PATERSON, N.J. (AP) When Pepe Mercado”s father opened a luncheonette 31 years ago, he offered a taste of home for fellow Puerto Ricans who were streaming into a city of Italian, Irish and blacks.

Now, for the first time, Hispanics from many countries outnumber all other groups in this one-time industrial center: new Census numbers show Hispanics make up 50.1 percent of the city”s 149,922 residents.

Mercado”s son, looking past plates of spicy chopped liver and stewed pig ears, thinks government ought to catch up and reflect the faces at the diner”s counter. “It”s our time,” he says.

The same cry is being heard throughout the nation as political maps everywhere must be redrawn in the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting.

Explosive population growth has given Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups a shot at a political voice a new Asian congressman for California, perhaps, or the first Hispanic state senator in New Jersey.

At the local government level, there”s a chance for Indians, Palestinians, Vietnamese and other groups to elect representatives. But for several reasons party politics, court decisions and conflicts between minorities it won”t be easy.

Redistricting follows the release of Census numbers. Maps must be redrawn so political districts are equal in size at each level of government.

New Jersey and Virginia, which have state legislative elections this autumn, are redistricting first. The other states, with elections in 2002, won”t need to finish redistricting for months.

Party politics always plays a major role in redistricting, and in Virginia the Republicans are in control. The GOP-controlled legislature decides on the maps and the governor, Republican Jim Gilmore, must agree.

Hispanics do not figure to gain much, if anything, there. Gilmore has reached out to Hispanics in northern Virginia, though their numbers are still too small to ensure a Hispanic representative. Blacks are struggling to maintain the gains they”ve achieved in the past.

New Jersey, like a handful of other states, has tried to reduce political infighting by putting redistricting in the hands of a 10-member commission half appointed by Democrats, half by Republicans.

It hasn”t helped. The commission deadlocked, and with a decision due today, a judge has appointed a political science professor as a tiebreaker.

Hispanics in New Jersey want representation equal their 13 percent statewide population. That would mean 10 Hispanics in the state Assembly (there are now five), and five senators (none currently).

With the commission working behind closed doors, it”s hard to say whether their goal will be achieved. But it won”t be for lack of trying. Late last month, Hispanic lawmakers presented a proposed map of their own for commissioners to consider.

“Power is never voluntarily given up, you”re never invited to get a seat at the table,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat. “You have to almost take the seat yourself.”

Minorities arguments can be lost in the bigger battle that shadows all redistricting efforts: Politics. Each party hopes to gain the advantage for the coming decade.

Democrats have promised to spend $13 million on redistricting this time around Republicans are more circumspect. Analysts say the stakes could be a 10-seat swing in the U.S. House.

“This is up close and personal,” said Tom Hofeller, a redistricting expert for the Republican National Committee. “It”s a very, very political activity.”

And the rules for redistricting are changing along with the nation”s cultural mix.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act and subsequent court decisions gave tools to minority groups seeking equal representation, bringing sweeping changes, particularly for blacks in the South. But recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court seem to have diminished the importance of race in redistricting.

Now, race and ethnicity are considered as just one factor. The geography of a community, its interests, its history all must be weighed, redistricting experts say.

The new approach, however, has yet to be tested, says Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights expert with the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta. “Nobody knows what the rules are, they”re very conflicting.”

Those conflicts may well end up in court, McDonald and others said.

And there are more potential conflicts on the ground, as minority groups wind up elbow-to-elbow. Many predict battles, especially in urban areas where, in the past few decades, blacks have struggled for representation.

“You”re going to see Hispanic politicians make the same demands of black politicians as blacks made of whites,” said Paula McClain, a Duke University political science professor. “”We want city council seats, police officers, school boards.””

In places like Virginia, where Asians and Hispanics are concentrated in the suburbs of Washington, the communities are still too new to become politically involved.

“You”re trying to survive,” said Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington. “It takes a while to establish yourself and get fully involved.”

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