WASHINGTON — HISPANICS see the 1990s as their decade of political empowerment. Buoyed by some voting and legal trends, they are predicting that the next few years will see a dramatic rise in the number of Latinos elected to office and greater influence at the ballot box in general - particularly in the American Southwest.
If the past decade is prologue, though, the rise will probably be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
``I think we are poised to make a quantum leap,'' says Andrew Hernandez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. ``With the exception of blacks in the South, there hasn't been a more rapid integration of an ethnic group into the political life of a nation.''
The Hispanic drive for power received a boost this week with the election of Gloria Molina to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Although the two candidates competing in the special runoff election were Latino, Ms. Molina's victory is significant because it marks the first time a Hispanic has been elected to the board in 115 years.
Moreover, because of the board's influence - its $10 billion budget is larger than the budgets in all but a handful of states - Molina will become a nationally prominent Latino politician.
``Clearly there is grand symbolism in all of this,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in California.
Although Latinos make up 8 percent of the nation's population and are the fastest-growing ethnic group, they hold less than 1 percent of the elected offices. With the defeat of Gov. Bob Martinez (R) in Florida last November, no Hispanic sits in a governor's chair. Ten serve in Congress.
Several reasons are cited for the lack of representation in relation to their numbers: Many are too young to vote; lack of citizenship; the poor and undereducated are less inclined to participate in the political process; language barriers; unfavorably drawn political districts.
Latinos make gains
Even so, significant gains have been made. Hispanic advocates are heartened by figures showing that:
Since 1984, the number of elected Hispanic officials has grown by 25 percent, to 4,004.
Between 1980 and 1988, the number of registered Latino voters grew from 2.98 million to 4.57 million (though that still only represents 3.8 percent of the total electorate).
Between 1984 and 1988, Hispanic voting in presidential elections grew at 21 times the rate for blacks, whites, and the electorate as a whole, according to the US Census.
``The 1980s was the decade of firsts - the first Latino governor, the first Latino attorney general ...,'' says Harry Pachon, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. ``Those firsts are behind us, and the gains are going to be consolidated in the 1990s.''
Hispanic activists point to several other promising trends as well. Naturalization rates are rising among some Latino groups. In the mid-1980s, about 9,000 Mexicans a year were becoming US citizens. Today the average is 20,000 a year - making Mexicans the second largest ethnic group to naturalize (behind Filipinos).
Close to 3 million Hispanics will become eligible for citizenship in the mid-1990s as a result of the amnesty provision of the landmark 1986 immigration law - nearly 1.5 million in California alone.
Still, analysts caution against predictions of a Latino coup at the ballot box. Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California Berkeley who has studied ethnic voting patterns, says the age, low income levels, low citizenship rates, and other barriers that have kept Latinos from exercising full power won't vanish overnight.
``There is definitely potential for political power there,'' he says. ``But throughout the 1990s it will always be less than their proportion to the population.''
Elections will be test
A good test of Hispanic power will come over the next two years in state, local, and national elections - as well as in the fight over redistricting.
Mr. Hernandez estimates, for instance, that of 11 new congressional seats that will be created in the Southwest as a result of 1990 Census figures at least four will be in districts that Hispanic voters could control.
Overall, he predicts the number of Latinos elected to state, local, and other offices over the next 10 years will more than double. His group, which is concentrating on registering Hispanic voters in urban areas, hopes to sign up 200,000 by 1995 in Dallas and Houston alone.
Activists, though, are not just pinning their hopes on getting more Hispanics to the voting booth. They are also pressing lawsuits aimed at seeing that districts ``gerrymandered'' in the past are redrawn so that Latinos are better represented. The new district in Los Angeles County, and the election this week, are the result of one such lawsuit.