Op-Ed: The Chicanosauruses who have ruled in California should step aside

(Martina Ibanez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

If Thomas Friedman is allowed to quote random taxi drivers who offer man-on-the-street wisdom to bolster his column’s arguments, then why can’t I quote a random friend? So meet Art, who actually does exist. He’s the California dream personified: son of Mexican immigrants, owns a house with a blue-collar salary from construction, loves the Dodgers and Deftones, and Instagrams his great food finds like any good millennial.

I’d classify Art’s politics as rancho libertarian, colored by the small-town upbringing of his parents and his childhood growing up in multicultural Garden Grove. He’s socially liberal, economically conservative, emphasizes hard work and disdains people who make excuses. Art doesn’t like taxes, mocks liberal pieties, but hates more than anything the anti-Mexican rants that Republicans are fond of these days.

Oh, and Chicanosauruses. Last year, at a backyard carne asada party for his son, he asked me who was running for California governor in 2018. Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, I replied. “Them?” Art said with disgust, before using words not appropriate for a family newspaper, even in these Trumpian times. “They should just disappear,” he concluded. “No one cares about them anymore. Put in someone new.”


Newsom and Villaraigosa are on the brink of becoming “Chicanosauruses.” It’s a term used to deride politicians who have been in power for far too long but don’t want to give up their place and try to quash anyone who threatens their reign. Obviously Chicano activists coined it for Latino politicians in particular, but I apply it more broadly to those who represent barrios and distinguish themselves from other out-of-touch lizards by keeping their kingdoms from evolving to the next level.

When I told Art about Chicanosauruses, he laughed and laughed. “That term is perfect!”

California’s Chicanosauruses are on the run right now. Sen. Dianne Feinstein made national news when she didn’t receive the state Democratic Party’s endorsement. In Orange County, my homeland’s GOP congressional delegation has to campaign for the first time in decades. Across the state, young activists in both parties are asking the old guard to step down and let new blood take charge. But the Chicanosauruses won’t listen.

Recently, Tom Umberg announced plans to run in the 35th state Senate district. He’s the Harold Stassen of Orange County politics — he was a state Assembly member in the early 1990s, then again in the mid-2000s. Along the way, he has lost races for state attorney general, insurance commissioner and O.C. supervisor, among other positions. A Chicanosaurus personified.

The Chicanosauruses can’t exist without help. Party officials who want the tried and true, donors who like to work with candidates they find pliable, and voters too ignorant to bother with research all keep them alive.

But in these momentous times, California has a chance to make them extinct.

Not everyone who stays in office for decades deserves the Chicanosaurus label because not everyone becomes decrepit. Willie Brown did wonderful things as speaker of the Assembly. Xavier Becerra was a great congressman for more than 25 years before becoming our kick-ass attorney general. Jerry Brown may seem like a Chicanosaurus, but he has always achieved results, whether as Oakland mayor, California attorney general or in his two terms as governor.

More important, some long-timers know when to leave public office.

Chicanosauruses, by contrast, lumber from race to race, desperate to campaign for whatever seat they can use as a placeholder until something better pops up — think Richard Alarcon and Gil Cedillo. They also poison the body politic with family dynasties. The Calderons have ruled the Montebello area for decades: Assembly majority leader Ian is the son of former state Sen./Assemblyman Charles and nephew to former Assembly members Ron and Tom, who pleaded guilty to felony charges of mail fraud and money laundering, respectively. The Lowenthals of Long Beach have no such taint on them, but between Congressman Alan, his wife, Bonnie (a former Assembly member), sons Daniel (an L.A. Superior Court judge) and Josh (running for state assembly in Orange County), and ex-daughter-in-law, Suja (a former Long Beach councilwoman), can you see how Chicanosauruses make people like my friend Art cynical about politics?


I wouldn’t classify Newsom and Villaraigosa as Chicanosauruses just yet; as I said, they’re on the brink. Newsom has held only two elected positions, while Villaraigosa claims three. Both have shown promise in the past, even as their personal problems have kept them down. But with a new generation of Latino leaders bubbling up across the Golden State, are they really the best the Dems can do?

Voters on the left and right are tired of recycled politicos and party machines that exist only to justify their power. So, Chicanosauruses, please go to the political equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits. Best-case scenario is your legacy will power the next generation, much like the raptors of the past turned into fossil fuels. Worst case? An asteroid of an angry electorate will hit California come primary season.