Marcos Bretón

Opinion: California’s Latinos need to seize their seats at the table

Manuel Ferrales, elected in 1969, was the first Latino to serve on the Sacramento City Council. His budding political career held the promise of representation for people long overlooked by the city’s power elite.

Ferrales was not only the first Latino elected in Sacramento – he was the first person ever elected from a neighborhood north of the American River. On the City Council of nine that Ferrales joined, there were five white men from Land Park.

The council’s lopsided membership reflected a deck stacked against Ferrales’ interests – one in which the amount of political representation you enjoyed depended on who you were and where you lived. Ferrales came from Gardenland, a humble neighborhood overlooked by city fathers while nearby South Natomas saw huge development.

“The economic development of the area that I wanted never happened,” Ferrales told me in 1993, long after his political career had ended. “Maybe it was my inability to express a concept or the inability of other people to think differently. I just didn’t have the support … South Natomas exploded, but everyone forgot us.”

Ferrales died in 2012, an underappreciated pioneer. He remains one of just three Latinos ever elected by Sacramento city voters – Joe Serna Jr. and Deborah Ortiz being the other two.

Nearly a half century after Ferrales took office, Latinos remain hard to find on the councils of city and county governments throughout the state.

In population numbers, they make up nearly 40 percent of California’s 38 million residents. But according to an analysis by GrassrootsLab, a political research and data firm in Sacramento, Latinos account for just 15 percent of elected officials in local governments statewide.

Those numbers are only slightly better in the state Capitol – with Latino legislators now occupying 20 percent of the seats. Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat, recently became the first Latino leader of the state Senate since 1883.

His rise demonstrates legitimate progress since Ferrales’ day. But Latinos nonetheless remain on the periphery of political power in California.

For decades, people have spoken of Latino political power as a “sleeping giant” because of growing population numbers that have not translated into more people elected to public office.

It’s a tired cliché.

It’s not that the giant is sleeping. It’s that he needs to decide who he is going to be.

The Latino agenda needs to be about more than immigration and driver’s licenses for the undocumented. It needs to be about more than farmworker issues.

De León’s generation will rise or fall on whether it can bridge the growing divide between rich and poor in California. It will rise and fall on whether it can reform California public schools, which fail to adequately educate too many students.

It will rise and fall on assimilation and on inspiring political participation in marginalized communities. These issues are relevant to a growing number of Californians from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – not just Latinos.

“There are 8.9 million people in poverty in California,” said Mike Madrid, an expert on Latino policy and political trends. “Those numbers are disproportionately Latino. (Because of that) the success of Latinos and the success of California are intertwined.”

A series of indicators shows how Latinos lag in education and wealth. The recent combined graduation rate from two-year colleges and four-year colleges in California was 47 percent for whites, but only 35 percent for Latinos, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending’s 2010 Dreams Deferred Report, Latinos lost their homes to foreclosure during the financial crisis at more than twice the rate of white Californians. Fewer Latinos owned their own homes to begin with, and those who did had often resorted to subprime mortgages with higher interest rates.

Yet poverty and the quality of public education in poor communities remain secondary issues in a state dominated by politicians from the ultra-wealthy Bay Area. Six of California’s 10 statewide elected officials are based there, as are U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. The same goes for Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives.

All these Democrats are barely threatened by a California Republican Party on life support. Consequently, they can’t blame Republicans for the economic disparities that exist today – the same type of disparities ignored back when Ferrales served on the Sacramento City Council.

This is why some Latino leaders say they’re angry that Democrats are trying to clear the field so Attorney General Kamala Harris – another Bay Area politician – can run virtually unopposed in a race to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Boxer.

Former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown enraged many when he smugly suggested that Antonio Villaraigosa – former mayor of Los Angeles – should be “loyal” and stand down while Harris cruises to Washington, D.C.

“Our own party doesn’t believe in us,” said Fabian Núñez, the former speaker of the state Assembly. “They still want to treat us like it’s the 1980s. This is the future of the party that we’re talking about, and we have to prove them wrong.”

Núñez is right.

Politics isn’t about asking for a seat at the table. It’s about stepping up and taking the seat – or being forgotten until you die.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.