There are two dozen Latinos in the California Legislature today, including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, but when Pete Chacon unexpectedly won a seat in the state Assembly 44 years ago, he became one of only two.
Not only was it unusual for a Latino to be a legislator in 1970, but Chacon did it the hard way. He took a leave of absence from his teaching job, sold his house to raise funds and campaigned for a year to unseat a seemingly secure incumbent in a San Diego district that was just 8 percent Latino in makeup.
Chacon, who went on to serve 22 years in the Assembly, died last month at age 89. His death went largely unnoticed, but he played a key role in opening opportunities for Latinos to gain political power during the last two decades.
During his last Assembly term in 1991 and 1992, Chacon chaired the Assembly’s redistricting committee, named to the position by Willie Brown, the Assembly speaker who once boasted of being the “ayatollah of the Legislature.”
The mild-mannered Chacon was expected to be a chairman in name only and stand aside while Brown’s staffers and hired experts, using data from the 1990 census, secretly drew maps to divvy up Assembly and congressional seats to help Brown’s allies and discomfit his rivals, just as they had 10 years earlier.
Everyone knew that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson would veto a partisan Democratic gerrymander and throw the issue into the state Supreme Court, so the infighting was over who would control the detailed demographic data on which the competing plans would be based, in anticipation of hearings before a panel of judicial masters.
And that’s when Chacon, who had survived 35 missions as a World War II B-17 turret gunner, showed how tough – and independent – he was by staring down Speaker Brown.
The Democrats’ maps were viewed by Latino activists as protecting white and black incumbents while minimizing Latino opportunities to win legislative seats, particularly important because voters had passed term limits in 1990, thereby forcing higher levels of turnover in the Capitol.
Alan Clayton, an adviser to Latino rights groups, recalls that at his request during a committee hearing, Chacon ordered Brown’s minions to hand over the all-important demographic data, thereby making it possible for Latinos to present their own maps to judges who would have the last word.
The effort would have failed, Clayton says, “if it hadn’t been for Chacon.”
The rest is, as they say, history. The Supreme Court’s maps didn’t protect incumbents. The new districts, plus term limits, opened the door for Latinos to make historic gains.
Within a few years, the Assembly had its first Latino speaker, to be followed by three others, and de León became the Senate’s first Latino leader last year.