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Tuesday, Dec 04 2012 11:00 PM

RAY GONZALES: Local Latinos are positioning themselves well in Kern politics

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    Ray Gonzales felt 'devastated, fearful and lost' being in Mexico and so far from home when President John F. Kennedy was killed.

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On election night, political operative Mike Murphy explained to a national television audience why, in his opinion, Mitt Romney was defeated. He noted that Romney had failed to beat back his image as an out-of-touch plutocrat; he had run a dismal campaign; he had been hurt by the timing of Hurricane Sandy; but most of all, in Murphy's words, Romney lost because of "Latinos, Latinos, Latinos."

Certainly the 2012 presidential election will be remembered as one in which the Latino vote, nationally and locally, was determinative. President Obama got as much as 72 percent of the vote while Romney got less than 26 percent. George W. Bush had earned 44 percent in 2004. In battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, Obama received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is a significant portion of the population in those states. Even in Virginia and Ohio, the large percent of the growing Latino vote is credited with securing the victory for Obama. Florida's large Latino vote went 60 percent for the president, including, for the first time, a Democratic majority of Cuban-American voters.

Nationally, it was indeed a historic turnout of the Latino vote for Democrats. Locally, however, as The Californian's Robert Price pointed out in his Nov. 11 column, "The message: Kern still as red as ever," this region is among the state's most conservative. While it is true that Obama got only 38 percent of the vote locally, we can assume that he received well over 70 percent of the growing Latino vote here. We're seeing many indications that the region is returning to the Democratic Party roots that existed here in the 1950s -- before civil rights legislation at the national level turned the Deep South and Kern County into Republican territory.

It's an aberration that in the election of 40 years ago, I, as a Democrat, was elected the first Latino legislator from the San Joaquin Valley. Of course my tenure was short-lived. It took 20 more years for the next Latino to get elected in the valley. That was Cruz Bustamante of Fresno, who was elected to the Assembly in 1992 and eventually became Assembly speaker and lieutenant governor. Today, of course, Democratic officeholders in the state Legislature are the dominant force. Four of the last five speakers of the Assembly have been Latinos. This is reflective of the growing percentage of Latinos in the state's population, nearly 40 percent today -- and they register primarily as Democrats. Here in Kern County, the Hispanic population is more than 50 percent, and while some would say that the county is still very "red," Latinos have made significant political inroads as Democrats.

Michael Rubio holds a state Senate seat, after having served as county supervisor; Rudy Salas has won an Assembly seat after being the first Latino to hold a Bakersfield City Council seat; and Leticia Perez has won the 5th District supervisor's seat previously held by Rubio and Pete Parra. Earlier, Dean Florez and Nicole Parra held legislative seats until they were termed out. It would be safe to say that Hispanics are now the dominant force in the Democratic Party in Kern County.

As Latinos get more education and find their way into the middle-class American mainstream, they will begin to play a larger role in the politics of Kern County, just as they have in the rest of the state and in national elections. In this past election, 12 Hispanics were elected to school boards throughout Kern County and 10 were elected as mayors and city council members in various Kern cities. These new politicians will join the other Hispanics that are already serving on many school boards and city councils. This can only improve the opportunities for many of these individuals to gain the experience to eventually serve in higher office. This is the way it has been done in the democratic process over the years in our country. Latinos in Kern County are only following in the footsteps of all those others, Democrats or Republicans, who pulled themselves up and chose to serve their communities in the political arena. Good for them.

Ray Gonzales, Ph.D., a former Kern County assemblyman and U.S. Foreign Service officer, is retired from the California State University system. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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