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Flip Side of Ethnic Politics

<i> Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy</i>

In the last two election cycles, California was convulsed by two high-profile, racially charged ballot initiatives--Proposition 187 in 1994 and Proposition 209 two years later--that exposed its social fault lines. By contrast, the current general-election campaign has been politically and racially benign. Indeed, racial dissonance seems conspicuously absent from the political dialogue. Has the importance of race and ethnicity quietly declined in the most ethnically diverse state in the U.S.? On the contrary.

California politics has probably never been more acutely race conscious than it is today. Candidates from both major parties are making unprecedented appeals to ethnic and racial groups. There have been more polls of Latino voter sentiment this year than ever before. Newspapers have published story after story on the presumed significance of the growing Latino and Asian electorates. Nor is it mere coincidence that the field of contenders for statewide office this year may well be the most ethnically diverse in the state’s history. Four non-Anglo statewide candidates won their party’s nomination last June, and another forced a runoff for state school superintendent.

With all the attention being paid to ethnic distinctions among voters and candidates, one might expect that California is becoming more racially Balkanized. Paradoxically, the heightened awareness of ethnicity is at least partly responsible for the period of racial detente that California appears to have entered.

Changing demographics and this decade’s bruising initiative battles have given rise to a new political environment in which nobody wants to fire the first racial shot. It’s not that Californians have learned how to love one another. Rather, it’s increasingly evident to the political establishment that playing the race card no longer ensures a winning hand. In 1996, punishment at the hands of the expanding Latino electorate forced the state Republican Party to rethink what could only be described as its callous approach to race. Two years earlier, Gov. Pete Wilson had risked alienating Latino voters by tying his reelection campaign to Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative. This year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, in ads airing on Spanish-language television, touts his support as a member of the House of Representatives for the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which, among other things, granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.

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In addition to recognizing the political benefits of acknowledging race and appealing to diverse sectors of the California electorate, state Republicans are grappling with the changing face of their own party. This week, the number of Latino Republicans in the state Assembly will likely quadruple. Rod Pacheco, who in 1996 became the first Latino Republican elected to the body in 115 years, is considering leading the formation of a Republican Latino caucus, which would be a first. Sensitive to the dangers of being pigeonholed ethnically, Pacheco nonetheless contends that such an ethnic-based caucus would strengthen the party. The state Republican leadership, though committed to the principle of a colorblind society, is not likely to push principle too hard and fight the idea. “It wouldn’t normally be accepted by Republicans,” says Kevin Spillane, a GOP political consultant. “But in the current context, I think they’ll embrace it, if not trumpet it.”

No one better embodies a sophisticated Republican approach to race than the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Matt Fong. Fong, whom Jack Kemp calls a “21st-century Republican,” deftly plays both sides of the race card. He explicitly invokes race in his appeals for votes and donations to Asian American audiences. “How American do you have to be to be considered American?” he recently asked one group of Asian supporters, referring to the anti-Asian bias many believed lurked behind the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. “Do I have to wear a blond wig to be considered American?”

Fong manipulates ethnic sensitivities in the same way Democratic ethnic candidates have done for decades. The only difference is that he steps back and points to his June primary victory as a sign of America’s racial fairness. “Obviously, the Chinese and Asian American vote was not enough to win,” he told an audience recently, referring to his non-Asian support. “I won here in America.”

For all the talk of ethnic electorates in California, there has been scarcely a mention of Anglo voters becoming increasingly comfortable casting ballots for nonwhite candidates. Sure, there have been successful nonwhite statewide candidates in the past, but their campaigns were not nearly as explicitly identified with specific ethnic fund-raising or voter bases as are the campaigns of Fong or Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

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Previously, nonwhite candidates felt it necessary to mute their ethnicity. In 1970, Wilson C. Riles raised hopes that black candidates could be elected to statewide office without sparking a white backlash when he became the first African American to be elected to a state constitutional office, that of superintendent of public instruction. But four years later, when black Democrat Mervyn M. Dymally won his bid for lieutenant governor, his campaign still felt it necessary to turn down free television time to avoid overplaying his race. In 1982, Tom Bradley lost his bid for governor in part because of the reluctance of some white voters to send an African American to the state executive office.

S. I. Hayakawa, the Japanese American Republican who represented California in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1983, never identified as explicitly with Asian or immigrant issues as Fong does. Fong’s mother, March Fong Eu, California’s secretary of state from 1974 to 1994, was never perceived to be as “ethnic” as her son, perhaps because she was first elected when Asians were a tiny percentage of the state.

Some longtime political observers recall the 1958 Democratic landslide, in which all Democratic candidates but one were swept into office. That year, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. won by more than 1 million votes, while Henry Lopez, the Mexican American Democratic candidate for secretary of state, lost by 18,000, garnering 600,000 fewer ballots than there were Democratic voters that year.

Yet, this year, when nonwhite candidates are openly appealing to their ethnic bases, Anglo voters don’t appear to be the least bit threatened. While there can be no doubt that the viability of Bustamante’s candidacy rests, to a large degree, on the growing size of the Latino electorate, his primary victory showed that he attracted significant Anglo support. Even if it is assumed that he garnered 70% of the Latino primary vote, then fully 69% of pro-Bustamante ballots were cast by non-Latino voters, most of whom are Anglo. Similarly, the three new Latino Republicans likely to be elected to the Assembly this week are all running in predominately Anglo districts.

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It is still too early to know if race will be a handicap to Fong and Bustamante, the two most viable non-Anglo statewide candidates this year. If elected, Bustamante would become the first Latino to hold statewide office this century. “His election would be the first indication that things have improved,” says Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic political consultant. It would also strike a blow to the tired notion that ethnic identities have to be downplayed in order for a diverse society to cohere. Candidates are successfully rallying around ethnicity, not to segregate themselves, but to catapult themselves into the mainstream.


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