AS CANDIDATES LINE UP to run for the congressional seat of the late Juanita Millender-McDonald, it is tempting -- inevitable, perhaps -- to identify them by ethnic group. The Long Beach/South Los Angeles district is the stand-in for much of a region that once was characterized by an African American voting majority and political establishment but has become increasingly Latino. Every vacant seat raises the question: Is Latino power beginning to eclipse the black political structure?
So there is Latina state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, African American Assemblywoman Laura Richardson and other candidates who, like it or not, will be depicted as champions of their respective ethnic communities. The election may presage other district transitions. Will county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke be succeeded by another African American or by a Latino? What about Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry? If growth or shrinkage in the roster of black elected officials is the only indicator of political power, it is easy to understand the fervor with which African Americans try to retain a seat.
Ignoring the ethnic factor verges on dishonesty. Racial and ethnic identity among historically marginalized minorities has a long and obvious history in the democratic process. Elected officials naturally group together to promote common interests. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was being naive or disingenuous when he wrote Millender-McDonald earlier this year asking to abolish her Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups, such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, on grounds that race has no place in politics. We don’t live in that ideal world just yet.
But that doesn’t mean those caucuses are doing right by focusing on power consolidation at the expense of constituent service. Millender-McDonald’s multiracial district remains plagued by large pockets of poverty and gang violence that affects all of its people. Any good candidate should be embraced by any ethnic caucus.
Tom Bradley would not have become mayor of Los Angeles with just the backing of black voters, who never made up a majority of the city. Bradley was elected in the 1970s by transcending race to build a multiethnic coalition of people who made it their business to champion the city as a whole. Every mayor since then, up to and including Antonio Villaraigosa, has seen coalition-building as the path to political success.
In a congressional election, though, the racial caucuses on Capitol Hill are looking after their own power, and coalition-building takes a back seat. It would be a shame if black and Latino Democrats -- many of whom are lining up behind candidates who would build their own caucus ranks -- ended up stoking racial tension rather than building effective coalitions.