As their numbers rise, so does political pull

But gains are slow for the biggest minority group in US - and may come at the expense of blacks.

The candidate for mayor of Los Angeles stepped up to the bank of microphones, ready to deliver his message about the plight of minority bus riders.

"Basic services are not available for people who need them the most," he says, squinting behind Ben Franklin eyeglasses. "As mayor, I will build a smarter, more efficient MTA."

More noteworthy than the press conference itself is the fact that candidate Xavier Becerra is competing in a mayoral field that includes not one, but two, Hispanics - and not a single African-American.

If the story of America is one in which rising minority groups eventually seize control of local political office, Los Angeles may well be its latest chapter. Although no politician with Mexican-American roots has been elected mayor here since 1870, L.A.'s expanding Latino population and rising Latino voter registration are expected to give Hispanic candidates in this spring's election their best showing in years.

Last week's report that Hispanics have officially replaced blacks as America's largest minority group may hold implications for political change far beyond Los Angeles. In some cases, Hispanics are expected to make gains in cities long dominated by white officeholders. In multi-ethnic cities such as Los Angeles, they may fight for seats held by other minorities.

"The Los Angeles mayoral race is but one local manifestation of a national demographic change that we have long known is coming but is now here," says Silvia Puentes of the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. "The idea of this country as fundamentally a black-versus-white paradigm is now officially outmoded."

How this demographic reality plays out in terms of political power will depend in part on where the new Hispanic growth is concentrated. That information is coming out from new 2000 census reports in dribs and drabs, and is still preliminary.

In recent decades, Hispanics have lived primarily in California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nevada. If the new numbers are added to those states, say observers, Hispanics are likely to increase their representation in Congress. And their influence on the highest state and federal offices - such as senator, governor, and presidential candidates - will also be greater.

Here in California, those advances are already coming. Hispanics now claim about one-third of the seats in the state legislature, as well as the high-powered posts of lieutenant governor and, until recently, Assembly Speaker.

But the political impact of America's newly counted 35.3 million Hispanics is likely to be felt most strongly in cities and towns. And that's where tensions between the nation's two largest minority groups have occasionally flared.

In Watts, a gritty Los Angeles neighborhood once populated mostly by blacks, Hispanics now make up 60 percent of the residents.

"Even though Latinos outnumber blacks in the population, blacks maintain power from the city council to the school board," says Najee Ali, a black minister from South Central, which includes Watts.

Some observers say the rise of Hispanics is leading to a new era of coalition-building between two minority groups that realize they must stick together to achieve mutual aims.

Others, however, see competition at every level. Many Hispanics in California felt they did not get enough support in fighting Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative to curb services such as education to illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, many blacks felt they did not get enough support on Proposition 209, ending affirmative action at state colleges and in state hiring and contracting.

"There has been tension between these two races on political representation, as well as the fight for jobs," says Mr. Ali. "This is reflected by tension in the schools between kids, and between adults fighting for jobs. Many blacks supporting large families have been displaced by Latinos willing to work for less wages."

But Ali and others say much of the resistance is generational, that older blacks accustomed to a more dominant position are less able to embrace Hispanics. Younger members of both groups, he says, find it easier to move ahead together.

"We are very young," says Juan Salgado, director of the Chicago-based Institute for Latino Progress, noting that in big cities with large numbers of Hispanics, more than half the Latino population is younger than 21. "That means we are not carrying a lot of racial or social baggage and are open to making things work," he says.

Before Hispanics can come into their own, however, their voter-registration rates will need to improve. Although they now make up about 13 percent of the US population, according to preliminary US Census Bureau figures, they are only about 5 percent of voters.

"These newly released figures should be a wake-up call both for middle Americans and Easterners who have been ignoring us for the past 20 years," says Antonio Gonzalez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. "But it is also a wake-up for Hispanics who have suffered because they are not as politically active as their numbers might suggest."

That is reflected nationally in the statistic that the Congressional Black Caucus is still roughly twice the size of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

While many look at such numbers and see trouble and competitiveness ahead for blacks and Hispanics, others see only changing times.

"This by no means ought to be seen as a negative," says Mark Ridley Thomas, a black city councilor representing part of South Central Los Angeles. "The point is, how will the change be addressed - as threat or opportunity? No group is more experienced in coalition-building than African-Americans. We feel this is a time to tap into that experience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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