News Column

The Power of Incumbency

Jun 2 2000 11:58AM

Most of the 19 Hispanic members of Congress enjoy safe seats for the 2000 elections.

By Joel Russell
Hispanics fill 19 seats in the 109th Congress, a record number that shows no sign of dropping. With one exception, all incumbent Hispanic members of Congress appear likely to return to office after the 2000 elections. Even in safe districts, where the incumbent enjoys a huge advantage over all comers, the major political parties have learned to play the Hispanic card by matching a Hispanic challenger against the Hispanic in office.

The exception to the wisdom that "incumbency rules" occurred in California's 31st district, where 18-year veteran Matthew Martinez lost the Democratic primary to State Senator Hilda Solis. Ms. Solis, who represents the same area in the statehouse, won by a 2-to-1 margin. The district consistently votes Democratic, and Ms. Solis faces no major party opposition in the November general election.

The challenger benefits from high-profile endorsements, including Mr. Martinez's own sister and several members of Congress. Loretta Sanchez, who represents California's 46th district and serves as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, backs Ms. Solis over her colleague. Ms. Sanchez has established herself as a fund-raising force in Washington, a key advantage for her friends as well as her own re-election efforts, which pit her against Gloria Matta Tuchman, a former Republican candidate for state superintendent of schools.

Meanwhile, Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois has overcome a threat from the judicial branch. His district was created following the 1990 Census, which documented a tremendous influx of Hispanics to the Chicago area. To accommodate the Hispanic voting bloc, the 4th district resembles a doughnut, completely surrounding the 7th district. Now that the courts have declared the boundary lines constitutional, Mr. Gutierrez faces nominal opposition from Republican John Birch, whom he defeated by a wide margin in 1998.

As the newest Hispanic incumbent in Congress, Joe Baca gets no rest from electioneering this year. In November 1999, he won a special election for the seat of deceased Congressman George Brown. Mr. Baca beat Mr. Brown's widow, Marta Macias Brown, as well as Republican Elia Pirozzi, who returns for another round in November 2000. California's 42nd district, comprising parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, has a solid bloc of Hispanic Democrats whose loyalty has transferred from Mr. Brown to Mr. Baca.

Congressman Xavier Becerra also plans to participate in back-to-back elections, the first in November for Congress and the second in April 2001 for mayor of Los Angeles. If he wins the mayor's office, he'll resign his position in Washington; otherwise, he'll settle for some new high-profile committee assignments assuming the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.

Source: Hispanic Business Magazine

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