Now a powerhouse, California’s Latino lawmakers face pressure to broaden political priorities

The state Capitol in Sacramento
The state Capitol in Sacramento.
(Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / CalMatters)

Now an established force in the Legislature, the Democratic Latinos are facing pressure to refocus their priorities.

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When Martha Escutia was elected to the Assembly in 1992, she was one of seven Latinos in the 120-member California Legislature, part of the small but growing Latino Caucus that would eventually become a powerful force in the state Capitol.

Escutia came in during the “Year of the Woman,” when U.S. Senate victories by California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer highlighted the wave of women winning seats in Congress. She was one of only three Latinas who held office in the Legislature.

“We would always tease each other saying that [the Latino Caucus] could probably fit in a phone booth,” she said.

By 1996, the California Latino Legislative Caucus had doubled to 14. Today, there are 38 members, 21 of whom are women.

Formed in 1973 as a group that welcomes only Democrats, the Latino Caucus has championed policies to improve health care access for immigrants, allow college students without documentation to pay in-state tuition and create an ethnic studies requirement to graduate high school, among other groundbreaking policies in its 50 years of existence.

Now, an established force in the Legislature, the caucus is facing pressure to refocus its priorities to appeal to a new generation of voters. Escutia, who pushed immigration policy amid anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1990s, said the caucus’ priorities should shift to establish stability and generational wealth, and promote education and health for the people hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Looking ahead, we really have got to start thinking about other issues,” Escutia said. “Immigration reform still remains an elusive goal in the federal government, but there are other problems that we have too.”

Mike Madrid, a Latino Republican political consultant, agreed and said immigration and farmworker policies were a strength of the Latino Caucus decades ago, but “now it seems like there’s this inability to get beyond those issues.”

A Public Policy Institute of California poll released in February found that far more Latino Californians were concerned about jobs and the economy, as well as homelessness, than they were about immigration.

Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, said it’s a mistake to believe that the caucus was ever a political monolith focused on just immigration policy.

“Latinos have always thought that education, health, public safety, the economy and jobs were all more important than immigration,” he said. “The idea that immigration was the No. 1 issue that Latinos pursued just isn’t true.”

The California State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 30, 2016.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The caucus last week celebrated its 50th anniversary by reflecting on past political accomplishments and introducing a package of 14 bills intended to strengthen Latinos’ access to health, housing and education.

“The issues that they fought for are the same issues we’re fighting for today,” said current Latino Caucus Chair Sabrina Cervantes. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re fighting on behalf of the nearly 15.6 million Latinos in the state of California, where we’re providing that beacon of hope for them in Sacramento.”

The proposed legislation includes efforts to expand social services to immigrants without documentation: Assembly Bill 311 by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) would provide access to food stamps for all eligible people regardless of citizenship status; Senate Bill 227 by Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) would establish an unemployment fund for workers without documentation; and AB 4 by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) would expand health care through Covered California for immigrants without documentation.

“The immense success we’ve had over the last several years expanding health care coverage to millions of our undocumented Californians and farmworkers is a product of the hard work of the Latino Caucus,” Arambula said last week during a caucus celebration at the Capitol. “We will continue to make sure that our communities have their needs addressed.”

Other bills would expand resources for English-language learners and cultural education. AB 393 by Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D–North Hollywood) would require the state to identify dual-language learners in early learning programs.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo’s (D-Los Angeles) AB 1255 would create a statewide task force to help develop an ethnic studies credential for K-12 teachers. This bill supports the 2021 law that requires all California high school students to take an ethnic studies course to graduate.

“We’re not asking for history teachers to become ethnic studies teachers, we’re asking that the state of California create the pathway to credentialing teachers to teach ethnic studies to make this a reality,” Carrillo said Tuesday.

AB 470 by Assemblymember Avelino Valencia (D-Anaheim) would expand access to language and cultural education for practicing doctors in California to fulfill their continuing medical education requirements. Ten million Californians speak Spanish, but there are only 60 Spanish-speaking physicians per 100,000 people in the state, Valencia said.

Other bills in the package not related to immigration include increasing voter registration access and passing a bond for climate-related projects like safe drinking water, and wildfire and drought prevention.

It didn’t seem like there were people of color in the conversations around the environment,” Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) said. “The folks working on these issues didn’t look like us or come from places like us. It makes a difference when you have someone from the community.”

Latino Caucus Vice Chair Sen. Lena Gonzalez filed legislation that would increase the number of paid sick leave days from three to seven for Californians who work 30 days or more per year.

The Long Beach Democrat said the three-day sick leave policy was “groundbreaking” in 2014, but nearly 10 years later and amid the reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, “it is outdated and insufficient to meet the needs of our diverse workforce.”

Over the last half-century, the Latino Caucus has produced some of California’s most influential political leaders, including: former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, the first Latina elected to the state Legislature; Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino U.S. senator; Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino elected as Los Angeles mayor in over 100 years; and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the state’s first Latino attorney general.

But the group also weathered a major storm a few years back. Former Latino Caucus executive board member Sen. Ron Calderon was sent to prison in 2016 after pleading guilty to a federal corruption charge of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover FBI agents and a hospital executive.

The California Latino Legislative Caucus also has faced criticism for excluding Republicans.

There are four Republican Latinos in the state Legislature. Kate A. Sanchez (R-Trabuco Canyon), Josh Hoover (R-Folsom) and Juan Alanis (R-Modesto) are in the Assembly. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) was elected to the state Senate in 2020.

Alanis congratulated the Latino Caucus’ anniversary in an email statement, but said, “It is unfortunate that Latino members remain excluded because of party affiliation.”

Madrid, the GOP political consultant, said the continuing partisan nature of the caucus hindered its growth over the past 20 years. “It’s really a relic of the past,” he said. “They shouldn’t be afraid of having discussions and ideas; they control the legislative agenda anyway.”

Diversity in the Latino Caucus has increased through the years. This is the second time in its 50 years that two women lead. Cervantes is the first openly LGBTQ female chair. Latinos of different cultural backgrounds, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Salvadorans, represent people all across the state.

Our diverse experiences, our perspectives and our voices at every leadership level allow us to understand better and respond to the needs of the people that we represent daily,” Cervantes said Tuesday.

Madrid said the caucus does not do enough to define a Latino economic agenda that is appealing enough to get voters out to the polls. According to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, Latinos represent the largest ethnic group in the state at 35%, but only 21% of that group are likely to vote.

“Have they realized that they’re no longer a small niche part of one party?” he said.

Cervantes said representation in government is essential to future prosperity and caucus members are mindful about elevating Latinos to higher positions.

“We have to continue utilizing our collective voice because it is powerful,” Cervantes said. “We will continue to ensure that we are elevating names so that we can get more representation.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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