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 anti-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
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
"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.
Copyright 1999, Los Angeles Times