Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Growing Latino and Asian ethnic groups may be headed for conflict

Together, Latinos and Asian Americans make up more than half of California’s population and are the only major ethnic groups still expanding – but they are evolving along distinctly different paths.

While some subgroups struggle – Hmongs, notably – overall, California’s Asian Americans have high levels of education and family incomes. They and whites dominate the overclass.

Latinos, meanwhile, have much lower incomes and educational attainment and, along with African Americans, make up most of the state’s less affluent segment.

As their numbers have increased and institutional barriers have crumbled, both ethnic groups have become more politically active. As the two groups become more numerous and politically potent, however, they may become more competitive.

One conflict is over a proposed constitutional amendment that would partially repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot measure that, in effect, makes affirmative action illegal.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 to remove college admissions from Proposition 209’s provisions. He and others argue affirmative action is needed to stem erosion of Latino and black university enrollment.

SCA 5 passed the Senate earlier this year on a party-line 27-9 vote in a rare exercise of the Democratic “supermajority.” Afterward, however, Asian American groups denounced the measure, saying it could make future admissions more difficult for their children. The fierce opposition mobilized the Legislature’s 11 Asian American members. Even the three senators of Asian descent who had supported SCA 5 asked Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to hold the measure.

Pérez announced Monday that it would be held, acknowledging that it lacks votes to be placed on the ballot. There was no way SCA 5 could have gotten the seven votes from Asian American members it needed.

A similar ethnic conflict is shaping up in Orange County’s 34th Senate District. Drawing the 34th SD’s lines three years ago was a struggle for the state redistricting commission, but the final map appears to slightly favor Republicans.

The contest is becoming a high-stakes duel between former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio and Republican county Supervisor Janet Nguyen. Its outcome may determine whether Democrats retain their supermajority in the Senate, which means it will draw big bucks and heavy attention from outside the district.

Finally, there are two Democratic Latino vs. Asian American primary contests for statewide office this year. Speaker Pérez faces Board of Equalization member Betty Yee in the race for controller, while Sen. Leland Yee squares off against Sen. Alex Padilla for secretary of state.

This year’s elections will help set the tone for ethnic debate in the years ahead.