Big Latino vote in Calif., but stars emerge elsewhere

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National Assn. of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (AP image)

National Assn. of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (AP image)

LOS ANGELES (AP) – California has more Hispanics than any other state, by far, but you’d have to look elsewhere for those being talked about as ascending stars on the national political stage.

Florida has U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American once considered a possible running mate to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and who later introduced Romney at the GOP National Convention. Texas is sending its first Hispanic to the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant.

Nevada and New Mexico are led by Hispanic governors: Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez. Spanish-speaking George P. Bush, the grandson of one former president and nephew of another whose mother is from Mexico, is considering a run for office, possibly Texas Land Commissioner. Texas is also home to the Mexican-American Castro twins: Julian, the San Antonio mayor who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and Joaquin, who is headed to Congress.

More than 1,300 Hispanics hold elected office in California. Nine Hispanics were elected to Congress this year from the state, and four of the last seven Assembly speakers are Hispanics.

So, in a state once considered a launching pad for presidents, where is California’s next Latino Kennedy or Reagan? Or, even, the next Romualdo Pacheco? (Pacheco was the only Latino to serve as governor of the state, in 1875.)

To Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the absence of a homegrown Latino leader mentioned alongside Rubio and the Castro brothers is not coincidental. Despite the state’s reputation for diversity, California has elected only a single Hispanic to statewide office in the modern era – a lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante. A second Hispanic also held that office during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure – Abel Maldonado, although he was appointed.

“That is the one threshold Latinos in California have yet to surpass,” Vargas said.

California’s 14 million Hispanics are poised to become the largest ethnic or racial group in the state, surpassing whites, and there are plenty of powerful Hispanic officeholders, including Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, recently chosen as chairman to the House Democratic Caucus, and Assembly Speaker John Perez, another Southern Californian.

But they remain largely regional figures, anonymous to many residents in a large state divided by geographic rivalries.

“We are so confined with battles on local, state and regional levels, it’s tough to rally around somebody who has built a reputation in a specific geography,” said Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

A unifying Latino political figure, with broad statewide appeal, is “still nowhere to be found,” Regalado said. “Nobody is being seen with the real star quality that goes beyond the community he came from.”

The trajectory of California’s multihued electorate suggests it will be a matter of time before more Hispanics reach the state’s loftiest offices – and, perhaps, national prominence. According to the independent Field Poll, the number of registered voters in the state increased by 3.5 million between 1994 and 2012; Latinos and Asians accounted for 90 percent of the jump.

Despite those numbers, the two state politicians most frequently mentioned as rising political stars in California are not Hispanic: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is white, and state Attorney General Kamala Harris is the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and a mother from India.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has name recognition in the state and beyond. With his election in 2005, he became the city’s first Hispanic mayor since 1872 and made the cover of Newsweek magazine, but that luster faded after a sex scandal that eventually ended his marriage. He discovered some renewed visibility as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and, this year, as chairman of the Democratic National Convention.

Villaraigosa leaves office next year and has flirted with running for governor in the past. He also is considered a possible pick to head the Democratic National Committee or win a post in the Obama administration. Still, his future after City Hall is not clear.

Another Hispanic leader sidetracked by controversy was Fabian Nunez, the once powerful state Assembly speaker. Nunez, who had explored a run for state Senate, saw his political aspirations dwindle after his son was involved in the fatal stabbing of a college student in 2008 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Schwarzenegger, with whom Nunez was close, later commuted the sentence to seven years.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a former Southern California congresswoman, is well known within union and Hispanic circles but has not expressed interest in statewide office. State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is a frequently mentioned prospect though he is little known beyond his home region.

While Latino politicians have flourished in California at the regional level, the political landscape poses obstacles to winning statewide office that are unique from other states. To reach the state’s 18 million voters, campaigns can cost millions of dollars. And the long-troubled Sacramento statehouse is hardly the best springboard to advancement.

At a time when the Hispanic population has been growing swiftly, the state’s two U.S. Senate seats have been held for two decades by Dianne Feinstein, who was just re-elected, and Barbara Boxer, whose term ends in 2016.
“Given the size of our state and the complexity of our politics, it’s difficult for anybody to run statewide and win, and the Latino candidates are no exception to that,” Padilla said. “I think we’ve come a long way in the last 20 years and still have a long way to go.”

Even in a state where Democrats dominate politics, Republicans are actively recruiting Latinos. One example: Rocky Chavez, who picked grapes in the fields to put himself through school, became a Marine colonel and was elected to the Assembly.

“We need to teach them how to run for office, how to build their coalition, how to fundraise and how to win elections,” said GOP consultant Hector Barajas.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a research group that studies Hispanic issues, noted that celebrity in politics can fade or rise as quickly as it does in Hollywood. Former presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was once a Hispanic groundbreaker, while Rubio and others have followed.

“If you go back two years, the list is different. If you go forward two years, the list is different,” Gonzalez said.

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