A Novel Latino Strategy

Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. He is writing a book on the ways successive generations of minorities redefine the American experience

If L.A.'s labor-left-Latino alliance catapults Antonio Villaraigosa into City Hall this week, it will represent the culmination of a generation-old activist dream rather than a vision of the Latino American political future. While the former Assembly speaker's ecumenical style represents a breakthrough in Latino politics, his campaign's strategy has not been all that successful for previous Mexican American candidates.

A generation ago, Chicano activists imagined they would come to political power by way of a populist, left-wing agenda. They hoped that a shared ideology could build an inclusive multiethnic political movement. By the mid-1970s, however, their hopes had largely dissipated. Mistrust and the divisiveness of identity politics posed serious obstacles in creating effective coalitions. Subsequently, a new model for political empowerment emerged.

Rather than rely on a broad populist coalition, more politically moderate Mexican Americans began to achieve municipal electoral success throughout the Southwest by forging an alignment between the Anglo business elite and a fledgling Latino middle class. The mayoral tenure of Henry G. Cisneros, the first Latino mayor of San Antonio since Juan Seguin in the 1840s, was a classic outgrowth of this new coalition. In addition to energizing Mexican Americans, Cisneros promised Anglo business interests a "new attitude" toward economic development and expansion.

Nationally, Mexican American politics continue to build on the Cisneros example. This is evident in several cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and in New Mexico, where, according to University of Texas historian David Montejano, 'an accommodation between Anglo and Hispano elites has historically made for a more relaxed ethnic/race situation.'

Last month, San Antonio elected a new Mexican American mayor, 32-year-old city councilman Ed Garza. Cobbling together an alliance similar to Cisneros', Garza's campaign garnered even more Anglo support than had the former cabinet secretary. Garza calls himself a member of a new generation of Latino politicians. He shares the post-baby boomer political outlook of L.A.'s only current Mexican American city councilmen who will remain in office after July 1: Alex Padilla of the Northeast San Fernando Valley and Nick Pacheco of the Eastside. "The older leadership has not realized that the X Generation is more independent and more open on most issues," Garza has said. "If you disagree on one issue, you're often ostracized."

However historic a Villaraigosa victory would be, it would not signal a paradigm shift in Latino politics. The potential symbolic import of a Latino mayor of L.A. is, for the moment, obscuring growing divisions within the Latino electorate. According to last week's Times poll, fully 50% of Latino likely voters consider Villaraigosa more liberal than they are. There is no reason to believe that Latino voters would continue to put aside class, cultural and ideological divisions among themselves to support similar left-labor-Latino candidates in citywide races even if Villaraigosa wins. "The maturation of Latino politics also means that, over time, Latinos vote issues rather than surname,' says historian David Montejano. That, combined with a younger generation whose consciousness was not forged in the liberal activism of the 1960s, suggests that Villaraigosa may represent the triumph of a mainstreamed Chicano movement rather than the first chapter of a new Latino political order.

Over the past decade, the rise in the number of Latino political figures has had the natural--and beneficial--effect of multiplying Latino voices, ideological outlooks and styles. Expanding numbers, growing ethnic confidence and a concomitant generational shift have all converged to move Latino politics farther away from the activism of the 1960s and '70s. Indeed, as Latinos continue to mature politically and enjoy the strength of their own diversity, calls for ideological discipline and ethnic solidarity will become more difficult to sustain.

Although Republican legislators have praised the former Assembly speaker for his bipartisanship in Sacramento, it is not at all clear that a labor-backed Villaraigosa mayoralty will be as gracious when fellow Latino Democrats dissent from his views. Both Padilla and Pacheco have been roundly condemned by prominent labor supporters of Villaraigosa for endorsing his opponent, City Atty. James K. Hahn. Villaraigosa distances himself from such efforts. "To the extent that [my supporters] are doing that, they're doing it to further their own agendas, not mine," he says. But if Villaraigosa does become "the movement mayor," as his labor supporters hope, it would be difficult to determine where his agenda ends and theirs begins.

L.A. labor's insistence that its Latino allies cast themselves in the activist mold differs significantly from the strategy that has worked so well for the California Latino Legislative Caucus over the past decade. Recognizing that each district has its own attributes and needs, state Sen. Richard Polanco, a former caucus chair, sought out candidates who fit the demographic and ideological profiles of their individual districts. The essence of Polanco's strategy to elect Latinos in non-Latino majority districts has been to support candidates who have both trans-ethnic appeal and moderate ideological backgrounds.

In backing activist candidates, L.A. Latinos may be going against a broader tide toward more professional, business-oriented Mexican American politicians. Unlike Villaraigosa, who has spent most of his working life as a union organizer and liberal activist, four of five Mexican American mayors of large U.S. cities come from either a business or a professional background. San Jose mayor Ron Gonzales, who was a manager at Hewlett Packard, calls himself a 'high-tech Mex.' Carlos Ramirez, the outgoing mayor of El Paso, is an engineer. El Paso's new mayor, Ray Caballero, is an attorney who ran on a platform of expanding the tax base and creating greater access to capital. Mexican-born Miguel A. Pulido, the mayor of Santa Ana, owns a small business, and Garza is an urban planner. The one exception is Jim Baca, the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., who briefly ran the Bureau of Land Management under former President Bill Clinton. He made his reputation through environmental activism.

Although labor's national presence may grow in the coming years, it will never control the breadth of Latino electoral politics in the way its supporters dream of. Because unions have historically discouraged identity politics in favor of a class-driven agenda, it is unusual for L.A.'s labor activists to be pushing ethnic self-interest as a means to promote the union candidate. Even as labor serves as a key mechanism in the arrival of Latinos in Los Angeles politics, no single political and ideological cause or movement can be expected to fully encapsulate the growing presence of Latinos in U.S. political life.

If Villaraigosa doesn't win, the next major Latino mayoral candidate will likely try to assemble a more moderate coalition. Even if he wins, however, Villaraigosa himself, who received the endorsements of billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, as well as that of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, may ultimately find that these bedfellows are strange for a movement mayor.

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