Richard Polanco | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Richard Polanco and the Growth of Latino Political Representation in California

Richard Polanco: I'm Richard Polanco. Born and raised in East Los Angeles. Family of eight. Went to public schools. Went on to college. Took me a long time to complete my college education. 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. Dropped out of law school.

It was at the height of in the '90s, when a lot of political turmoil and challenges were occurring. I had been elected to office and was very, very happy and complete. In 1986, when I was elected, I had the opportunity to serve 16 years. I served eight in the Assembly, eight in the Senate. My last four years, I served as the Senate Majority Leader. For 12 years, I had the honor and the challenges that came with the position of Chairman of the Latino Caucus. I chaired that for 12 years.

We, as a group, unified, disciplined with a real vision and plan of action of empowering our community, but at the same time, bringing good public policy to the people of California. We've established, I think, some major accomplishments that are today the sixth-largest economy in the world or the fifth-largest economy in the world today is the beneficiary of a lot of that public policy work.

When I assume the role of the Caucus Chair, yes, it was 1990. I termed out of office in 2002. For those 12 years, I had the opportunity to put a plan together, share it with the members, get buy-in from the members, execute those particular strategic political plans, as well as the public policy consideration agenda that was very important to our community because of the special needs that our community does have, such as the challenges of English language learners. The fact that we are a young population, immigrant population as well.

We as a caucus saw the necessity and we quite frankly believed it was a duty for us to stand up and take on the challenges at that time and bring about the kind of change that was important to people, people in general, and specifically to the immigrant population and the Latino population in particular.

In 1990, it was clear that I would be myself and certainly Chacón, would probably be the only Latino Caucus Members returning. Lucille Roybal-Allard had decided to run for Congress. Xavier Becerra also running for Congress. Come 1998, not only I assumed the Chair of the Latino Caucus, but it also created an environment that allowed us to look at several public policy considerations that were already engaged example or more specifically.

In 1986, IRCA was established. It was the Immigration Reform Act signed by President Reagan. In that act, there was a provision that allowed for naturalization to occur if you did not become a public charge during a five-year period of time. When you look at that five-year period of time, it runs and kicks in 1991.

In 1990, the census had been completed, reapportionment had been done, the redrawing of the lines had occurred. I had assumed the leadership and saw the opportunity with a well-orchestrated strategic plan to build the presence and the participation politically speaking in the halls in Sacramento.

In 1992, the largest Latino class of members came and were sworn in. Martha Escutia, Diane Martinez, Grace Napolitano, Louis Caldera, Hilda Solis, Joe Baca were part of that infusion that really shocked and created a lot of shockwaves, not necessarily negative, but really brought our community to the table as it relates to both the politics and the public policy considerations.

The very next year in '93, Cruz Bustamante wins in a special election. Now, in 1990, term limits kicks into play, which basically allowed for Assembly members to serve six years in the Assembly, and for State Senators to serve eight years in the Senate. That was very important for us to not only acknowledge, but gave us the opportunity to plan because the entire Assembly was going to be a new face in California.

In '92, we have this big influx. In '93, Cruz Bustamante becomes speaker and followed in '98, Antonio remains or becomes the speaker. Now, we've really begun to institutionalize our community's presence in the halls of Sacramento, both public policy and politically.

Why is that important? It's important because when you look at what and how this anti-immigration evolved, we look in '93, the Driver's License Bill  is signed into law. I introduced in 1992, what was referred to as the Leticia A. This was a court ruling that allowed for in-state tuition for undocumented students. The bill passed through the Assembly, reached the governor's desk, only to be vetoed. The Driver's License Bill  and this particular bill, post, post-1994 with the anti-immigration bill initiative that became law.

This initiative was so mean-spirited. It would require doctors, nurses, teachers, to report to the INS if you suspected that that child or that family were undocumented. Suspected, to mean that if I was to dress down and get out of my suit attire, someone could arbitrarily report me on the suspicion that I am undocumented. This was a very calculated, politically-motivated initiative that fanned the flames in California of racism, it fanned the flames of race-baiting, and it was done purely for political reasons.

What do I mean by that? Governor Pete Wilson was 20 points behind his reelection to the governorship. Kathleen Brown had mounted a very strong, effective campaign, launched to become the possibility of having the first woman governor in the State of California. Because of the anti-immigration and the political campaigning that was done, Pete Wilson got elected.

I'll never forget when Pete Wilson was standing with the Statue of Liberty behind him and making the statement, "Legal is legal." Meaning and implying that, "If you are here undocumented for some reason, you're illegitimate. You don't have a voice. We should not care for you." Cruz Bustamante and I, when we saw that we raised $100,000, we ran a TV cable by in Sacramento only. We used the governor's own words to restore food stamps for seniors who were legal, permanent residents and children. It was not an easy task. I mentioned that, why is it important to have representation that reflects diversity and representation that brings different cultures, and ideas, and beliefs, to the big table of the fifth largest economy in the world. For the Welfare Reform Act, which was signed into law by a Democratic President, Cruz Bustamante, then speaker was able to negotiate along with Martha Escutia at the table, Denise Duncheny who was at that time, the Chair of the Budget Committee, Martha Escutia and Antonio. Four mebers of the Caucus who negotiated with Pete Wilson.

There was pushback even from Democratic Caucus Members because the budget was held. Imagine this, Denise Ducheny and Martha Escutia, members of the Conference Budget Committee, who are not going to support that budget, unless the food stamps are restored to the legal, permanent residents, who happened to be seniors. Our grandparents, abuelitos, our parents perhaps even.

The politics were such that the Conference Committee convened the very next day that it was known that Martha and Denise would not vote for the budget, unless it included. They went into hiding. It was almost comical. They went into hiding and the sergeants came looking for them. Eventually they found their asylum, if you will, in the staircase of the old part of the Capitol, and then work their way down to the Speaker's Office in what is now the Willie Brown conference room, they locked themselves in.

Unbeknownst to them that the Senate sergeants were looking for them, [chuckles] and unbeknownst to them that their car keys from the garage had been taken. Bill Lockyer was the President Pro Tem at the time, and is not in Sacramento, is in Riverside. Make a long story short, he has to come back, cut his visit, bring back the keys and we'll leave it at that. A quorum would not be established without two members of the Democratic Assembly side of the aisle had to be present.

If they were not present, you couldn't conduct business, which to us was very important because we always understood that you have to understand the rules, because of the individuals who mastered the rules control the outcome of the game. This was very important to our community and to the Asian community and to the other recipients who happened to also have included the African-American community.

The Welfare Reform Act was a step backward from the Democratic principles that we would not allow to occur. We have the importance of members now chairing the various committees. 1994, the Democrats lost control of state Assembly. We lost control of the Congress, the new Newt Gingrich proposal make America-- I was going to say make American great, [laughs] pretty much the same thing.

A contract with America was the mantra, a mantra that was used propelled changed. It was another call to us in of the caucus to ensure that we mounted the kind of building of coalition with community based groups, with our labor organizations, with the churches. At the height of 187, it really gave the community a opportunity for all these groups to come for the first time in my political life, to see 70,000, 100,000 go to the streets in opposition to this Proposition 187.

Now, to make matters worse, two years later in 1996, another proposition comes into existence approved by the voters, and that is the Anti-affirmative Action. Now, as all of this is occurring, the Latino caucus has now created alliances and an infrastructure to assist in funding, community-based agencies, church organizations, community colleges, adult schools, the necessary resources so that those who are now beyond the five year limit and who want to become naturalized, we now had the financing to pay for the naturalization process.

It is estimated that about 500,000 new citizens were naturalized, the Tomasa Rivera Center along with Dr. Segura has done some incredible analysis of how 187, the Anti-affirmative Action. Then two years later in 1998, the ballot initiative to end bilingual education that was sponsored by Hastings Reed. Because of these constant attacks, they were really attacks on the Latino community, bilingual education, the anti-affirmative action, the 187, all of those were, were attacks after 187.

The anti-immigration and furuba continued, but it did not discourage the Latino caucus. We grew the very next year. The next largest class in '68, was elected and the rest is history. The importance of having political representation, understanding the rules, and how they work, and how to make them work for the benefit of people, is why I got into politics. I got into politics along with the other members because we care. Because we care, because we are patriotic, because we know given the opportunity, we will succeed.

We don't come hat in hand to come and play in the political arena or in the business corporate world, "Give us the opportunity." We will compete and surpass the expectations of many. After the census you're required to do reapportionment. Congress does the reapportionment. In addition to that, the legislatures are constitutionally bound to draw the lines for the political representation. You have reapportionment, you have census reapportionment, and then the redrawing of the lines.

Well, just as we'd become knowledgeable on how to draw our lines, we, as a caucus hired our own independent consultants outside of the Democratic Party. We were always wanting to institutionalize internally that of what has already existed. Because of those and term limits, it was real clear that every member of the Assembly was going to be up for reelection. That destabilized the speakership. Up to then, Willie Brown was speaker for a total of 18 years, if I'm not mistaken.

In so doing we saw as the caucus, we saw the opportunity to advance the first Latino speaker with Cruz Bustamante. That was a successful accomplishment. That brought in just a tremendous amount of not only sense of pride. The campus gets built as a result of Cruz being the speaker, contacting Denise, "I need 10 million for planning, 300 million to be built." It's put into the bond that Antonio's carrying. We begin to see an advance within the framework of how things get done in California, but those elements of the term limits, the redistricting of lines. We had the opportunity to draw the lines, now that's been changed. It's really interesting how you have campaign reform, we played by the rules, we were very successful. The proof is the net result of members getting elected not just in Latino influence seats, but non-Latino influence seats.

[unintelligible 00:20:17] gets elected to the Assembly in a district that has like 19%, Latino registration. Deborah Ortiz, former Chief of Staff gets elected to the Assembly and to the Senate, in the Sacramento area, where you have maybe 12% Latino-political voting population.

As a caucus, we never subscribe to the notion that you can only run and be successful in minority ethnic seats. We broke that glass ceiling time and time again. We broke it in the Central Valley. We broke it up in the Bay Area. We broke that glass ceiling in Empire, which today is now pretty much Democratic in all its representation.

I think it goes to the whole notion of that the Republican Party rolled the dice against a very significant, both economic and politically community. Along with the allies that aligned in support of our efforts, the Republicans were constantly going the opposite way. They posted guards in Orange County to suppress voters. They were sued. Settlement was done.

Today, there is not one Republican constitutional officer in California. Today, there are but five members of Congress. Today Orange County is what used to be the foundation of the Republican Party in California is blue. Caution to the political leaders who believe that by scapegoating and bringing anti-immigrant messages and race baiting, caution. I caution you because this community will continue to grow economically speaking and politically speaking.

Not just in California, you can now look in different states in California, where you're having the first Latino get elected to the Council, the first Mayor Woman getting elected. Know that our interest is what's in the best interest for the country. What is in the best interest for the country and our community is good for all the people of California, and all the people of the United States of America.

The concern of Democrats or whomever, independents even, their concern was really about their re-election. That had very little to do with whether or not Proposition 187 was good for California. Once the initiative qualified in October, the community had launched a massive, a massive march. I have the 187 button and it has Gilbert Cedillo, who was with the Labor SEIU telephone number as the contact.

Leading up to this, you had the various community organizing that was occurring. You had the some politician say, "No, don't do it." I was very strongly in support. I believe that our community had the right to assemble and had the right to express. I think there was some concern with probably more at that particular rally. Mexico flags and American flags, I think that that to me really is inconsequential, in that people are there to express. We are individuals who have our roots in Mexico. We are also individuals who have our roots here in America.

That particular march, one month before the actual initiative was to me very important and crucial. Not just a march in the LA area. These were marches throughout the various parts of California. Student walkouts were occurring, college marches. There was a lot of movement that I had not seen since the Chicano Moratorium and the student walkouts, of which I proudly participated in. What a sense of pride just muchos [unintelligible 00:25:21] to see our community taking a stand.

I remember marching with the labor leaders that were there, from the African American clergy. I remember Martha bringing in busload from her district to the march. It really gave our community a voice, a declaration, that 187 was an anti-immigrant Proposition that was mean spirited, and that we were not going to allow for it to go unchallenged.

Either through the legal system or through the Assembly, the utilization of our constitutional rights to assemble and to protests. I'll never forget the wave and the sense of pride that we all felt because we knew we were taking a stand and doing it for the right reason in opposing Proposition 187.

187 was very well financed. 187 had the political power, elite of the Republican Party leading the charge. Members of our caucus felt that that march was the cause of creating more anti-sentiment, if you will. Perhaps, some may, but I look at the positive side. I look at the fact that our community organized, our community had a voice, our community went out there. Our community not only stopped there, it continued to politically engage.

Our DACA students today continue to politically engage. These children are American citizens and that will continue to outpace the immigration and migration that occurs. We have the strong political involvement of those who are undocumented, who become naturalized. We see in the studies that they vote in higher propensity than the natural born, the studies that were done to compare California, anti-immigrant at the time, comparing it to Texas and Florida. All of that negativity, especially in Texas, with Bush then being Governor, shied away from what Pete Wilson and the Republican Party were doing in California.

I am not sure that that I'm answering the question precisely, but I'm very proud. I'm filled with joy and delight that our community, the so called sleeping giant, was never really asleep. It was building, it was organizing, and it was planning and executing, both for political and public policy change. I would have thought that we had learned it but obviously with this president and the republican stronghold on the Senate side are just continuing to perpetuate what didn't work in California.

The fact that we don't have comprehensive immigration reform. The fact that you're scapegoating the immigrant population, breaking up families, taking kids away from their parents. This is horrible. This is horrible. I'm not sure that based on that, whether or not they took what has happened in California seriously enough. We will overcome all the rhetoric.

When I say we, I don't mean just the Latino community, I mean people of good heart, of goodwill. What we see is evil. What is occurring is evil behavior, and that is not sustainable. It wasn't sustainable in California, and it won't be sustainable in other parts of the country, where the immigrant population is used to race-bait to be accused of all the economic ills, to being accused of being on welfare. All of that negativity we went through. What is occurring unfortunately across the country with the President leading this, is horrific. It's not human. It's not what humanity is about. It's very uncaring and it's not sustainable. It will not sustain itself. The goodwill of people from all walks of life is much stronger and every movement has demonstrated that. Whether it was the Civil Rights Movement. Whether it was the farm working movement. It will also be with the immigrant movement that we see taking place across the country.

The California Supreme Court ruling 187 constitutional, it would be the beginnings of some horrible stories and experiences that will [unintelligible 00:31:28] would have traumatized much of what we see and read today. Innocent kids, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters, and for what? And for what? For political gain, for political seat? For political victory? Why? Why would someone advance something that creates fear, anxiety? We see it today. We see that fear and that anxiety. Kids going to school not knowing if they're coming home. Whether or not their parents will be there. For what? Why?

School teachers would be required to report. The Attorney General of California at the time, Lungren, who also supported 187 would create a depository of those who are suspected, suspected of being here undocumented. The whole notion that they're here taking social services away is bunk. Every year the Department of Social Services issues a report, any profiles of who is receiving and the predominantly recipients I can tell you are Caucasian women.

The undocumented population time and time again, is the population that gives more and pays into the system in taxes but is not able to receive any of the benefits. It shows that people will respond to human needs and human hurts. In California, we have today undocumented kids covered by healthcare. We have our seniors covered by healthcare. We now are teaching multi-lingual rather than bilingual but multilingual immersion languages, which received the highest support from Anglo-Caucasian voters than any other group. Why is that? There's value in having more than one language in this global world in which we live in.

I'm glad that 187 was ruled unconstitutional. Much of what our country is experiencing is also going to be ruled I believe unconstitutional. We ought to just find ways to remedy issues rather than attack and blame and scapegoat individuals. We're much stronger and a better society when we approach the problem in a comprehensive, open heart, rational, reasonable, transparent manner. Not through political campaigning and slogans like we've seen in the past, like we see today.

My community involvement really gave me the basis of looking ahead. I learned in community organizing that many times, especially in Maravia with the housing programs that I was involved with, I learned that the play was never really here. That's what they want to show. The play is out here. The anticipation with 187 and the aftermath, it was clear that all these events that happened in the '90s, that I described, when we put all of them together, we were able to plan ahead.

We were able to have the wherewithal, the understanding of how to run campaigns, how to finance campaigns, how to recruit candidates. How to have crossover, how to articulate the issues. When I87 was introduced, if you read it is very poorly drafted, almost in haste. The necessity to prepare for post was really clear. The advantages were already executed. By that I mean, it could have been any other ethnic group or even the Democratic Party or even the Republican Party to take what was happening and piece it together. For whatever reason, they chose not to.

I'm a strong believer that in organizing, you build the foundation. The foundation, you get investment from the members. You get the plan put together. You execute it. You just continue in a process that every two years, you know politically speaking there's going to be elections for the Assembly, and every four years for State Senators. There're only 40 seats in the Senate and 80 in the Assembly. Those positions matter.

It's important as to who gets elected. It's important to have the diverse experiences of gay and lesbian community, of African-American community, of the Asian community, of Latino community. Public policy is more inclusive when you have people at the table putting it together. I hope that what we created with the Caucus continues because it's imperative that we remain politically active. Not just in Sacramento but in our local city councils, in our school boards.

I'm proud that I authored the California Voting Rights Act, which basically, allows for cities that have at large elections, that may have for example have a population of 80% ethnic minority, predominantly Latino or otherwise, but the entire councils not reflected. The bill allows for a challenge in the court. It allows for districts elections versus at large elections. To date, over 200 municipalities in California, have exercise and in doing so, they are now having representation on those city councils, on those school boards. That matters. That makes a hell of a difference. That creates more inclusion. That creates a better public policy.

I guess it's a long way to say that, looking at what the building blocks were, they continue to be there, albeit the rules change. Now you have bands on transferring the money for campaign. You have to disclose. Back then we could transfer. We could raise as much as you want. You had to report it.

Rules got changed. Term limits, limits participation to six years from Assembly members, didn't happen by accident. Things don't happen in the political arena by accident. These are well thought out strategic plans that are executed both for the good, for the public good, and at times obviously, to hurt the public.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

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.”

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