Latino Leadership Matures

More confident officials know that to get along, you often have to go along with unlikely bedfellows

The mini-furor that erupted over Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa’s naming of Ron Unz to a blue ribbon commission on state and local finances petered out Wednesday with a tiny protest outside the speaker’s office in Sacramento. Around 10 demonstrators chanted and held up placards calling the speaker a traitor. The organizer of the event reiterated her charge that Villaraigosa’s appointment of the author of the bilingual education ballot initiative to the panel was “a slap in the face” to Latinos across California.

Only a few years ago, newspaper editors would have run this story with the headline “Latinos Protest Speaker’s Choice of Panelist.” Before the emergence of Latino political clout, activist groups, no matter how small, were considered de facto spokespeople for millions of Latinos. Indeed, when there were so few Latino elected officials in Sacramento, ethnic advocacy groups played an instrumental role in filling the vacuum of Latino leadership. But the tremendous increase in Latino political power over the past few years has not only engendered a greater understanding of the diversity of Latino America, it also has undercut the role of traditional advocacy groups as proxies for California’s Latino population.

No longer content to play bit roles as protectors of minority interests, Latino elected officials are assuming responsibility and leadership for the entire state of California. In addition to Villaraigosa, the lieutenant governor, Assembly minority leader and Senate majority leader are all Latino politicians who have sought to broaden their bases and deftly balance both ethnic and mainstream concerns. In so doing, they sometimes find themselves alienating groups like San Francisco’s La Raza Centro Legal Inc., the group that picketed Villaraigosa’s office.

Many political observers agree that 20 years ago, Villaraigosa, once a militant campus activist himself, may very well have been one of the demonstrators outside the speaker’s office. Yet, time, political power, and ambition have surely tempered the speaker’s approach to problem-solving. Indeed, if nothing else, Wednesday’s demonstration exposed the maturation of the Latino political establishment, from grievance-oriented identity politics to a more confident, broad-based style that seeks to forge alliances with other groups and interests.

Rather than excommunicating Unz for backing an initiative the speaker vehemently opposed, Villaraigosa prefers to find issues upon which he and the opposition can work together. “I’m not interested in continuing the culture wars,” says Villaraigosa. “I want to come up with legislative solutions to problems.” And, to be successful in the legislative process, an elected official has to reach beyond his own constituency and find allies to provide a winning vote.

“When you gain power, responsibility, coalition building and law-making force you to have agendas that appeal to a broader base,” says Loyola Marymount political scientist Fernando Guerra. “Latino politics has been redefined away from the activism of the 1960s and ‘70s.” None of this is to say that the old-style activism will or should disappear, but it is revealing that at a time when Latino politicians are flexing more political might than ever before, more and more activists are afraid of being left out in the cold.

For his part, Villaraigosa is trying hard not to alienate any of his activist base. On Wednesday, he released a statement affirming his respect for the demonstrators’ concerns. Still, other recent statements by the speaker indicate that the struggle between the old and new style of Latino politics is not over yet. Last December, Villaraigosa declared that it was time to move beyond 1960s-style confrontational politics. During his swearing-in for his second term as Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa went out of his way to reject what he called “the politics of protest.” He quoted his late mother’s admonition that it is “not enough to always be against. When you grow up you must also be for something.”

Of course, Villaraigosa’s local finance commission shouldn’t be remembered for merely creating rifts with a sector of his constituency. It is actually bringing a remarkably diverse group of people together at one table. Twenty-nine-year-old San Francisco activist Luis Arteaga of the Latino Issues Forum, who also sits on the speaker’s commission, says he is amazed to find himself seated on a panel not only with Unz but with anti-tax activist Joel Fox. “Public dialogue among such a diverse group of people can only help us avoid wedge issues in the future,” says Arteaga. With Washington so deeply mired in nasty partisanship, the speaker’s diverse appointments on the Commission on State and Local Finance might wind up showing us that there’s a better way to play politics.


Gregory Rodriguez is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Washington-based New America Foundation.

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