Through the fog of the national election results (or the lack thereof) that loomed last Wednesday morning, one thing became perfectly clear: The drive to get out the Latino vote on the Central Coast worked. In countless races across the county, Latino candidates beat out their opponents to establish an unprecedented presence in area politics. In fact, the only regional Latino candidate whom victory eluded--save Latinos who lost out to other Latinos--was 15th District State Senate candidate Anselmo Chavez, who pulled off an impressive 40 percent of the vote against popular Republican incumbent Bruce McPherson.
The Latino candidates differ significantly, ranging from our new education-focused 28th District Assemblyman Simon Salinas to sensible- rowth proponent and Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero. But three commonalties unite them: They are registered Democrats; many of them ran grassroots campaigns; and they were all endorsed by the new political action club VOTE!.
VOTE!, a partisan spin-off of the Central Coast Citizenship Project, conducted a major voter registration drive with new citizens and put out endorsements of local and state candidates, distributing them widely via door-to-door campaigns and phone banks throughout the county. Paul Johnston, director of the Citizenship Project, says a strong Latino turnout at the polls has led to a power shift that''s been long in coming to the Central Coast.
"I have to use the metaphor of the earthquake," explains Johnston, "because when things are rearranged on top of the earth suddenly, it''s from long-term pressures building up under the surface of politics, until old arrangements can no longer remain in place. You can look at a historical process that''s been going on for decades, with one of the biggest roles played by the Teamsters Union and union democracy."
According to Johnston, the election of relatives of Basic Vegetable strikers to the King City and Greenfield city councils is the most remarkable outcome of last week''s election. The ongoing strike by over 700 workers against the King City vegetable packing giant played a key role in mobilizing the Latino communities in surrounding cities, where they comprise the majority of the population but remain a small minority among elected city officials.
Grocery store clerk Margarita Lopez, who will join incumbent Latino councilmember Robert Tamez on the King City council, says her presence on the council will help break Latinos "out of an era where they think one vote won''t make a difference. Now they have someone saying, ''I''m like you, an average person. Your vote does count.''"
Still riding high on the image of farmworkers coming in from the fields to vote last week, Lopez says she will focus on decreasing crime and bolstering opportunities for youth, but also affirms a strong pro-strike stance. "I am a union member and all my family is too," she explains. "My heart is in the union, and I will do whatever is in my power to support the union movement. But I''m only one vote."
Fellow Democrat, union man, and VOTE! member Ralph Rubio will soon be bringing a Latino vote to the Seaside City Council, after sailing past an incumbent and two other candidates to become the city''s first Latino councilmember in memory. Rubio, whose family immigrated to the Peninsula from Mexico and New Mexico back in 1922, attracted Latinos by joining the League of United Latin American Citizens shortly before the race, campaigning in Spanish, and working with Seaside''s weekly Spanish paper Foro Latino.
"I was going out and making one-to-one contact, walking the neighborhood and shaking hands," says Rubio of his campaign. "And things just snowballed from there. [That type of campaigning is] something that people are used to seeing in Latin American countries."
Mirroring the countywide trend, Seaside''s Latino population, estimated at 21 percent in 1990, is on the rise. And according to Rubio, the growing community needs to be brought into the political mix.
"The Latino community needs to be aware that the council is available to them and interpreters can be made available," explains Rubio. "They think that if you''re not a citizen you can''t speak, but that''s wrong. We need to speak to all the new Latino business owners, because that''s where we can find the leaders for our community."
Johnston of the Citizenship Project concludes that now that the Latino political voice has spoken--electing its first leaders in some areas and maintaining the balance of power in strongholds like Salinas--the next step is developing a new political agenda that speaks to the concerns of the community.
"The political complexion of this whole region is changing, and our leadership is looking less like the Central Valley and more like San Jose," says Johnston. "But there''s a question of what are we going to do with this wonderful potential.
"We''re betwixt and between, because we''re still saddled with same old city policies and management that''s more oriented toward agribusiness. We have the potential to deal with catastrophic development facing us and the challenges facing our youth. We have the people, but we don''t have the agendas."