By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California's ethnic mix is well represented among the high-powered supporters being lined up by Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris in her bid to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate - with the notable exception of Latinos.
Two weeks after Harris, who is of African-American and Asian decent, announced her bid, Latino Democrats are mostly silent on whether they will endorse her, with many waiting to see if former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will enter the race.
Either way, the state appears likely to achieve an historic first. If elected, Harris would be the first African-American senator from California. Villaraigosa would be the state's first Mexican-American senator.
As African-American leaders, along with many whites and Asians, throw their weight behind Harris, some Latinos lamented that the race may not have a candidate from their ranks.
"There's a little bit of backlash within the Latino community," said Fernando Guerra, who heads Loyola Marymount's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.
In California, about 7 percent of residents identify as black or African American alone, according to U.S. Census data, while Hispanics comprise nearly 40 percent of the population. But black leaders moved into mainstream state politics earlier than Latinos, many through the well-oiled political culture of the San Francisco Bay Area.
That part of the state, for example, produced California's longest serving Assembly Speaker, African-American Willie L. Brown, Jr., who later served as San Francisco's mayor.
While Villaraigosa as well as Latino Congress members Xavier Becerra and Loretta Sanchez contemplate running, numerous African-American leaders and many from the liberal white and Asian establishments have endorsed Harris, 50.
"I don't view it ethnically," said Los Angeles City Council President Herb J. Wesson, Jr., a former Assembly Speaker who is an African-American and a Villaraigosa ally. Wesson endorsed Harris this week. "The race itself would be historic regardless of who won."
Other Democrats endorsing Harris include Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, the mayors of Oakland and San Francisco, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
Powerful figures such as Democratic State Senate leader Kevin de Leon and other Latino caucus members awaited Villaraigosa's decision.
Harris' political adviser, Brian Brokaw, said Harris was gaining endorsements partly because she had formally joined the race.
On Friday, Brokaw said that Robert Garcia, the Democratic mayor of Long Beach, had become the first Latino elected official to formally endorse Harris.
SENSE OF EXCLUSION
When Willie Brown, who decades ago helped Harris launch her career, publicly suggested Villaraigosa not run out of loyalty to Harris, some Latinos took it as a message for the entire community to back off.
“His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that,” Brown told the Sacramento Bee newspaper last week.
Brown, who said his suggestion was unrelated to ethnicity, did not respond to requests for comment.
Fabian Nunez, a former Assembly Speaker who is close to Villaraigosa, said the speed with which party brass were moving to back Harris, before Villaraigosa or another Latino candidate entered the race, was leading some Latinos to feel sidelined.
"There's a sense among folks that Latinos need to be back-benchers," Nunez said. "The statement that Willie Brown made couldn’t be more insulting."
The situation also has to do with timing. Harris' national star has been rising for several years, and she has been widely mentioned as a candidate for U.S. Senate or for governor.
As Los Angeles mayor, Villaraigosa, 61, was visible on the state and national stage, but he has been out of office for nearly two years and personal issues that dogged him while in office could crop up during a campaign.
Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said that splitting California Democrats along ethnic lines could hurt the party, which dominates politics in the most populous U.S. state.
"I do have a concern that what may evolve is the perception if not the reality of a battle between Latinos and African-Americans," she said.
Villaraigosa, who is expected to decide within weeks if he will run, has not commented on the ethnic politics at play.
A close associate of Villaraigosa, who was not authorized to speak publicly about a possible run and so requested anonymity, said, "He's looking at, 'Can I win this race as Antonio Villaraigosa, former speaker of the Assembly, former mayor of Los Angeles.'"
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Toni Reinhold)