Richard Polanco and the Growth of Latino Political Representation in California
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez
Looking back on his legislative career, Richard Polanco lists his efforts to increase the number of Latino Democratic Legislators from seven to 24 in the years that he was chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus (1990 to 2002) as a major accomplishment.
Helping Latino Democrats get elected and nurturing the political force that they would become is what many would point to when speaking of Polanco. It was his legacy as a politician and member of the California legislature, to which he had been elected in 1986 — just one of a handful of Latinos that served at the time.
Polanco was born and raised in East Los Angeles, the son of Maria and Lorenzo Polanco. He attended public schools, the University of Redlands and Universidad de Mexico.
“Growing up as a child, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer and being elected to office, I accomplished the being elected to office, and then one year of law school, then I dropped out. It was at the height of it in the early ‘90s when a lot of political turmoil and challenges were occurring,” he recalls.
In 1990, he assumed the chairmanship of the Latino Caucus, which was a small group. Still, he saw a political opportunity to grow the ranks of elected Latino representatives after the 1986 Amnesty Law, the 1990 Census and the reapportionment of districts.
The previous decade had been one of tremendous growth of the Latino population in California.
“In 1992, the largest Latino class of members came in,” says Polanco. “This infusion really created a shockwave, brought our community to the table. In 1993, after term limits kick in, Cruz Bustamante becomes the first Latino speaker of the California Assembly in the modern era.
Polanco believes in the importance of representation “that reflects the diversity that brings together different cultures and ideas and believes to the big table of the fifth largest economy in the world.”
As an example, he recounts a negotiation in 1996 after the passage of the Welfare Reform Act in Washington, as signed by then-President Bill Clinton.
Latina and Latino members revolted against a provision that took away food stamps from legal permanent residents. Two Latina legislators, Denise Ducheny and Martha Escutia, refused to support the budget unless the food stamps were restored.
"These happened to be our seniors, our abuelitos (grandparents), our parents perhaps, even. The politics were such that the conference committee convened the next day, and both Denise and Martha went into hiding.
“A quorum could not be established, and we couldn't conduct business,” he says. "These two legislators, along with Antonio Villaraigosa and Cruz Bustamante, negotiated with then-Governor Pete Wilson to restore those benefits.”
As Proposition 187 is created and passed, and then several other propositions that affected minorities in the following years (elimination of affirmative action in ‘96 and of bilingual education in ‘98), the Latino Caucus was working on facilitating the growth of Latino political power in the state.
“We created alliances with agencies, organizations and schools to naturalize all of those immigrants who were eligible after the 1986 amnesty law,” Polanco says. “It is estimated that about 500,000 new citizens were naturalized in those years.”
Many more followed, and in the aftermath of Proposition 187 and all the other measures, an increase in immigrant voter participation changed California's politics to a very blue, very progressive state.
When Polanco was termed out from the legislature in 2002, he established the California Latino Caucus Institute for Public Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort to develop and train leaders to serve in the public arena.
“I caution the political leaders that believe that they can win by using scapegoating and anti-immigrant messages,” Polanco says. “We will continue to grow economically and politically and not just in California.”