La Raza To The Top
In the struggle for the hearts and votes of Latinos, Republicans are doing well, but Democrats are doing better.
Thursday, October 5, 2000
Recently, a new slogan was added to the list of Republican campaign pins for sale online. Scrolling down past "Miami Relatives for Bush," "The Liberal Media Sux," and "STOP HILLARY NOW," you come upon a tone-downed pin that states simply, "Latinos for Bush." The language is plain and the message is equally clear: Latinos nationwide are fast becoming this election year''s most coveted voting bloc, and everyone wants a piece.
Indeed, with the Latino population growing four times faster than the general population, the ranks of today''s estimated 8 million Latino voters nationwide are quickly swelling. Latinos are becoming a powerful political force, not only in states where they represent the largest ethnic minority like Texas, California and Florida, but also in historically white middle-class strongholds like Illinois and New York and in surprising new areas like North Carolina and Virginia.
The shift is particularly dramatic in California, where on August 30 whites officially became a racial minority. In this state that typically draws fewer than 10 million voters on presidential election days, one million new voters have been registered since 1996, a significant portion of them Latino.
With all this in mind and George W. at the party''s helm, the Republicans have donned cowboy boots and sombreros and welcomed the campaign season to the tune of mariachis and Vincente Fernandez. Voters have been repeatedly reminded that Bush speaks Spanish, thanks to his brother''s (Florida Governor Jeb Bush) Mexican wife and their tall, dark and bilingual son George P., who has been paraded around the county on a "Viva Bush" tour. Bush''s brief trainside appearance in Salinas last month was accompanied by the now-obligatory Mexican horns and a momentary appearance by a Bush-supporting Mexican farmworker whose stage time totaled less than that even of Ms. Rodeo Salinas.
The impacts of such appeals are reverberating through pockets of Latino communities around the country and close to home in the Central Valley. While Bob Dole garnered only 20 percent of the Latino vote in his 1996 presidential bid, the Bush camp expects far more based on preliminary polling.
And all the hard work may indeed pay off. With two months to go before the fall general election, a Salinas woman named Rosa has been sworn in as a U.S. citizen just in time to register to vote. In a small storefront office that houses a voter registration program in East Salinas, Rosa is asked whom she will select for president. She ponders the question momentarily, explaining that she hasn''t really figured out all the issues yet, then takes a gamble and says, "I think Bush, because maybe he is more for us Mexicans. Maybe he will do something to stop all those people from dying along the border."
The Democrats aren''t holding their breath to find out. Hoping that Gore''s position on social issues and his selection of an orthodox Jew for the vice presidential ticket will convince Latinos that the Democrats embrace diversity and speak for the common lower-income American, Gore has done his bit to attract Latinos. While past Democratic candidates have taken for granted that two-thirds of the Latino vote will come their way, Gore is taking extra care to catch a photo op with his arm slung around a bilingual teacher and to get stilted pronouncements of unity like "somos todos una familia" into his public appearances.
But Democratic candidate for the 28th District State Assembly and local Latino patron saint Simon Salinas thinks Democrats need not fret, because the Republican pro-Latino stance is only an image and will not work. Says Salinas, "Latinos are as astute as any other group. You have to earn their respect and vote. You can''t just ride in a Cinco de Mayo parade with a sombrero on."
Down Home Politics
Whatever the impact of the national competition for Latino votes, here on the Central Coast the real showdown may not take place in the national arena at all.
Particularly in communities like Monterey County, where the estimated 41 percent Latino population remains primarily in the lower income bracket, issues of day-to-day survival and practical security often take precedence over lofty national debates. Resident expert on voting trends and Latino politics Paul Johnston, speaking from the Citizenship Project he directs in East Salinas, says the real election drama is being played out in smaller local and state elections, because "that''s where it''s at for people, the local stuff."
According to Tony Acosta, head of VOTE, a new Latino voter registration program housed next door to the local Teamster 890 office and alongside the Citizenship Project, the demographics of Monterey County''s Latino community give backing to Johnston''s theory. Acosta maintains that 95 percent of the local Latino community is composed of Mexicans, most of whom immigrated to the U.S. from poor rural communities to work in agriculture. The present-day Mexican-American community--densely concentrated in East Salinas, the South County, and Seaside--has since moved into packing plants and other blue-collar occupations, as well as into higher paying jobs.
"These are people that like to talk about labor rights, minimum wage, medical insurance and affordable housing," says Acosta. "They want to own homes and have the American Dream."
But because local Latinos live within an ethnically and economically diverse population that includes many well-off and established constituencies, Latinos have only in the past decade begun to achieve even the most basic political representation. It wasn''t until 1989 that Simon Salinas became the first Latino elected to sit on the city council for the city of Salinas, where Latinos make up the majority of the population. And just two years ago, attorney Anna Caballero--generally considered a moderate on most social and development issues--was elected to lead the city as mayor.
Simon Salinas campaign consultant Greg Sellers says that electing Latinos in communities like the Central Coast proves an extra challenge, which is why the Simon Salinas race sets an important precedent. "It''s one thing to get a Latino elected in an urban area like East LA," says Sellars, "and quite another thing in a more rural area that is economically, racially, and culturally more diverse like the 28th District."
No race better exemplifies the schism in Monterey County political thinking than the Salinas City Council District 4, where two liberal Latinos are running against an Anglo named Alice Moe. Moe, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, declared herself against taxes of any kind in a recent Weekly endorsement interview, and followed up with the statement: "I will call those Mexican people ''Americans'' once they can come up to me and speak English."
Registering to VOTE
So crucial is increasing Latino political representation on the local level that VOTE, the highest profile voter registration group in the area, is focusing solely on supporting local candidates. Acosta explains the strategy in practical terms. "Our goals are social change at the state and local level and increasing grassroots political power," he says. "Most of what the government does that really changes people''s lives is at the local level."
It was the passage of Prop. 187--the statewide ballot measure that blocked access to health care and education for undocumented immigrants--that spurred the present political mobilization movements among California''s Latinos back in 1995. Coupled with Clinton''s welfare reform bill the following year as well as threats to affirmative action, Latinos throughout the state began to take greater notice of the decisions that were being made, for the most part, without them. A major citizenship drive ensued, with the goal to get the vote and strengthen the Latino political voice.
In 1995, just as the statewide movement was gathering steam, the Teamsters office in Salinas donated space to begin the Citizenship Project, which uses grassroots organizing and an adult school to prepare immigrants to become citizens under the motto "Citizenship is More Than Papers." Project director Paul Johnston, who came to East Salinas from his teaching post at Yale University, explains that "while Mexicans remained most sharply connected to their home community of any immigrant group in the U.S., that all changed in 1995. They began wanting more than just papers: to get the vote, join unions, participate in the schools and community life."
Citizenship Project has assisted half of the area''s 20,000 immigrants who have become naturalized American citizens since 1995, and now, Johnston says, the community is ready to take the next step. "First they were waiting to become citizens," he says, "and now those new citizens are interested in political participation. They''re starting recall movements against city councils and school boards, raising hell about liquor permits, spending time with migrant workers up and down the coast. They are participating."
From that philosophy, VOTE was born as an organization combining policy work with advocacy to create a Latino rights-based political action committee. The organization registers voters for free, but charges an annual membership fee to those who wish to help steer VOTE''s political course. In addition to the standard voter registration drives and practice voting classes, VOTE has endorsed candidates in most local elections and the state propositions, which will be printed up on a card and distributed to the community at large.
Other groups, such as United Farm Workers in Watsonville and the non-partisan Southwest Voter Education Project based in King City, are launching aggressive voter registration drives as well.
Because Democrats tend to favor costly government programs for youth and other government safety nets and focus less on militarization of the border, Acosta is not too worried about the Republicans gaining much ground here in Monterey County. While Latino voting and party membership statistics are not currently available, Acosta uses a recent naturalization ceremony as a marker that the Democrats are holding on to the Latino vote. At a swearing-in this past July, the Citizenship Project registered every one of the 168 new citizens to vote, and 132 of them chose to register as Democrats.
"It''s like the woman that came in yesterday and didn''t know about the parties," says Acosta. "So we started explaining them and she said "OK, I''m a Democrat.''"
But the folks at VOTE certainly do not dismiss the Republicans'' efforts to court Latinos, and concede that their efforts will likely spell a loosening of the Democratic hold on the Latino vote. On a local level, oldtimers like Assemblymember Peter Frusetta have long used Spanish and taqueria pitstops to endear themselves to a Latino community aching for political attention. "The Democrats will certainly lose out to conservatives willing to focus on Latinos," says Acosta. "Everyone has heard ''Bush loves Latinos,'' but no one says, ''Farr likes Mexicans.'' The Democrats will be surprised to see how many votes they lose."
As Mexican president-elect Vincente Fox can surely attest, Mexican culture certainly reveres caudillo-like cowboys, men that dress tough in jeans and boots and are willing to sit down and talk face-to-face like real men. Particularly in rural areas like the Central Coast, Bush''s down-home manner of speaking may appeal to Latinos culturally, although Gore''s ideas may mesh more with their political desires. The fact is, sensitive, mild-mannered men who talk about loving the earth and wear Tevas on casual Fridays may be operating at a distinct disadvantage when vying for the Latino vote.
Round One: Salinas v. Denham
Democrats'' vulnerability is not lost on the California Democratic Party, which has picked the 28th District, where Simon Salinas is taking on moderate Republican Jeff Denham, to receive funds for a Democratic voter registration program. The district is one of 13 Assembly districts statewide designated to receive funding. The funds, totaling approximately $40,000 from the state party, are going toward the training of local bilingual workers, who go door-to-door and to malls and other gathering places throughout the district in hopes of registering 6,000-7,000 new voters. At last count they are well on their way to that goal, with 5,500 new voters registered.
For the folks at VOTE, the notion that the region''s newly naturalized voters could tip the scale in favor of Simon Salinas taking a seat in the state Assembly is their crowning glory. "Here you have a candidate that''s grassroots who came up from the community," says Johnston. "Past efforts to elect grassroots leaders have failed because Democrats have tried to run things for local communities. Here we have a chance for a progressive Democrat to replace a conservative Republican."
As a migrant farmworkers'' son-turned-politician, Salinas is indeed hailed by Latinos throughout the region as a dedicated trailblazer. A bilingual elementary school teacher who was a plaintiff in the 1988 lawsuit against city of Salinas to create voting districts to better represent the largely Latino Alisal community, Salinas then beat out Latino attorney Juan Uranga (husband of Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero) to become the first Latino to sit on the Salinas City Council. After two terms on the council, Salinas moved on to the county Board of Supervisors, where he remains today.
"I decided to run for state Assembly after a series of exploratory meetings from Hollister to King City to San Jose to Watsonville," says Salinas. "No one else surfaced and there was an overwhelming support from Latinos locally and statewide." Salinas, who would join a state Assembly already one-quarter Latino, is focusing on affordable housing and education for migrant and Latino children.
According to Will Skaarup, Salinas'' campaign manager and director of the Democrats'' voter registration program, Salinas has already got the cat in the bag as far as the local Latino vote goes. "Simon has tremendous support among Latinos in this area, so this campaign is family-style," he says. "They really know him well as a smart, sensible, moderate guy, and he''s delivered for them. Simon is so solid with Latinos in Monterey County that he transcends party lines."
But Paul Fickas, Director of the Republican Central Committee of the Central Coast (himself half Mexican and half German) says his Salinas-based organization is aggressively courting Latinos for the campaign of Salinas''s competitor Jeff Denham, who is married to a Mexican woman and is bilingual.
Using plugs on Spanish radio and TV, George W. Bush and Jeff Denham "walks" through Latino areas of Salinas, and exhaustive door-to-door campaigning, Fickas says, "I think we (the Republican Party) have a very good chance for Latino votes nationwide, certainly 15-20 percentage points higher than in the past. This change is coming from the top because George W. is walking the talk by paying Latino staff. Four years ago, people were still just talking."
Speaking of talking, Salinas has a proposition to ferret out all the true Spanish speakers in this campaign, where everyone, it seems--from Denham to Bush to Green congressional candidate Craig Coffin--appears to speak Spanish and have Mexican blood in the family. "Let''s host a debate in Spanish," Salinas says with a chuckle. "And see who can really speak it."
Shaking up South County
As the state candidates vie for party funding and navigate the complex world of two-party politics, a quiet revolution is happening on the ground level in supposedly non-partisan city councils and school boards across the county. The movement is particularly evident in the South County, where Latinos have long been the majority, but where political power remains concentrated in the hands of a white minority often viewed as beholden to the powerful agribusiness economy. According to Johnston of the Citizenship Project, it was the 700-strong strike against the Hume family-owned Basic Vegetable plant--the largest single employer in King City--that set things in motion to shake up the powers that be.
"A strike brings people together, organizes them as activists," explains Johnston. "This strike really politicized the situation because the strikers went to the King City council and asked for support. They felt the police were taking sides, they wanted shelter from the rain. They wanted the city to recognize that the strike was impacting the whole city and to come in and mediate."
According to Robert Tamez, the only Latino currently sitting on King City''s City Council, the strikers--the vast majority of them Latino--came before the council to request a resolution in favor of resolving the strike, and got it. The problem came when, after gathering letters of support from other cities and the county Board of Supervisors, the strikers came back to the King City council a few months later asking for a stronger resolution.
"In essence, the council didn''t want to get more involved," explains Tamez. "They said this is an issue between the company and the union, and not the city. I understood that, but I also understood what the union wanted." This time, Tamez was the only one who made a motion, and the movement died for lack of a second.
Basic Vegetable striker Ernesto Castillo, who is part of the Teamsters'' movement to mobilize a national boycott against the company, says the rejection from the council was unfair and a slap in the face. "Other cities went to the Humes and tried to bring them to the table, but the city of King turned their back on us," Castillo says. "It''s sad, because the council is supposed to come out for the citizens of their community."
Soon enough, the strikers may just have an ear in South County city councils. The race of Yolanda Teneyuque--first cousin of Simon Salinas and the wife of a striking Basic mechanic--would create a new Latino majority on the Greenfield City Council if successful. And Margarita Lopez, sister to striker Ismael Andrade, is running to bring what she calls "a new voice" to the King City council.
A registered Democrat and Safeway clerk by profession, Lopez says the council''s resistance to help the strikers is based less in racial bias and more in fear of going up against such a powerful economic force. But she believes it is time for a change in her town. Citing a lack of representation in all public agencies, Lopez seeks to be a positive role model in the Latino community and to move to create more activities for youth and to curb violence in her community.
Also high on Lopez'' list if she makes it to council is the passage of another resolution in favor of the strikers. "We the people, who are the hearts and souls of this community, should be the people making the decisions," she says.
The office of VOTE and the Citizenship Project are keeping a close eye on the South County developments, hoping to discern whether a lawsuit similar to the Salinas case will be necessary to bring about district elections in this conglomeration of small towns. Ten-year King City Councilmember Tamez is quick to note that his colleagues have always respected him and made him feel perfectly comfortable on the council, but he also grudgingly admits that the town could benefit from the district system.
With all the hype this year about the power of the Latino vote, and taking into consideration the high density of Latinos and newly naturalized voters on the Central Coast, this election season begs the question: Is the face of regional politics about to get a serious makeover?
Definitely, says Johnston. "The Central Coast has been electing more conservative candidates traditionally because Latinos weren''t voting," he explains. "If Latinos come out to vote, it should make it possible for this area to look like more liberal areas like San Jose and San Francisco to our north. The 28th District race is only the beginning."
Despite the valiant efforts by Republicans to woo Latinos both nationally and locally, most signs point to a continued Democratic majority among local Latinos, meaning that the impact of an increased Latino vote would be a move leftward. The remaining question lies in Johnston''s caveat, "if Latinos come out to vote." That remains a big "if."
While the numbers of potential Latino voters are certainly on the rise with natural population growth and the wave of new citizens, the population has long been sizeable enough to draw the attention it garnered this year. The lack of attention lay in the fact that Latinos historically had very low rates of voter turnout.
According to local voter registration experts from VOTE and the Southwest Voter Education Project in King City, many recent Latino immigrants never voted in their home countries and are overwhelmed by the quantity of election information thrown at them during election times. "They say to us, ''You vote for me, you do it''," says Acosta from VOTE "And we have to say, ''That''s illegal. You have to decide for yourself.''"
Corrupt leaders and questionable vote-counting methods in Mexico and other Latin American countries have also convinced many immigrants that voting, especially in national elections, will never do them any good. Monterey County Registrar of Voters Tony Anchundo says the answer lies in putting something on the ballot that appeals directly to the Latino community, including candidates, propositions or bond measures that they are invested in.
"It''s not in the actual number of new registered Latino voters that matters, but how many will come out on Election Day," says Anchundo. "We hear about Latino voters every day, but will they go to the polls? That''s the $64,000 question."