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Los Angeles Times

Throughout The Country, Latinos See Their Clout Build In Political Arena

Landmark Election Victories In Georgia And Four Other States Show Candidates Finding Acceptance Among A Broad Range Of Voters

BY Ken Ellingwood

November 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

ATLANTA -- Their roots stretch variously to Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Two are Democrats, one is Republican. Yet when Sam Zamarripa, Pedro Marin and David Casas take office next year, they will share ahistory-making distinction in Georgia: They are the first Latinos to serve in the state's Legislature.

All three won election Nov. 5, representing a breakthrough for Latinos in the South and capping a vote in which Latino candidates in Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada and Oregon also enjoyed their first triumphs at the state level. The victories reflect the emerging political effect of Latino voters in states where they are still comparatively new, but growing fast in number and visibility.

"We're making history," said Marin, a Puerto Rican-born Democrat who will represent a segment of suburban Gwinnett County in the Georgia House of Representatives. "The Latino community is growing rapidly. We were ready to be part of the political process. Our time to be bystanders was long gone."

The trend is now commonplace in California -- where Latinos make up one-third of the population and roughly one-fifth of the 120-member Legislature -- as well as in Texas, Florida, New York and a few other states with sizable Latino voting blocs and accommodating political boundaries. But the wins in Georgia and elsewhere occurred in places where Latinos still account for a small minority of eligible voters.

That means candidates not only had to mobilize a modest Latino base but also make their case to a broader audience. The success of candidates in Georgia, where all three winners carried districts in which Latinos remain a distinct minority, reflects a new phase for Latinos, who now make up 5% of the state's 8.2 million residents, experts said.

"It's an indication that a political infrastructure is being built in Georgia, which to me indicates a level of acceptance," said Larry Gonzalez, who directs the Washington, D.C., office of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Besides the three lawmakers elected in Georgia, two Latinos won election to Maryland's House of Delegates, becoming the first Latino lawmakers from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. They will join Sen. Alexander X. Mooney, who is of Cuban descent, as the only Latinos in the state's General Assembly. Massachusetts voters elected former state Rep. Jarrett Barrios as that state's first Latino state senator.

In addition, Nevada and Oregon on Nov. 5 elected Latinos for the first time to statewide posts. Brian Sandoval will be Nevada's attorney general, and Oregon state Sen. Susan Castillo becomes the state's schools superintendent.

Nationwide, there were 13 additional Latino state lawmakers elected -- an increase from 2000, when there was a gain of six. Nonetheless, Latinos represent a small share of state legislators across the county -- just 217 of about 6,500 lawmakers at the state level. Most of those are in districts where Latinos hold majorities or represent decisive blocs.

Gonzalez said the recent wins illustrate a growing competitiveness between Democrats and Republicans in fielding Latino candidates and seeking to appeal to Latino voters. Sandoval is a Republican, as is Casas, a teacher elected to the Georgia House. Casas, who is of Cuban ancestry, represents a newly drawn district, also in Gwinnett County.

"The cause of optimism is at the state legislative level and the interest by both parties -- the competition," Gonzalez said. "The numbers in the state House bode very well for the future. It is the farm team, so to speak, for the congressional races later."

The campaign also served as a proving ground for a new brand of campaigning in some places. During the primary campaign in Montgomery County, Democrat Ana Sol Gutierrez found the winning formula by combining a conventional appeal to habitual voters -- most of them Anglo -- with a highly focused effort to gain the votes of the 2,095 Latinos who were registered Democrats in her legislative district.

"Everybody told me, 'Don't waste your time -- they don't vote,' " said Gutierrez, a Salvadoran-born systems engineer and former school board member.

She didn't listen. Instead, as Gutierrez sent off mailers in English to the well-to-do pockets in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, she zeroed in on immigrant-heavy areas such as Wheaton and Silver Spring, with Spanish-language fliers and Spanish-speakers working the phone banks.

The two-pronged effort worked. In a crowded field of seven candidates for the Democratic primary, she made the top three -- enough to qualify for the general election and certain victory in a Democratic district choosing three delegates. Gutierrez, 60, attributed her winning margin in the primary -- just 250 votes -- to her success in teaching Latino voters about "bullet voting," selecting just one candidate, even though they were allowed to choose three. But it wouldn't have been enough. "There was no way ... I could win with the Latino vote. I had to get a margin," she said.

Even in places where Latinos haven't traditionally settled, Latino candidates may find ready acceptance among whites and blacks who are divided by race -- as long as the Latino community remains small enough not to be seen as a threat, said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York.

That can change, though. A recent survey of some Tennessee residents found a growing feeling that Latino immigrants were making life worse. The poll, by Middle Tennessee State University, found that 41% of respondents held an unfavorable view of Latino residents -- an increase from 28% in 1998.

Election results notwithstanding, public sentiment toward Latinos may be more fully revealed around sensitive policy issues such as whether to allow undocumented immigrants to acquire driver's licenses, a proposal that enjoyed a brief life in the Georgia Legislature last year.

"I don't think that the tolerance issue has had its litmus test yet," said Zamarripa, 50, a Democrat who was unopposed for the state Senate after winning a primary runoff for the black-majority district in downtown Atlanta. He defeated Brenda Muhammad, a black school member.

But Zamarripa, a former Chamber of Commerce official with long-standing ties to the city's black political establishment, said his agenda would continue to reflect the needs of the larger district, an economically varied landscape of gentrifying enclaves, corporate headquarters and world-weary slums. Health care and poverty are among the top issues across racial and ethnic lines, he said.

Marin agreed. "My second agenda will be the Latino agenda," he said. Marin, 44, who is executive director of the Mexican Center of Atlanta, said mutual concerns and simple mathematics -- his newly created district is less than a third Latino -- demand that he hew to the interests of no single group.

"If I would have run as a Latino, I wouldn't be making history," Marin said. "We have a long way to go, but we're starting. We're opening the door."

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