Tiny Watsonville Set To Make Its Mark on California Politics

In days prior to special elections, city seems poised to break old ethnic political barriers

A SMALL slice of California history may be made here in tiny Watsonville next Tuesday, when voters go to the polls to decide whether to expand Latino representation in city government. ``Our grass-roots efforts here will be felt throughout California and the Southwest,'' says Oscar Rios, a Latino candidate for city council. ``Growers and cannery owners can no longer automatically count on politically controlling these small cities.''

Watsonville is a town of 28,000 residents located about 100 miles south of San Francisco. About half the town's residents are of Latino origin, mainly Chicanos (Mexican-Americans).

The Latino population here has grown steadily during the past 30 years. But the city elected its first Chicano to the city council only two years ago. Late last year the city set a date for special elections after a federal court ruled Watsonville had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by discriminating against Latino voters.

The city was forced to eliminate at-large voting and establish district elections for city council. Now three Latinos are running for seven open seats on a council traditionally dominated by conservative Anglos.

A factor in the election is the Oct. 17 northern California earthquake, which has shaken local politics as well. Many Chicanos complain that the city government's handling of disaster relief was insensitive. The quake destroyed Watsonville's business district and an estimated 750 homes.

Odelon Rosas lived with eight other family members in a one-bedroom house before the quake destroyed it. Mr. Rosas and other Latinos say the city rarely provided bilingual relief information. Rosas and many other Watsonville residents speak only Spanish.

Some people that the quake left homeless are still living in tents at the Watsonville fairgrounds.

For many Latinos, the quake's aftermath simply worsened a feeling of neglect. From 1985 to 1987, a 19-month strike by 1,000 mostly Latina cannery workers rocked Watsonville. Mass pickets and demonstrations by thousands of supporters led to clashes with city police. ``Many workers felt that the city council didn't represent their interests,'' Rios says. ``Police attacked our picket lines during the strike and the city council did nothing.''

Dolores Cruz Gomez was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has resulted in elections. Today she is running for city council against Paul Milladin, a former frozen-food company executive.

Mayor Betty Murphy is running against the one incumbent Latino city councilman, Tony Campos. Ms. Murphy opposed district elections and fought the Latino court suit all the way to the US Supreme Court, which refused to review the ruling last year.

``I thought Watsonville was too small to district,'' she says. Murphy points out that some Latino precincts voted for Anglo candidates, and that Latinos simply never garnered enough votes.

Rios and the other Latino candidates agree that some Latinos voted for Anglos, but say Anglos rarely voted for Latinos. Under next Tuesday's voting plan, however, two of seven districts are majority Latino. Hundreds of supporters have become active in the campaigns, and may remain active in future local politics.

``Whatever happens Tuesday,'' says candidate Rios, ``Watsonville will never be the same.''

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