LOS ANGELES — The election this week of Mexican-American Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles is the latest exclamation point in a story of Hispanic political empowerment that has been unfolding steadily nationwide for more than three decades.
The high-profile ascent of Mr. Villaraigosa to the top of America's second-largest city builds on steady gains by Hispanics in municipal, county, state, and national governments over the past 25 years.
Political analysts mark those gains by comparing the political landscapes of Henry Cisneros, who was elected mayor of San Antonio in1981, and that of two US Senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Ken Salazar of Colorado, elected in 2004.
Between those political bookends, the number of elected Hispanics has grown 30 percent in the past eight years, from 3,743 in 1996 to 4,853 in 2004.
While Hispanics still don't exercise their rights at the ballot box in the same percentages as they fill the American population, such gains, punctuated by the Villaraigosa victory, reflect the nation's changing cultural and social makeup - and Hispanics' growing ability to appeal to an ever-widening range of ethnic groups. Many such groups of newer immigrants - Koreans, Pacific Islanders, Armenians, Iranians, Russians, Filipinos - embrace the new Hispanic politicians because they sense fresh openness to their own struggles, observers say.
"The new political face of America is looking South and West for its emerging identity rather than to Eastern Europe as it did in the country's first big wave of immigration," says Antonio Gonzales, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino-based think tank. "Many of the emerging immigrant populations see Hispanics as accessible and open to them in the way more traditional American politicians have not been."
The Hispanic gains also reflect America's demographic evolution - and not just in L.A. While the number of Hispanics has grown nationwide (to 35.3 million - surpassing blacks as the nation's largest minority) the number of Hispanic voters has doubled (from 5 million to 10 million) in the past 10 years. That has brought emerging Latino populations - and politicians - to states outside the Southwest, including Illinois, and New Jersey which have seen rises of 95 percent and 209 percent respectively in the number of statewide elected Hispanic officials.
"Part of the story of growing Hispanic political clout is Hispanic's demonstrated ability to put coalitions together nationally, and organize voters from Kansas to Colorado to Florida," says Marcelo Gaete, senior analyst for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). "They are not just thinking in terms of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico anymore."
Within this context, Villaraigosa's significant victory, winning 59 percent of the votes, is being trumpeted paradoxically as both a major symbol of Hispanic empowerment - a big-city win softening the doubt generated by recent losses of Hispanic mayoral candidates in New York and Chicago - and an indication of normalcy.
At the same time, analysts say the win is meaningful to Hispanics coast to coast as a political model to emulate. Yet to others, Villaraigosa's win is unexceptional because of its sheer predictability.
"I call it the hidden integration of the Latino presence," says Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. "In a way, it's just as American as apple pie. Just as in earlier decades Irish, Italians, and Jewish politicians made it into the mainstream, Latinos are now experiencing that. One of the jewels in the crown of America's most populous state will now be held by a Latino."
Yet for all the euphoria surrounding Villaraigosa in some quarters, his victory may be as much a repudiation of incumbent James Hahn as it was an embrace of Villaraigosa. During the campaign, Mr. Hahn was criticized for alienating African American voters when he fired a black police chief and for angering white voters in the San Fernando Valley when he opposed a secession. Ongoing charges of corruption also trailed Hahn while other observers noted that he simply lacked the charisma to connect with voters in a city devoted to entertainment.
While Villaraigosa captivated audiences with his style and retelling of his climb from a high school dropout to successful politician, the new mayor still must prove he can transfer charisma into managing one of the largest cities in the nation.
The other side of high-profile victories for Latino politicians, say analysts, is that the brighter spotlight can also show deficiencies. Front and center in that challenge is Villaraigosa who has spent months making promises to diverse groups of voters and must now turn them into action.
"One thing people have not paid much attention to is the distinction between an electoral coalition and a governing coalition," says Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at UCLA. "The question is what happens now when those politicians who endorsed him, the unions and all the rest, line up and say, 'What are you going to do for us?' "
A subset of this challenge is one that faces all politicians: Can he or she govern for all voters, and not just those who helped secure the victory? In Villaraigosa's case, he will have a national spotlight on his efforts to balance the expectations of Latinos and non-Latinos.
"The key to continued expansion of Hispanic political power will be how can they respond to the Hispanic support that got them into office, [and] also reach beyond it," says Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. "Villaraigosa will be in the spotlight in this regard more than most."