California’s Latino voters helped turn state blue. Will others catch the wave?

November 01, 2019

By Francine Kiefer (Staff writer / @kieferf / San Diego / The Christian Science Monitor)

Lorena Gonzalez remembers well the political earthquake that struck her home state of California 25 years ago. She felt it clear across the country, in Washington, D.C., where she was studying government as a graduate student at Georgetown University.

On Nov. 8, 1994, Californians overwhelmingly backed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to screen out unauthorized immigrants and deny them state services, such as public schools and most health care. Voters in the Golden State, on the heels of a recession, had had enough of footing the bill for such migrants. Pete Wilson, then Republican governor, embraced the controversial initiative and leaned into the issue in his reelection campaign that year.

The passing of Proposition 187, and subsequent measures backed by Governor Wilson to end affirmative action and effectively ban bilingual education, roused Latinos in California to an activism that, in the years since, has realigned the politics of the nation’s most populous state. Some see the potential for a similar backlash reshaping the politics of America in the face of anti-immigrant fervor today.

Ms. Gonzalez recalls being “shocked to the full,” angry and disbelieving at the wide margin for the measure – 59% to 41%. It felt like a direct attack on her community and her family, including her father who had worked hard in California’s strawberry fields and packinghouses, then built his own furniture sales business.

“He doesn’t, in the eyes of Californians, belong here?” she asked her mother back home in San Diego. “I remember Mom telling me, ‘You can complain, or you can go do something about it.’”

She listened to her mother.

What followed was a law degree; a job as senior adviser to the state’s first Latino lieutenant governor in more than a century, Cruz Bustamante; election as an influential labor leader in San Diego; and then, as a single mother campaigning in 2013, a seat in the state Assembly, where she chairs the powerful Latino caucus. It’s at record strength – 29 members, all Democrats, a fourth of the Legislature. Her latest landmark legislation: a state law that redefines contractors in the flexible gig economy as employees with benefits.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez’s path personifies the unstoppable drive of Latino leaders who helped turn California from a state that elected mostly Republicans as governors and produced GOP Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to a state that runs a deep, Pacific blue.

“We really saw a whole generation of Latinos become leaders. They entered the political field – civic and political – and they were really mobilized by [Proposition] 187,” says Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project, which is based in Sacramento and affiliated with the University of Southern California.

In the decade following Proposition 187, these leaders helped register more than a million new Latino voters. Over the years, they have pushed and passed trend-setting legislation, such as in-state tuition and driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants – policies that many Americans across the country would decry as undermining the rule of law. They have trained activists nationwide to fight for the “Dreamers” – children of unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as youths.

Now these Latino politicians are at the forefront of the Democratic “resistance” in California.

“Road map for the rest of the nation”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a first-generation Mexican American, oversees census and voter participation efforts. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose Mexican parents also immigrated to the U.S., recently filed California’s 60th lawsuit against the Trump administration; many of the suits, which other states have also joined, relate to immigration policy.

In her district office in San Diego, where almost every inch of available display space is covered with plaques, posters, photos, and thank-you notes, Ms. Gonzalez says that California’s Latinos “provide a road map for the rest of the nation.” They can show Latinos in other states how to get past feeling mad about the rhetoric of the Trump administration, register to vote – and use that vote to “permanently realign the politics of this country.”

What does that road map look like in California? And where might it lead the country?

For Angelica Salas, the road to empowerment began with the mass mobilizing of Latino voters.

Like the assemblywoman from San Diego, Ms. Salas was also back East – in Princeton, New Jersey – when Californians approved Proposition 187. She joined a vigil protest the next day. But she wanted to do more, and returned early in the spring of 1995 to the Los Angeles area, where she grew up.

For a year, she volunteered at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or Chirla, manning the hotline. She heard from Latinos, some third- and fourth-generation, about “horrible” cases of discrimination after 187 was approved.

The measure was immediately challenged in federal court and found to be unconstitutional. The state appealed the ruling, only to drop it five years later under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. The ban on bilingual education was repealed in 2016.

For Ms. Salas, one year turned into 24 at the influential rights organization that she now leads. Civic resistance to 187 changed her life, she says, and that of countless others.

Protests leading up to the vote weren’t enough to stop approval. “There was a real, fundamental understanding that the reason we lost Prop. 187, the fight against 187 in the ballot box, was because we didn’t have enough political power,” she says at her office, similarly decorated with posters and photos of milestones. “It became an obsession to build political power.”

In 1994, Latinos made up about 30% of California’s population, but only 12% of its voters. 

Chirla and other organizations – including labor unions, a bedrock of Latino activism – combined forces to make sure that Latino migrants who were already legal, permanent residents became citizens and then registered to vote. These were people like her mother and Ms. Salas’ aunts and uncles.

As a 15-year-old going to school in Pasadena, and the only family member who knew how to type, she had filled in their amnesty forms. Now it was time for the next step. Chirla advertised workshops on citizenry on the radio, urged family and friends to become citizens, and set up voter registration tables outside swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens.

The group also worked with the county registrar to enable voter registration inside these ceremonies, which sometimes served more than 2,000 new citizens at a sitting. It was no coincidence that these newly minted citizens and subsequent Latino voters vastly favored Democrats over Republicans. Before Governor Wilson backed Proposition 187, Latino voter registration only slightly favored Democrats, says Dr. Romero, an expert on Latino voting patterns.

Today, close to 60% of registered Latino voters in California are Democrats, she says, and most unaffiliated Latinos vote the same way. Latino registration with Republicans is in the low teens. At 40% of the population, Latinos are California’s largest, and fastest growing, ethnic group.

Legislators, too, systematically built their caucus. It began in 1973 with five members. They were too small to influence legislation, but they built important political bridges, including one to Democratic Speaker Willie Brown. In 1981, he named one of their members to chair a redistricting committee, which then drew new districts favorable to Latinos.

These early efforts helped pave the way for much greater Latino representation in the 1990s. But it did not happen organically. Richard Polanco, former state legislator and Senate majority leader from East Los Angeles, is widely credited as the architect of today’s powerful Latino caucus.

Mr. Polanco says that Proposition 187, redistricting, and term limits – which opened up seats – were all important factors in building the caucus. But it also required a strategic approach and caucus discipline.

He and others identified recruits, and assisted them with financial resources and campaign management. In exchange, the recruits were asked to help raise funds and walk and talk with voters. “Nothing else mattered,” Mr. Polanco recalls.

He also broke an unspoken rule of not putting up candidates against a Democratic incumbent or someone backed by the party.

“We communicated to the speaker, ‘With all due respect, we’ll do what we can to support the Democratic caucus, but we’re going to engage.’ And we did.”

Between 1991 and 2002, the caucus grew from seven members to 22, a surge that vastly increased Latino leverage in the Legislature. A series of Latino speakers, wielding power over the agenda, ensued. Latinos took on key committee chairmanships and pushed groundbreaking legislation.

Says Mr. Polanco, “Latinos changed the political structure.”

Of her many bills, one that Ms. Gonzalez is proudest of is mandatory sick days for part- and full-time workers in the private sector. Back in 2014, more than 6 million Californians could not get a paid day off for ill health. After the law took effect a year later, people would come up to her and show off their pay stubs, pointing out that they had earned sick days.

“I remember a worker from McDonald’s showing me, and he was so proud and just so excited,” she says.

It’s an example of the broader laws pushed by Latino legislators that intersect with the interests of their community, but don’t focus on them exclusively. It’s also an example of the national ripple effect that such laws can have and how they shape the Democratic agenda.

At least eight other states have adopted paid sick leave since California became an early adopter. A similar number have also opted to ban single-use plastic bags, while restaurants across the nation now list calorie counts on their menus. Both were California firsts – and both were authored by Secretary of State Padilla when he was in the Senate.

Ms. Gonzalez, a high-energy lawmaker with a laser focus on working-class issues, has become a state lawmaker to watch. 

She has authored or co-authored some of the state’s trend-setting – and controversial – laws: “motor voter” that provides automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles; mandatory vaccination for children that removes the personal belief exemption; and most recently, the law that redefines work in the gig economy, turning independent contractors for flexible-work companies like Uber into employees with benefits.

That labor law, signed in September by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, could become a national model, though not without a rearguard fight from app-based companies like Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash, which are planning a ballot initiative counteroffensive in California next year. The law is due to take effect on Jan. 1.

On this and other sharp-edged legislation, Ms. Gonzalez is unapologetic – something she learned from working for Lieutenant Governor Bustamante. He once told her, “I want you to be so aggressive that I have to apologize for you.” She tells her staff the same thing today.

Yet for all their political mobilizing and organizing, Latinos in the Golden State still lag behind on most social and economic indicators.

A 2017 report for California’s state Senate found that Latinos are less well off, with 23% of them in poverty in 2010-14, compared with 12% of non-Latinos. Median household income in the same period was $47,200, far short of the $69,606 median income for non-Latinos. They also receive public assistance at a higher rate.

One encouraging sign: The number of Latinos entering a California college or university more than doubled in the decade ending with 2013. But they suffer a “substantial” achievement gap in K-12, are more likely to be obese and food insecure, and to live in heavily polluted communities.

Add to this sobering picture increases in the gasoline tax and an affordable housing crisis, and some Republicans see an opening to win over disenchanted voters from the Democratic Party. The California GOP has shrunk dramatically: Less than a quarter of registered voters are Republicans. In this majority-minority state, they need to make inroads with nonwhites. Indeed, their recently elected leader, Jessica Patterson, is a millennial Latina.

But it’s too late, says Mike Madrid, a Latino GOP consultant and expert on Latino voting in the state. Given the rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration, particularly its border policies, “this generation will never come to the Republican Party.”

Latinos who grow disappointed with Democrats, he says, are presented with what Mr. Madrid calls an “unfortunate” choice: “You can vote for a party that doesn’t have your interests at heart, or you can vote for a party that hates you.”

Growing respect for immigrants

Susan Rubio, a first-term Democratic senator in Sacramento, was 6 years old and living in Texas when her family was deported in the 1970s. Her father had overstayed a temporary worker program, and one day the family was picked up while it was at a carnival and sent back to Juárez, the Mexican border city where she was born.

The family eventually settled in the Los Angeles area and became legal residents, but for Senator Rubio deportation was always at the back of her mind. “I clearly remember the rhetoric of the time. I would compare it a little to what’s happening nationally today,” she says.

She was a young adult in 1994 when Governor Wilson released a campaign ad in which a narrator intones, “They keep coming,” as grainy black-and-white footage shows migrants running between the cars at the U.S.-Mexico border. Two months before the election, Democratic President Bill Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper to fortify the border at San Diego. It also had the effect of pushing unauthorized immigrants into more remote areas.

Ms. Rubio decided it was time to become a citizen, as did her family.

What followed was 17 years as a public school teacher and a life in public service – winning elections for city clerk and city council in Baldwin Park, in eastern Los Angeles County. What also followed, she notes, was a noticeable ratcheting down in California of the rhetoric and a change in attitude about immigrants.

“There’s so much more respect for immigrants in general,” Ms. Rubio says in a phone interview from Mexico, where she was traveling in a delegation with California’s lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis. “And there is so much more respect” for elected Latino officials, she adds.

Indeed, Latino politicians have become ubiquitous in the state capital and in cities like Los Angeles, which has had back-to-back Latino mayors.

As a little girl, in high school, and even as a young adult, “we didn’t see a lot of people who looked like us,” says Ms. Rubio. So when Latinos such as herself began to run for local office, it made a difference. During the 2010 census, people felt safe coming to ask her for help, and as a councilwoman she could explain why filling out the census was beneficial. Latinos in office “gave our community a sense of safety. Someone was looking out for their interests.”

Surveys bear out a change in attitude. In 1998, only 46% of adults believed that “immigrants are a benefit to California,” according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In 2018, 72% did. A recent Gallup poll finds a similar shift nationwide since 2001.

Politicians, particularly on the left, have altered their views. It took multiple tries over more than a decade before a driver’s license bill for unauthorized immigrants was signed into law. Now the state’s new governor, Mr. Newsom, wants health care for all. In his first year, he expanded Medicaid to unauthorized youths up to age 26.

“We’ve gotten to the point where now on immigration stuff we’ll have a couple of Republicans vote with us,” says Ms. Gonzalez. Part of it is hearts moved by the stories of Dreamers, she says, but a lot of it is about political power. “They know the power of the Latino population and the Latino vote.”

The big question for the nation is whether what happened with the Latino vote in California could be repeated at the presidential level. “California represents what happens when Latinos as swing voters become permanent Democratic supporters,” Dr. Romero wrote in a 2014 report. “Latinos swung the state from being solidly Republican to being safely and consistently Democratic today.”

Turnout trends

Nationwide, the Latino population is projected to more than double between 2015 and 2040. By that time, nearly 30% of the U.S. population will be Latinos, the majority of them the children and grandchildren of immigrants. But here’s the thing. While this population is growing nationally, the growth isn’t uniform.

Most Latinos do not live in swing states – Florida is a big exception – which limits their potential impact on the next presidential election. At the same time, Latino turnout has long been a challenge; turnout levels spiked in California after Proposition 187, then settled back down again.

Latino turnout fell short in the 2016 presidential election, including in Florida where it declined by more than 7 percentage points compared with 2012, according to Dr. Romero. Had turnout not slumped in Florida and other states, Latinos could have tipped the balance enough to put Hillary Clinton in the White House.

Nor are Latinos monolithic in their party leanings. A new study by the University of Houston points out that in some states – like Texas and Florida – larger percentages of Hispanics back Republicans than in other states, such as California and New York, though a majority still votes Democratic.

Another potentially mitigating factor: Latinos have pushed the Democratic Party to the left, at least on immigration. That could cost a presidential nominee in swing states.

At the Democratic presidential debate in June, all of the candidates favored health care for unauthorized immigrants, yet polls show that a majority of voters think this is a bad idea. Some candidates also support decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Jeh Johnson, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post this was “tantamount to declaring publicly that we have open borders.”

Yet Latino leaders are convinced that the president’s vituperative rhetoric about immigrants and his handling of the border will galvanize Latino voters and drive them to the polls. “Donald Trump is a more exaggerated and social media version of what Pete Wilson did to us,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “Donald Trump again has us motivated.”

That seemed to be the case in the 2018 midterm elections. Turnout overall reached a historic high for an off-year election, but it was particularly pronounced for Hispanics and Asians.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Latino voters nearly doubled from the previous midterm – from 6.8 million to 11.7 million voters.

That said, Dr. Romero is cautious about the “Trump effect,” arguing that Latinos care about specifics that affect their lives.

Towering over all these caveats about turnout, party preferences, and swing states is population growth: More Latinos are joining the voter-age population every year. In California, Latino population growth and party preference – more than turnout rates – have proved decisive. In last year’s midterms, population growth and higher turnout among Latino voters helped oust Republicans in seven California congressional districts.

It’s not clear if and when Latino votes might reshape the presidential electoral map. Key red states to watch are Texas and Arizona, says Angie Gutierrez, a Ph.D. candidate studying the issue at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In Texas “we saw a lot of Latinos go to the polls in the midterm election. I think this is an indication that Texas might not be staying with the Republican Party as long as some might think,” she says. But Latinos can’t flip these states by themselves; white voters also have to swing to the Democratic side.