Hispanics, Asians Poised to Make Political Impact

California will provide an important laboratory for minority empowerment

WHEN Hispanic residents of Bell Gardens, a mainly blue-collar community nine miles southeast of Los Angeles, got mad at the city's Anglo leaders over a zoning flap, they decided to take it out at the ballot box. The result was not so much a protest vote as a coup: All four white city council members were thrown out in a historic recall vote in December.

The storming of the Bastille in Bell Gardens is symbolic of the type of revolution Hispanics have been promising at the ballot box for more than a decade.

The 1980s were expected to be the decade of "brown" power. Some activists frame the 1990s in similar terms. But the rise of Hispanic political power has been more evolutionary than revolutionary.

"The influence of these groups is still incremental," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "On the whole, the problem of mobilization for minorities will continue in the 1990s."

As the nation prepares for another quadrennial carnival called electing a president, the focus is again on the new American voter - groups that, because of demographic changes, are becoming more powerful.

This points to Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Both groups, while not monolithic in their politics and voting patterns, will likely exert more influence in the polling booth in 1992. This will mean, analysts say, more Latinos and Asian-Americans elected to office, more impact on issues that concern them, and a greater say in local elections.

They could also provide a swing vote in the presidential contest in key states, something not lost to the two main political parties, both of which are courting Asians and Hispanics in 1992.

"You will probably see an unprecedented Latino voter registration effort this year," says Antonio Gonzales of the Southwest Voter Research Institute here.

Optimism exists in both communities because of redistricting, which opens the possibility of more minority-influence districts, and because issues are surfacing that activists believe will turn out ethnic voters. Many Latinos, for instance, are concerned about health care, which has emerged as a dominant concern in the presidential race, while many Asian-American groups are concerned about neighborhood crime and economic woes.

"The sense of apathy that is always reflected in the electorate at large is turning around for Asian-Americans," says Margaret Fung, executive director of the New York-based Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

This year will provide an important test of Latino empowerment. The numbers are certainly there on paper: the Hispanic population grew 53 percent in the 1980s, to 22 million. That represents 9 percent of the population, making it the largest minority group behind blacks (12 percent).

But the statistics are far less impressive when you look at those who can, or do, go to the polls. Latinos represent only 3.9 percent of the nation's registered voters. In 1990, more Latinos were ineligible to vote than were registered to vote.

Several reasons are cited for the discrepency. One out of three Hispanics are below 18 years old; many are not citizens; the poor and undereducated are less inclined to participate in the political process.

Still, their presence at the ballot box is being felt. The number of Hispanic elected officials has grown from 3,200 in 1984 to 4,200 today. Roughly 500,000 more Latinos have been voting in each presidential election. Analysts expect 4 million to go to the polls this year. A swing vote

Two other trends hearten community activists: the bulge of young Hispanics now reaching voting age, and increased naturalization rates. From 30,000 to 40,000 Latinos are becoming citizens each year, including many Mexican-Americans, who have traditionally been reluctant to do so.

"I clearly think if this is a close election, Latinos have the capability of being a swing vote" in key states, says Harry Pachon, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials.

Large concentrations of Hispanics exist in Florida, New York, Chicago, Colorado, and the Southwest. But their major potential for power probably lies in Texas and California, where one out of two Hispanics live.

In California, 25 percent of the population is Latino, though only 10.4 percent of the registered voters are. Even here, however, Hispanic power is emerging slowly, if inexorably: Recent research by political scientists Roy Christman of San Jose State University and James Fay of California State University at Hayward shows that 196 of California's 2,400 elected mayors and council members are Latinos (8 percent).

Gloria Molina last year became the first Hispanic elected to the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 115 years. Hispanics, who make up nearly 90 percent of the population in Bell Gardens, threw out the city council. Elsewhere, the Hispanic vote is yet untapped.

"We still have a large job in front of us," says Mr. Gonzales. "The population numbers are good. The registration numbers are low."

Latinos are not one voting bloc with a single-minded ideology. There are conservative, Republican-oriented Cubans in Florida, liberal Puerto Ricans in New York, and Democratic-minded Mexican Americans in the Southwest. While these groups often war among themselves over foreign policy and regional issues, Hispanic leaders say they unite behind some common themes: health care, employment, crime, bilingual education, immigration.

Overall, Hispanics have voted 65 percent to 75 percent Democratic in recent presidential campaigns. The Republican National Committee, though, has been buoyed by surveys showing a growing number of Latinos who call themselves conservatives. Consensus builders

Asian-Americans have been far more divided in their presidential vote, with a majority tilting Republican in some areas. Like Latinos, though, Asian-Americans vary widely in their politics, from enclaves of Democratic Japanese to conservative Vietnamese.

Although traditionally wooed for campaign contributions, Asian-Americans represent far more than money: In the 1980s, they were the fastest-growing ethnic group.

They also have high citizenship rates. The 7.3 million Koreans, Cambodians, Filipinos, and other Asians and Pacific Islanders represent 2.9 percent of the population, a 108 percent increase over 10 years ago.

Asian-Americans have been more active in the redistricting process and in registration drives this year than in the past.

"More people are volunteering and making a commitment," says Allison Tom, an activist in the Californian Asian community.

Don Nakanishi, director of the Asian-American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, believes Asians could become in the future what Jews have been in the past: important swing votes in urban areas, particularly in California, New York, and Illinois. But, like Latinos, their power at the ballot box lags behind population gains. Analysts attribute some of the nonparticipation to language barriers and the vastly different political cultures and customs immigrants have come from.

California, again, will be a laboratory for the pace of empowerment. Nearly 40 percent of the nation's Asian-Americans reside here - 3 million in all, 9.6 percent of the population. Asians only hold 1.7 percent of the state's 2,400 mayoral and council seats.

These statistics can be misleading, though. Christman and Fay point out that many of the Asian-held jobs are in California's largest cities and counties. Thus, they represent more of the state's population than the numbers would suggest.

Christman says Asians have also been adept at forging coalitions to get elected. Thus he believes they are better positioned than some other ethnic groups to move up the political ladder.

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