Sept. 24 2003 12:00 AM

Politicians struggle to grasp significance of growing Latino influence

    The photos accompanying Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag's Sept. 14 op-ed piece in The New York Times ("In California, white men are the silent plurality") tell a story of their own.

    The lead photo, taken at a rally in support of AB 60-the bill signed into law two weeks ago by Gov. Gray Davis that allows illegal immigrants who have a federal tax ID number to obtain driver's licenses-focuses on two Latinas waving signs in support of the bill. Licencias por todos the banners read-"Licenses for everyone." The emotion on the women's faces is captivating-a mix between ecstasy, sorrow, desperation and supplication. One woman's hands are clutched at shoulder level, extended just slightly as if she's pleading with someone. Her eyes are shut tightly and her mouth slightly open. The second woman's right arm is fully extended upwards holding a sign, and her left hand supports her upper arm. She's looking upward and her mouth, too, is open.

    Beneath that photo and about a quarter of its size is a snapshot of three 30-something guys. The young man in the forefront has a toothy smile and is pulling open a button-down shirt to reveal a "Schwarzenegger for governor" t-shirt underneath. He has a narrow goatee and dark sunglasses. His two pals, who'd look equally at ease in a beer commercial, both hold handwritten "Arnold 4 governor" signs.

    Schrag's article questions whether gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwar-zenegger will try to drum up support from the traditionally Democratic, pro-immigrant Latino voting bloc, or whether his "box-office constituency"-young, white male voters, giddy that an action hero is running for governor, could be lured to the polls if Schwarzenegger sufficiently sets himself apart from his Democratic opponents, Davis and Cruz Bustamante, both of whom have clearly positioned themselves as friends of illegal immigrants.

    The article explores California's political divide over immigration and how one piece of legislation-AB 60-put a spotlight on the issue. The photos accompanying the article depict that-there's the smaller shot of the smug traditional holders of power (white males) that's dominated on the page by an image representative of the determined, mobilized force that, thanks to the recall, was able to finally get what it's been asking for.

    Latinos comprise roughly 16 percent of California voters though they account for more than one-third of the state's population. Pollsters estimate that if all eligible Latino voters exercised their right, they'd account for a quarter of California voters.

    A snapshot of Latino voters, courtesy of the Pew Hispanic Center, shows that while they tend to be more conservative when it comes to social issues, they're the only group in America that, across the board, favors more government control and higher taxes, just so long as they feel they can trust the government and know where their money's going. Overwhelming Latino support for an increase in the minimum wage is an example of this.

    Antonio Gonzalez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project said that 20 years of data shows that Latinos have dug in their heels when it comes to progressive politics, siding with Democrats 65 to 85 percent of the time according to exit polls.

    Since the mid-'90s, this voting bloc has increasingly exercised its influence over California politics. Davis' alleged pandering proves this. But for politicians seeking to court the Latino vote, there's that fine line when it comes to immigration policy-it's an issue that, as Schrag and others have pointed out, remains largely relegated to intolerant banter on radio talk shows.

    A poll released Sept. 21 by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California shows illegal immigration ranking fifth on a list of voter concerns. Though only 4 percent of voters said it's their primary concern, immigration nevertheless outranked issues such as crime (3 percent), housing (2 percent) and the energy crisis (2 percent). And, as former Ronald Reagan aide Michael Deaver has been quoted, illegal immigration remains one of the issues that get California voters the most worked up.

    Jorge Mariscal, a UC San Diego professor who recently drew considerable flak for an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune in which he defended MEChA-the activist Latino student group Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante participated in while at Fresno State University-said California's population is changing faster than its attitudes, and that doesn't bode well for Latino politics.

    "As the demographics change and Latinos become the majority," Mariscal said, "there will be overt and covert attempts to keep the numbers from translating into political power."

    And while there's some evidence that wealthier and more highly educated Latinos might defect to the right-50 percent of better educated Latino voters, for example, preferred Republican candidate Bill Simon to Gray Davis (21.4 percent) in the 2002 election (another 28.5 percent went to Peter Camejo)-Gonzalez believes this anomaly wasn't a change to the established trend. "The Simon performance among more educated Latinos," he said, "was likely a protest vote."

    Political columnist Leonel Martinez says assimilation might be what ultimately shifts Latino voting trends. "Once you get to the third generation and beyond, Latino political attitudes are less distinguishable from those of other Americans," he told CityBeat, "and Latinos probably are just as likely as anyone else to be more concerned about illegal immigrants putting a drain on social benefits or taking their jobs.

    "These issues may not be based in fact," Martinez added. "Many say illegal immigrants put more tax money into the system than they take out and only do the jobs no one else is willing to do-but [the opposite] is, nonetheless, a widespread perception."

    Harold Meyerson, who's written about Latino voting trends for both The American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly, points to Proposition 187-the ballot initiative that scapegoated illegal immigrants as the source of the state's fiscal woes-as the beginning of the end for California's Republican Party. While Prop. 187, which sought to cut off social services for illegal immigrants, may have won Pete Wilson a second term as governor, San Diego's former mayor failed to realize the long-term consequences. "The state chairman should have said to Wilson, you know, this may be the way we could hang on to the governor's office, but this could kill us for the next several decades, which is exactly what it did," Meyerson told CityBeat. "It started this backlash."

    Within two years, the Republicans lost their hold on California, thanks to efforts by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Service Employees International Union that mobilized Latino voters, creating a powerful, progressive Latino-labor alliance.

    "I think since 1996, [the Republicans] realized they made a huge mistake on 187," Meyerson said. "There are real differences and barriers that keep them from effectively campaigning among Latinos, and one of the things about the Schwarzenegger campaign is that we'll see if he has any success overcoming that."

    In the minds of Latino activists, Schwarzenegger has two strikes against him-he revived the specter of Prop. 187 by naming Wilson as a campaign advisor and he's labeled unions-though, ironically enough, not big business-as major players in the special-interest-group cabal that has a stranglehold on Sacramento. He's also promised that, if elected, he'll attempt to repeal the driver's license bill, an action that would make a lot of Californians pretty happy-as a recent Field Poll shows, 59 percent of voters disapprove of the legislation.

    But Schwarzenegger's appeal, or lack thereof, to Latino voters isn't so easily assessed. An appearance last week in East L.A., where he met with a group of immigrants, drew no protestors aside from a couple dozen Bustamante campaigners outside. And, to his favor, Schwarzenegger has shown support for Sen. John McCain's proposed guest worker-naturalization program. "[Schwarzenegger's] in a tricky position," Meyerson said. "He needs votes, so to speak, both to his left and to his right. And that's hard to do."

    Schwarzenegger's somewhat moderate platform has pretty much ensured that more conservative Republicans will go with state Sen. Tom McClintock, who has nothing of value to offer progressives. Meyerson, who attended this month's California Republican Convention in Los Angeles said that at times it verged on "an anti-immigrant jihad," and McClintock's recent TV-commercial campaign, echoing a speech he gave at the convention, has McClintock pining for the California of his youth, painting a 1950s white-middle-class, implicitly racist, ideal: "I remember that state," he says. "I lived there, you lived there. And it's been taken from us."

    It's unlikely McClintock will win, though he's been gaining in the polls-in the past two months, he's gained 9 points, favored by 14 percent of voters. His candidacy, however, begs the question: will Republicans, recall and beyond, ever fully understand California and the dynamics of its cultural makeup?

    Meyerson says this likely stretches beyond California's borders. "Karl Rove [George W. Bush's top political strategist], who is a good reader of census data, has long believed that the Republicans have to improve their percentage of Latino votes or else they just lose. America is changing too much in that direction for [the Republicans] to be a viable party unless they get higher percentages of Latino voting."

    And, at least for now, the Republican Party's general distaste for unions and its belief in economic self-determination assures the strength of the labor-Latino alliance. "I think that the new immigrant population is so clustered in low-wage jobs, and the success of the janitors union and the very significant role the unions have taken in the program for immigrant amnesty, this matters," said Meyerson. Unions "have carved out a place as sort of the leading real-world tribune and champion of the community."


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