La Nueva Fuerza

With attacks on immigration and affirmative action, the GOP has fueled a new Latino political apparatus. But can the Democrats master the machinery?

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), walked into a White House meeting last month. He was ready to instruct Vice President Al Gore and newly appointed presidential Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles on the record-breaking number of Latinos who voted in November, a spike that increased the community's participation by approximately 20 percent nationwide compared to the last presidential election. "They ended up giving us a lesson [on the Latino turnout]," says Gonzalez.

Gore and Bowles knew all of it: the remarkable increase in immigrants who became new citizens, registered to vote, and cast a ballot for the first time. The simultaneous rise in native-born Latinos who began voting again or did so for the first time. The tight races that turned on the strength of the Latino vote. And, especially important for midterm congressional elections (and a presumed Gore candidacy in 2000), the stunning fact that in 1996 Latinos registered and voted Democratic close to 80 percent of the time.

"They get it," Gonzalez says, leaning back in a chair at the California headquarters of the SVREP in Montebello, a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles suburb.

It is this: Latinos have awoken from a long political slumber.
Consider the election results:
* After Democrats took back the California Assembly, the new majority elected Cruz Bustamante, a Fresno Democrat, speaker of the Assembly, making him the first Latino speaker in state history.

* The number of naturalized Latino voters in California increased by 6 percent from 1994 to 1996; these new citizens now constitute 26 percent of all Latino voters in the state.

* The Latino share of California voters increased from 9.6 percent to 13 percent between 1994 and 1996. In 1988 Latinos represented less than 8 percent of state voters, meaning that between 1988 and today the Latino vote in California increased by more than 50 percent.

From a membership of seven in 1990, the Latino Caucus in the state Legislature (80 Assembly members, 40 state senators) has jumped to 14. If coordinated, numbers like that could allow Latino lawmakers to hold up budgets and legislation to extract desired policies.

The reason for the outpouring of civic participation is simple. Republicans forgot one of the prime imperatives of politics: Do the math.

Willfully ignorant of the growing Latino population, and trends toward increased citizenship and electoral participation, the party stuck to its anti-immigrant policies -- from welfare reform in Congress that ended Medicare for legal residents to Proposition 187, the state initiative that seeks to deny services to undocumented aliens. Instead of serving its intended goal -- to motivate older, Anglo voters -- the posture prompted Latinos to protect, with their votes, the toehold they have on the American dream. As white voters dropped as a percentage of the total electorate this year, Latinos organized themselves like never before.

"It's the law of unintended consequences at work," Gonzalez says with a laugh.

Voter registration and citizenship drives are nothing new in Latino communities. The SVREP has been registering voters since 1974. What happened in November 1996 is commonly called critical mass.

The new surge began in earnest three years ago when Latino leaders responded to anti-immigrant attacks with a good old nuts-and-bolts democratic rejoinder. They constructed a new political machine, premised on a program of more aggressive naturalization and voter registration, that's been churning out new political participants without pause ever since.

Republican initiatives such as Prop. 209, which sought to end state-sponsored affirmative action programs, and Prop. 187 were the critical fuel. "We can take credit for the mechanics," says state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-L.A.), chair of the state Legislature's Latino Caucus. "But thank you Pete Wilson for the gas."

Like knotty roots buckling a sidewalk before breaking through, the organizing grew unnoticed by Republicans until last November when they finally felt the ground moving underneath them. And, like roots, the organizing grew into some unlikely places.

In California, the national center of the movement, Mexican-American social clubs in Los Angeles that had previously busied themselves organizing rodeos and soccer leagues added political fund-raising ($90,000 to be exact), citizenship workshops, and voter registration to their rosters of activities. (A taco shop on Whittier Boulevard became a place where immigrants could learn about the naturalization process and register to vote.) In Salinas, cannery and farm workers hooked up with the Teamsters union and a Yale sociologist this year and began naturalizing and registering at a record pace. In San Francisco, Centro del Pueblo, the longtime offices of nonprofits on Valencia Street, became a beehive of registration and naturalization for the first time. "We have people out the door at 9 a.m. every morning now," says Melba Maldonado, executive director of La Raza Information Center, which until this year was merely a social service referral agency.

Where all these newly energized citizens and voters end up, in the Democratic or Republican column, is uncertain. Remove the shortsighted immigrant-bashing from the Republican agenda -- which many Latino Republicans and consultants are trying to do -- and the party could have significant areas of agreement with the new Latino voters, who do not hew to classic liberal lines.

That's why Democratic Latino lawmakers and activists are capitalizing on the success of 1996 with a moderate agenda, one which allows no room for Republicans to accuse them of being self-serving or separatist.

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