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Politicians Must Win Over California's Ethnic Voters - 2002-10-31

Politicians in California, as in many U.S. states, must appeal to immigrant voters, who sometimes determine whether a candidate wins or loses a race. Hispanics and Asian Americans are beginning to make their mark in California politics.

The two groups are becoming important both as voters and candidates. Linda Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is favored to win a seat in Los Angeles. If she does, she may join her sister Loretta, already a congresswoman, who is favored to win reelection in nearby Orange County.

California's lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, is Hispanic, as are elected politicians up and down the state.

Hispanics make up nearly one third of California's population. Many are recent immigrants and are not yet citizens, and so are ineligible to vote. But those who are eligible are becoming increasingly active in politics.

"The Latino electorate in California literally swelled in the past decade from about 900,000 to about 1.6 million or 1.7 million, that is predicted to turn out at the polls in this upcoming election," says Harry Pachon, who is president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

Latino involvement in politics increased in California after 1994, when a ballot measure passed that restricted public benefits for illegal immigrants. The courts later voided the measure, called Proposition 187.

Many Latinos, however, viewed the ballot measure as an attack on all immigrants. They launched voter registration drives in Hispanic neighborhoods, which mostly helped Democrats, who had opposed the measure. Today, California Hispanics vote overwhelming Democratic, helping Democrats maintain a lead of 45 percent to 35 percent among the state's registered voters.

Asian Americans make up one-eighth of California's population. They are concentrated in neighborhoods in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and suburban Orange County. In some districts, they are a growing political force. They tend to favor Asian-American candidates, but otherwise split their vote between the two major parties. However, studies by Asian American centers in New York and Los Angeles have found that Asian Americans have been increasingly drawn to the Democratic Party.

Kathay Feng of the Asian-Pacific-American Legal Center says her organization polled Los Angeles voters in 1996 and 2000.

"And what we found was that there was a growing number of Asian Americans who were registering Democratic," she says. "But when you look at Asian American groups ethnicity by ethnicity, one tends to find that there are very distinct differences in party registration."

For example, Vietnamese-Americans who came to America fleeing a communist government tend to vote Republican, viewing the Republicans as more strongly anti-communist than the Democrats. Japanese-Americans, on the other hand, have a tradition of working within the Democratic party on issues like civil rights, and redress for Japanese Americans held in internment camps in the Second World War.

Political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe says Latinos, Asian-Americans and other immigrants are becoming sophisticated in their approach to politics.

"Ethnic political groups throughout the country are now understanding how important it is to be a part, and a visible part, of the process, and are making sure that candidates know they exist, by offering invitations to the candidates, by showing up at candidate events, and perhaps most important, by organizing fundraisers, contributing to candidates' campaigns," she says.

Public officials encourage new immigrants to vote. Under congressional mandate, cities like Los Angeles with large immigrant populations offer multilingual ballots. Voters in Los Angeles can vote in one of seven languages, from English to Korean.

This year's election will not determine the U.S. president, and voter interest is lower than in presidential elections. The most important race in California this election cycle is for governor, and polls say neither major candidate is very popular. But Democrat Gray Davis is leading Republican Bill Simon, partly on the basis of Hispanic support.

Also at stake in California are 53 seats in Congress, and analyst Harry Pachon says Hispanics favor the Democrats.

"They are still overwhelmingly Democratic at the congressional level, but at the presidential level, we see that President Bush has made inroads into Latino support," he said. "Something like 60 percent of Latinos now approve of the way that President Bush has been handling the economy as well as foreign affairs."

Harry Pachon says this election will show if local Republican candidates can ride the "coat-tails" of President Bush.

But in this mid-term election, most issues are local, from education to the state's economy. Mr. Pachon and other analysts say this mid-term election in California is not likely to be influenced by national issues or figures in national politics.