The Sleeping Giant Awakes

The Latino vote is coming to an election near youand neither major party is ready for it.

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Once again, California stands on the verge of a xenophobic tantrum. The outburst du jour: a special ballot initiative scheduled for June to ban bilingual education.

At first, the initiative sounds reasonable. The group pushing it, English for the Children, seeks to redress problems that transcend racial politics by banning public school instruction in a child’s native language. Who doesn’t want kids to speak English so they can succeed?

But like its predecessors on the state’s list of measures affecting minority populations, the initiative, mostly aimed at Latinos (California’s largest immigrant group), will likely morph into an electoral shriek.

In 1994, Proposition 187 sought to remove state services to undocumented immigrants; in 1996, Proposition 209 sought to end state-supported affirmative action. (Both passed, but Proposition 187 has been tied up in court challenges over its constitutionality.) In both of those precedent-setting campaigns, proponents, largely Republicans, exploited fear—plentiful in California, where whites will be a minority within a few years. Advertisements for Proposition 187 depicted an invading horde of illegal immigrants, the not-so-subtle message being, “Stop this takeover.” Many Latinos saw this as a racial attack, and, two years later, nearly three-fourths voted for Bill Clinton.

Already, the Republican Party in California has endorsed this new initiative, upholding the GOP’s record as the Democratic Party’s best recruitment tool. Within two decades, Latinos will surpass African Americans as the country’s largest minority. Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the ’96 elections in California and Texas, where close to half of the nation’s 29 million Latinos live (9.1 million and 4.9 million, respectively).

It would seem the Democrats have a lock on the Latino vote. Take Art Torres, the chairman of California’s Democratic Party, who crowed about his opponents’ “image problem” at a debate last fall with state Republican Party chairman Michael Schroeder. “They’ve been great,” Torres says of Republicans and their anti-minority message.

Such assuredness is a huge mistake. “Art can be as smug as he wants,” says Schroeder, acknowledging that his party has an image problem. But Schroeder sees Republican potential in the Latino vote. Prior to the immigrant-bashing wave, Latinos voted in huge numbers for Ronald Reagan, and in 1990 California’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson got 45 percent of their vote. “[Torres] knows as well as I do that as long as everyone feels welcome, we will get a lot more Hispanics,” Schroeder says.

One reason is social conservatism among some Latinos. Campus activism on race and identity issues exaggerates the perception that Latinos are liberal. But their conservative cultural background often influences their politics. In part due to Catholicism, in part to strong family institutions, issues such as abortion and “values” rhetoric play well with Latinos. (“So they didn’t vote for [Bob] Dole,” says Schroeder, conceding that in the past some Republican ads have been racist. “Even if they agree with him on the issues.”)

Another reason is the diversity of Latino cultures and, even more important, the difference in economic status among Latinos. From recent immigrants to generations-old, long-established families in the United States, Latinos are not a cohesive voting bloc, at least not like blacks, who, although often ignored by the Democrats, have stuck by them. Latinos, whose assimilation patterns have been compared to those of turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants, tend to vote more along class, not racial, lines, subjugating identity to economic concerns.

Nobody exemplifies the complexities of the Latino vote better than Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who trumped six-term GOP incumbent Bob Dornan in the 1996 congressional race. The first-generation Mexican American turned the Orange County, California, seat Democratic and surprised the nation in the process. But until 1992, Sanchez herself was a Republican. She dropped the Anglo, married half of her name (Brixey) when she ran against Dornan. And while she’s certainly no Dornan—she’s pro-labor, for example, and labor largely supported her campaign—her priorities include small government and tax incentives for businesses.

For many years, the political cliché describing the Latino population was the “sleeping giant.” If awakened, it would have a profound impact on America’s political and social landscape. In many ways, Republicans and Democrats alike were happy that the giant slumbered. It made things easy.

Now, the Latino vote is a lot more up for grabs than people think. The number of Latino voters is growing—having increased by 19 percent nationally from 1992 to 1996. Some 5 million Latinos voted in the last presidential election, 1.3 million of them in California, where Latinos accounted for 10 percent of the total voting population. That number can and will hit 20 percent.

While Democrats and Republicans each believe they have some advantages in capturing that vote, both parties may be fooling themselves.

Pendejos!” the woman said, deriding Latino politicians. Some in the room squirmed—it’s akin to calling them “assholes” or “dickheads.” She was speaking at the opening assembly of the Latino Academy, a symposium held last year in San Antonio, Texas, by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a major player in the record 1996 Latino voter turnout. This first-ever event, designed to develop Latino political awareness, featured sessions targeting activists, youths, and politicians; creating it had long been a dream of Southwest Voter, which has organized at the grassroots level for more than two decades.

The woman was essentially criticizing politicians for “turning white.” About a third of the 93 attendees applauded. Many rolled their eyes. It was a moment that demonstrated the great division among Latinos—and it represented the focus of the entire weeklong event. Concentrating on identity, and not strictly on hard political maneuvering, might seem odd at an event meant to advance Latino social and political power. But it’s at the heart of the complexity of the Latino vote.

California’s Proposition 187 was the turning point. At first, a majority of Latinos polled favored curbing illegal immigration, no more sympathetic to undocumented workers than were blacks or whites. But when Proposition 187 grew into an attack on all Latinos, cultural identity kicked in. In 1994, even staunch Republican Latinos reluctantly switched sides. Democrats have admittedly had an easy sell ever since.

Gov. Pete Wilson’s race-baiting tactics are so well known that rapper Tupac Shakur invoked his name in lyrics as a handy symbol of intolerance. Using Proposition 187 to help his re-election campaign in 1994 and Proposition 209 in his doomed presidential bid two years ago, Wilson has actively courted the white voter base: Even though they account for only half the California population, whites comprise three-fourths of the state’s electorate. Also problematic is Dornan. Ever since losing to Sanchez, he has been on a ceaseless bleat claiming illegals tipped the margin and, a year and a half later, is still seeking a rematch.

But Dornan will vanish, and this year term limits will keep Wilson from running again. What will the Democrats do then? Torres confidently says a new crop of race—baiting Republican poster children will take their place. “We’ll have some others in the wings,” he says. “Believe me.”

Torres shouldn’t be so sure. California, with its 54 electoral votes, is a Latino power base—time and again, a state in which precedents are set. But as the bilingual initiative heats up and candidates for the 1998 gubernatorial election begin to square off, it seems little is being done right.

Take Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who’s a strong possibility for the governor’s race. She’s considered an odds-on favorite in the Democratic Party’s white-black-liberal power axis. But she’s equal to Wilson as an immigrant basher, scoring huge negatives in Republican polls (with more than 40 percent of Latino men opposing her, according to Schroeder). At press time, Feinstein hadn’t announced her position on the bilingual measure, but she regularly uses “get tough on immigration” rhetoric and has supported Republican legislative proposals to crack down on immigration, including tightening border control measures.

Feinstein has written off Latinos, says Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles County supervisor, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and one of the nation’s most prominent Latino politicians. “If she decides to run, she is going to have nothing but problems from our community, from a leader like me,” Molina says.

Feinstein is so onerous that Molina says she could entertain the possibility of voting for Dan Lungren, the state attorney general running for the Republican nomination, as long as “Lungren would demonstrate leadership” on Latino issues. “I don’t know who I’d pick,” she says. “I know it would be a horrible thing…for me to encourage people to vote for a Republican. I hope that will never happen.”

The scenario is not so far-fetched: Lungren was a reluctant supporter of Proposition 187, once telling the Sacramento Bee, “I don’t fear immigrationÉ[it] contributes to the greatness of this country.” More recently, he has announced his intent to “court the Catholic vote” in his gubernatorial campaign (partially a euphemism for the largely Catholic Latino vote) and to emphasize education and family issues.

The national parties, of course, aren’t on the streets in California trying to get out the vote; instead, they are wallowing in a corporate buckfest. The Democrats’ Torres is openly contemptuous. “We try to stay away from them,” he says of the Democratic National Committee. “They come into the state with their vacuum cleaners and take the money and run. They’re doing their own thing—and we bless them,” he adds sarcastically.

The Republicans aren’t doing much better. At the California Republican State Convention early last year, the National Republican Hispanic Assembly sought a modest $500,000—first from the state party and then from the national party—to help organize and target Latino voters in California. At the end of the year, no support had come through, according to representatives of the NRHA’s Sacramento chapter.

But there is a secret to connecting with Latino voters: old-fashioned, get-out-the-vote, door-to-door contact. A Southwest Voter study in Colorado demonstrated that rather than responding to slick TV ads and mailings, Latinos, more than any other group, respond to personal politics. In the study, voter turnout increased by 15 to 20 percent in neighborhoods where campaign workers visited each house. The party that canvasses will win much of the total vote.

Both California party chairmen agree this is key. Door knocking, says Torres, was what gave Loretta Sanchez her nearly 1,000-vote edge. His GOP counterpart, Schroeder, says, “You have to work it manually. Someone in the community has to stand up and say, ‘I am a Republican.'” Schroeder is working hard to lay out the welcome mat for Latinos (despite his own position as Dornan’s lawyer). Among his many efforts, he organized a statewide outreach appeal that drew 500 community leaders to a meeting last fall.

And California Republicans plan to attack Democrats in key districts. An NRHA project called Voto Dos Mil, or Vote 2000, which is intended to attract Latino voters to the GOP for the next presidential election, calls for concentrating in 16 areas where Democrats are considered vulnerable in the state.

Other high-profile Republicans are also in tune with the Latino vote. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush has been outspoken against immigrant bashing. And there’s New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has aggressively positioned himself as a champion of immigrant rights.

On the other coast, Richard Riordan, the mayor of Los Angeles, took 60 percent of the Latino vote when he ran for re-election in 1997. Riordan, a moderate who ranks high with voters on the issues of crime, business, and education, has stayed away from California’s anti-immigrant fray. His election marked the first time that more Latinos than African Americans voted. Significantly, their vote split from the black vote, which went to Tom Hayden, the Democratic candidate.

“Giuliani and Riordan show all bets are off,” says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. “Right now you have an infusion into the Democratic Party, in places where the immigration stuff is happening.” But this, he warns, will change when the immigration debate dies down. “I see Latinos being split up.”

Indeed, America’s Latino immigrants may prove to be less like their turn-of-the-century Irish and Italian counterparts, who, at least for a generation, stayed with the Democratic Party. Rather, their party affiliation may more rapidly divide along class lines, and the question is whether Democrats and Republicans will wake up to this reality.

Dale Maharidge is the author of The Coming White Minority: California’s Eruptions and the Nation’s Future. His last article for Mother Jones, “California Schemer,” was a profile of Gov. Pete Wilson that appeared in the November/December 1995 issue.


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