U.S May See More Hispanic Mayors
by MICHELLE KOIDIN
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Four of the nation's biggest cities may soon have mayors who reflect the explosive growth of America's Hispanic population.
New York and Houston could elect their first Hispanic mayors, and Los Angeles could choose its first since 1872. In San Antonio, which holds its election earliest, on Saturday, voters could pick their second Hispanic mayor since 1848.
''We are assimilated, we've integrated and we are participating,'' said Orlando Sanchez, a Houston city councilman and Cuban immigrant running for mayor of the nation's fourth-largest city.
During the last decade, the nation's Hispanic population surged by 58 percent to 35.3 million, near parity with blacks, according to the 2000 Census. Hispanics now account for 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.
But their political clout has failed to keep up with their numbers. For one thing, many Hispanics are immigrants who are not yet citizens and cannot vote. Also, about one-third of America's Hispanics are under 18, too young to go to the polls.
The number of Hispanics in high political offices remains small. For example, they hold 21 seats in the U.S. House, compared with 39 by blacks. There are no Hispanics -- or blacks -- in the Senate.
But Hispanics are making their mark on the local level. There are already Hispanic mayors in San Jose, Calif., Albuquerque, N.M., and many smaller cities, particularly in the Southwest. Miami has had Hispanic mayors almost continuously since 1972.
The candidates in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and San Antonio are varied: Two are of Mexican descent, one is Cuban and one is Puerto Rican. Three are Democrats and one is a Republican.
In San Antonio, City Councilman Ed Garza has a commanding lead in the polls to become mayor of the nation's ninth-largest city. The 32-year-old urban planner would be the city's first Hispanic mayor since Henry Cisneros, a charismatic politician who pushed through massive public works projects in the 1980s.
''It's a growing sophistication on the part of the Hispanic community as far as putting good, quality candidates forward,'' said Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. ''On the other level, it's a reflection of American culture changing. It's becoming more Latinized.''
In San Antonio, where the Hispanic population rose from 55.6 percent in 1990 to 58.7 percent in 2000, Hispanics long were discouraged from running for office and could not raise enough money or get whites to vote for them, Flores said.
Garza, a third-generation San Antonian, shows how things have changed. He has raised slightly more money than his main opponent, a white city councilman. A recent poll showed that Garza leads among Hispanics with 72 percent of the vote, while the two are tied among white voters.
In Los Angeles, former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa came in first in the nonpartisan race last month with 30 percent of the vote and advanced to a June 5 runoff against City Attorney James Hahn, who got 25 percent.
L.A.'s Hispanic population grew from 39.9 percent to 46.5 percent in the 1990s, and now nearly matches that of whites, 46.9 percent.
Electing Villaraigosa would ''really open up opportunities and say everyone can govern this country,'' said Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles County supervisor. ''And believe me, we have a long way to go in that direction.''
Nevertheless, Villaraigosa himself rejects the Hispanic mayor label, saying: ''I want to be a mayor for everybody.'' He and other Hispanic mayoral candidates emphasize reaching out to all groups.
While the candidates have a natural base from which to work, the Hispanic vote is not enough, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
''They have to put together a coalition of voters,'' Vargas said. ''You see these candidates bend over backwards to present themselves to the community at large as the candidate for all people, and not just one ethnic group.''
For example, Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president who is running for mayor of New York, has been trying to build a coalition of Hispanics, blacks and progressive whites -- the same coalition that elected David Dinkins in 1989 as New York's first black mayor.
''Just like in L.A., and just like in black America when Jesse Jackson ran for president, and just like in Jewish America when Joe Lieberman ran, there is an undeniable pride'' among Hispanic New Yorkers, Ferrer said.
To Ferrer, only one difficulty comes with being a Hispanic candidate: ''I just have to give press conferences in two languages.''