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The Mainstreaming of Latino Politics

By Gregory Rodriguez

March 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002
LOS ANGELES TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

For U.S. Latinos, more than two-thirds of whom are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, the past decade has been a period of firsts. Every week or so, it seems, there is a story about the first Latino to do this or that. But the cultural significance of these history-making feats is not always profound. Actually, it's mostly skin deep.

Last Tuesday, Tony Sanchez, a $600-million oilman who traces his Southwestern roots to 18th-century Spain, made history by defeating Dan Morales, a third-generation Mexican American former state attorney general, to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Texas. Latino voter turnout in the state reached a historic high, and heavily Hispanic South Texas precincts went for Sanchez by a margin of 3 to 1.

More telling, yet definitely less glamorous, the Sanchez-Morales contest was part and parcel of a broader trend--the mainstreaming of Mexican American politics. No longer content to play supporting roles, Latino candidates throughout the Southwest are diversifying their political portfolios, expanding their electoral bases and making statewide bids for office. For all the attention paid to Sanchez and Morales' ethnicity, in the end, the self-financed candidate who saturated the airwaves with ads drowned the candidate with more experience but little money. The high point of the near-issueless but ethnically charged race was a Spanish-language gubernatorial debate, which the national press quickly called historic. But the event's broader significance was far from clear. For one, the exchange was largely symbolic since the majority of Latino voters in Texas receive their political news in English. Furthermore, the candidates' reasons for debating had more to do with gaining political advantage than with fundamental cultural shifts. For the fluently bilingual Sanchez, who resides in the bicultural border city of Laredo, the debate was an opportunity to embarrass San Antonio-born, Harvard-educated Morales, who taught himself Spanish for his race for attorney general. For Morales, who accepted the invitation to debate, then charged that it was socially divisive, it was a platform to paint Sanchez as an ethnic chauvinist and to pander to white voters' fears of the state's growing Latino presence.

Some observers claimed that the clash between the candidates flowed from their distinct models of Mexican American assimilation. But that interpretation was several levels too elevated. Race and language were merely weapons in each candidate's attempt to wound the other. During the debate, for example, Sanchez accused Morales of being ashamed of being Hispanic. Morales then aired TV ads accusing Sanchez of running for governor of Mexico.

"It was never a question of who was more Latino," says St. Mary's University lecturer Andy Hernandez. "It was a question of who presented [himself] as being on the Latinos' side." After all, if Latino voters were offended by Morales' degree of assimilation, they would not have given him their overwhelming support in his previous electoral bids. In California, many Mexican American officials--Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante among them--would have had an even more difficult time than Morales did debating in Spanish.

More than a few L.A. politicians, including Democratic Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, have taken language courses in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to better communicate with their immigrant constituents. Lack of fluency in Spanish has not hurt them with Latino voters. But in the Texas race, the Morales campaign attacked the use of Spanish in public business and impugned the Americanness of those who defied him. In response, one Austin columnist suggested that Morales was Spanish for Pete Wilson.

For political observers and Latino activists eager to revel in the history of the moment, such rhetoric was a keen disappointment. "They're acting like two white guys," lamented Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, a political newsletter.

Others long ago concluded that the Latinization of politics simply means a change in cast. "I don't understand why anybody expects Latinos to be different than anyone else," said San Antonio Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra. "Texas politics is a full-contact sport. Now it's a full-contact sport in two languages."

Although a major party's nomination of a Latino candidate for Texas governor was historic, it was far from revolutionary. "This race was part of a continuum that has been building over the years," said Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. "It is another benchmark in the evolution of Latino political participation."

Indeed, the winner of this historic Latino Democratic campaign is a friend and major donor to President Bush. The loser was a Mexican American running on a not-so-subtle anti-Latino message. "How much more mainstream can you get?" asked Hernandez.

None of this is to say that Mexican Americans will not influence the way U.S. politics is played in the future. Other identifiable national minorities have certainly left their imprint on regional politics.

In 1998, when the boisterous Jesse Ventura won the governorship of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket, some declared the end of the state's Scandinavian-dominated political heritage. But they forgot that it was progressive Norwegian immigrants that gave the state its penchant for third-party populism in the first place.

One in two Wisconsin residents is of German heritage, and some think the state's culture of good government is a Teutonic legacy.

Mormon influence in Utah, 70% of whose residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is much easier to define. The church's social conservatism permeates the state's politics. Utah has the strictest abortion law of any state. It also became the first state to ban the sale of cigarettes in vending machines.

Hawaii's politics, meantime, are more difficult to parse. Other than the persistence of ethnic loyalties, there is little consensus on how Asians, who have always been the majority of Hawaiians, have contributed culturally to their state's brand of politics.

No immigrant group influenced U.S. urban politics more than the Irish. Their experience of colonial oppression, combined with their renowned loquaciousness, gave them the tools with which to politically dominate many of the largest U.S. cities.

Their great gift to U.S. politics was the elevation of patronage over ideology; muscle over mind. But it was their own success that put most Irish political machines out of business by the mid-20th century.

The Texas gubernatorial primary raised hopes and fears in some quarters that Latinos are on the verge of reinventing U.S. politics, and perhaps they will. But by the time we know how, it will be fodder for academic journals rather than front-page headlines.

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