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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Political Clout of Latinos Falls Short Despite Numbers
By JOEL MILLMAN and EDUARDO PORTER
November 8, 2002
LAKESIDE, Calif. -- Talk about sibling rivalries: For the first time in history, the incoming House of Representatives will have two sibling acts, one from each party, one from each coast. The Democrats have Linda and Loretta Sanchez in Southern California; the Republicans have South Florida's Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
"We have proven that there is nothing more powerful than a family working together," exults Linda Sanchez, a former union organizer and now representative-elect from a new district in Los Angeles County.
"It's a statement of how strong Hispanic families are," adds Carlos Curbelo, Lincoln Diaz-Balart's campaign coordinator, who volunteered on younger brother Mario's campaign.
In fact, the two family sets provide the sharpest indication yet of just how weak Latino political power truly is in a country where nearly 40 million people -- about 13% of the population -- were born in Latin America or have roots there. Despite a 12 million increase in the Latino population from 1990 to 2000, and much talk about the Hispanic vote, the term "Latino political clout" is mostly an oxymoron.
Indeed, one irony of Tuesday's election is that as both parties committed more to protecting incumbents than welcoming new blood, it seems if you are Latino , at least, you pretty much have to be related to an incumbent to enter the club.
Besides former Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva, who was elected to Arizona's seventh district, Linda Sanchez and Mario Diaz-Balart -- younger sister and younger brother of sitting members of Congress -- are the only new Latinos to reach the House in this election, bringing the total to 22 from 19.
"We did well in the few opportunities afforded us, but we could have achieved much more if Latinos had been given a fairer shake," says Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or Naleo.
To be sure, Hispanics' political clout doesn't equal their demographic reach partly because many aren't citizens who vote. In 2000, 13 million of 35 million U.S. Hispanics were adult citizens; only 5.9 million of them voted -- 5% of the national tally. A third of California's populace is Latino , yet only 14% of its voters are.
But Mr. Vargas of Naleo stresses that Hispanics also were held back by both parties' focus on incumbency protection after the 2000 census, when electoral maps were reconfigured to take into account shifts in the population.
The dearth of Latinos is glaring, considering that Latinos accounted for most of the 1990s population growth that transferred House seats to the Southwest. In Texas, where Hispanic population growth (by more than 2.4 million) helped the state gain two House seats, no new majority-Latino districts were drawn. In Colorado, where Latinos grew to 17% from 13% of the population, they still have no Latinos in the state's delegation.
All three Latino gains Tuesday came in new seats from redistricting. Those gains were much smaller than the ones following the 1991 redistricting, when six new Hispanic representatives were elected.
An older brother in Congress surely helped the candidacy of Mario Diaz-Balart. He also was boosted along by the fact that, as a legislator in the state House, he was chairman of Florida's congressional redistricting committee. He won in a new district partly carved out of his brother's. Says Mr. Curbelo: "A lot of people that voted for Lincoln before [voted on Tuesday] for a guy with the same last name."
Access to money is even more crucial than name recognition. Linda Sanchez needed $1 million to compete for her first-ever elected office, a sum that would be hard for any first-timer without connections. "When it comes to Latinos , neither of the national parties really pitch in much with money or machinery," says Loretta Sanchez, who edged into office in 1996 with little party support and won re-election Tuesday for the third time.
Deep-pocketed connections also helped Mario Diaz-Balart. According to Washington, D.C., research group the Center for Responsive Politics, he raised nearly $900,000 -- or almost six times as much as his Democratic opponent.
But even if the two pairs of Latino siblings underline how difficult it is for new Latino faces to make it into Congress, in a way they are only confirming the power of an American tradition: the political dynasty. Mr. Vargas of Naleo notes the parallel between the Hispanic sibling acts in Congress and the Bush family, noting "it's American politics at its best."