do is put the grass-roots field in operation. There’s a number of ways we’ve attempted to do that. No. 1: registering new citizens. There’s nothing better that’s happened for [registering] new citizens--not just Latino but new citizens across the board--as Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan. They have essentially given us an absolute lightning rod in terms of encouraging more Democratic registration, because they view Republicans as being anti-immigrant.

. . . The livable-wage issue, which is the minimum-wage fight; the prevailing-wage issue, which affects construction and laborers across the state--those are going to be the issues that propel us to victory, because those are more important. If you look at the L.A. Times poll, jobs and the economy are much more important than the candidates’ positions on abortion or even affirmative action.

Q: Democrats are speaking with a lot more hope now than a year ago. But do you think you have command of the issues--or that you’re still going to see the resurgence of things like welfare reform and affirmative action--where Republicans still have people’s perceptions on their side?


A: This state has always had those types of fights, pitting one group against another. If you read the papers of the [Dust Bowl] days, you would almost think you were in 1996, reading the comments of Buchanan and Wilson and others in that camp. Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath”--some of the lines in that could be used today in terms of what people in that category have been addressing. But it’s our responsibility--and certainly my responsibility as a Latino--to tell folks, across the board, that I am not for an open border, that I have substantially, on numerous occasions, both publicly and privately, been for enforcement at the border, which this president has done remarkably well.

But, on the other hand, there has to be an understanding as to when do we come to grips with how we use people as labor in California?

The necessity of an economy that builds itself on an underground basis of the working class and middle class and two-career families, who need a nanny--but can’t afford to go through a professional nanny service. Who need to get their lawns cut--but can’t go to a landscape architect to develop their lawns. Who need to have their cars washed--but don’t want to pay $10 a car, but will pay $5 a car on Sunset and Alvarado. And you can see who is washing the cars. When you go to a restaurant and see who buses your dishes, when you go to a hotel and see who cleans your rooms. When you go to some of the best restaurants in Hollywood and West Los Angeles, and you’re told the chef is la di da di da di, but when you go back in the kitchen, it’s all immigrant laborers perfecting their culinary skills of Tuscany.

So, at some point, we’re going to have to resolve our love-hate relationship, because if it wasn’t for that immigrant work force, this state would have gone under, because no one would have been able to afford to do anything.

Q: You don’t get much sense from recent events that this is heading toward resolution. You still have, in the case of the Riverside County sheriffs and the beating, a vocal minority saying if they came over here illegally--in effect, they deserved it.

A: But when you examine immigration patterns, they have not changed substantially over the decades. What has changed is the rhetoric of politicians, which . . . makes it acceptable for people to voice those opinions and, even more significantly, to act upon them. So when people are given permission to be racist and bigoted, they will be, in most instances. Not all. So how we begin to determine the common ground that we share is a challenge--especially to those of us in the minority community.


Now that I’ve taken on this post of being the statewide spokesman for the party, it becomes even more important for me to establish the common ground, because I don’t want people in my own party who may have differing views about affirmative action to feel they don’t have a voice at my table. This table has to be an inclusive one--no matter what ethnic group I come from. I’m still a Californian, and I’m still an American. And I’m tired of people trying to send me back to a country that I wasn’t born in.

[He laughs.] I was born in America; I was born in California. And I’m not leaving, because I love this state and I love this country and what it’s afforded a lot of people like me.

Q: Polling shows Democrats are increasingly popular among women and minorities. Women particularly feel more comfortable with President Clinton and the policies of Democrats. But there’s still that “white guy” problem--in terms of the party not appealing to white men, to less educated high school and some-college educated white men. How can you get them?

A: None of those issues will move an independent voter, or that voter you describe, other than issues that affect his or her pocketbook. That’s where we have an opportunity to show what this president has done to reduce the deficit, to the tune of almost $15,000 per family during his administration; where this president believed in a minimum-wage increase, as well as a prevailing-wage increase . . . . The trickle-down theory never worked. It had great fanfare, but it never worked. People are seeing through that.

Those are the issues that are going to impact that white male voter . . . . We see what this president has been able to do: stand firm on Medicare and Medicaid; stand firm on minimum wage for workers in America. Stand firm on education--making sure we’re not behind among industrial nations in the world, and, fourthly, protect the environment. Here in California, those issues resonate with incredible force.

Q: What does your future hold? A lot of people are speculating that this is a good way for you to build back up and run for statewide office again. Is that in the cards?


A: I don’t know what’s in the cards. I’m astonished that this opportunity came around. If I leave politics by having taken back the Assembly, kept the Senate and contributed to taking back the House of Representatives, and electing this president by whatever role I can provide here in California, that’s a pretty big achievement. And it’s not all that unrealistic.

You have to look at these as opportunities to make a contribution. It’s also, for me, just breaking the ceiling on Latino representation here in California. This is the first time anywhere in the country that a Latino has headed up the Democratic Party in a major state like California. I do not look on that lightly, because I also have to perform.*