'It was never about saving Newsom': how Latino voters played a major role in California

  • In Politics
  • 2021-09-25 10:00:40Z
  • By The Guardian

Luis Sánchez worked overtime to rescue Governor Gavin Newsom in California's recall race. His group PowerCA Action reached more than a quarter-million voters ahead of election day, encouraging young Latino Californians to head to the polls.

It's not that he is particularly invested in Newsom's career.

"For us the recall was never about saving Gavin Newsom's political future," said Sánchez, the executive director of PowerCA action, which focused its efforts in the state's agricultural Central Valley. "It was about ensuring that this state didn't move backward to when the state and the administration were much more xenophobic."

Newsom, a Democrat, last week handily defeated the Republican-led effort to remove him from office in a rare gubernatorial recall. In an election that depended on turnout, it's clear that the Latino vote has played a decisive role in the results, experts say.

About 40% of the population in California and about 30% of registered voters are Latino, and though votes are still being tallied, it appears they voted largely Democratic.

Turned off by Republicans who have portrayed brown immigrants as "punching bags and the scapegoats", naturalized Latino immigrants and the children of immigrants in the west - including those with some conservative views - have long overwhelmingly voted with Democrats, Sánchez said.

It wasn't any different in the recall. The effort to remove Newsom from office was launched by a former sheriff's deputy from the Central Valley who once advocated microchipping migrants. Newsom's lead opponent in the election - conservative radio host Larry Elder - frequently characterized Latino residents as criminals.

"For a lot of Latino voters that kind of ended the debate on how to vote," said Hairo Cortes, the executive director of Chispa, a progressive political group based in Orange county.

Yet despite the stakes of the election, said Cortes, candidates from both parties didn't really make an effort to engage Latino voters until the very last minute, when tight polls suggested that a distracted, disappointed electorate may sit out the vote.

"A similar thing happened in 2020, and 2018, and 2016," he said. "It feels like once campaign season rolls around, outreach to Latinos comes in as part of a mad scramble for votes."

Newsom, who had a track record of appointing Latino offcials to key political and administrative positions, and expanding education and healthcare access to undocumented immigrants, initially failed to emphasize those wins and signal more to come ahead of the recall, said Christian Arana, a vice-president of the Latino Community Foundation.

So the responsibility to turn out the vote was left in large part to Latino-led grassroots organizations - many with tight budgets that didn't include enough funds to cover the canvassing costs in an unexpected special election.

Without meaningful outreach from the campaigns, many Latino voters in California's Inland Empire and Coachella Valley hadn't noticed the ballots in their mail, said Luz Gallegos, the executive director of TODEC, a non-partisan group based in Perris.

Others had turned away purposefully from the election, she said, angry and disappointed that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers had forgotten or forsaken their communities.

Across the state, Latino workers in agricultural fields, meatpacking plants, grocery stores and other industries that were deemed "essential" during the worst of the pandemic disproportionately got sick from and died of Covid-19. Latino Californians remain disproportionately unvaccinated, even as hospitals in some parts of the state are overwhelmed by a new wave of the pandemic.

"People were healing from sickness, and healing from loss," Gallegos said. "We knew that the community was not thinking of civic engagement, they were thinking of survival." Many organizers had to get creative, she added - her own group rallied a troupe of volunteers and a mariachi band to serenade would-be voters.

Such efforts have paid off across the state, including in the agricultural Central Valley, once a Republican bastion, where progressive organizing prowess seems to have help narrow the gap between Democrats and Republicans.

In the valley's Merced county, early returns suggested that about three-quarters of Latino voters rejected the recall, while three-quarters of white voters supported it. In nearby Fresno, where ​​the Latino population increased by 15.5% between 2010 and 2020 while the white population decreased 10.7%, the recall effort eked out by just a couple of percentage points.

The tight margins were significant - a signal that "a new generation of young, Latinx folks are increasingly shifting politics in California", said Alicia Olivarez, the narrative and policy director for PowerCA Action.

Meanwhile, in reliably Democratic counties like Los Angeles and San Francisco, 84% and 82% of Latino voters rejected the recall, according to the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.

Latino voters' decisive role in the recall results show that ahead of the 2022 midterms, candidates in the state would do well to center Latinos in future campaigns rather than treating them as an afterthought, organizers said.

"Latino voters are not a monolith, but at least in the west, in California, it's Latino voters who have essentially helped turned a red state - the state that gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan - into a blue one," said Sánchez, the PowerCA Action director.

And while some early analysis suggested that Latino voters may have sided with Democrats at a slightly lower percentage this year than in past elections, triggering debates about whether Republicans can make inroads, Cortes of Chispa said that such discussions are beside the point.

"Of course, there are varying political opinions between Latinos in LA and in Orange county, in rural and urban California, between younger and older people," he said. "But ultimately what matters is whether there's an actual, substantial investment in connecting with and listening to voters," he said.

Although they turned out in higher numbers to vote in the recall than in previous special elections, Latinos remain underrepresented among California voters, said Mindy Romero, founder of the Center for Inclusive Democracy, a non-partisan research organization.

"Just think what more outreach could accomplish," she said. "If there's a lesson to be learned from this recall for Newsom it's that there's a real opportunity here to make a better relationship and better connection with the voters."


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