Los Angeles Times

Thursday, June 4, 1998

Latino Voter Participation Doubled Since '94 Primary

Latino presence at the polls continued an upward trend Tuesday, amounting to 12% of all California voters--double the number who voted in the 1994 primary, but not yet enough to determine the outcome of issues crucial to the state's fastest-growing population group, according to Times exit polls.
      On Tuesday, the diminutive size of the Latino electorate compared to the group's 29.4% share of the California population led Latino voters to lose the very fight that brought many to the polls.
      The issue was the bilingual education abolition measure, Proposition 227, which the exit poll found was second only to the governor's race in luring Latinos to vote.
      Latinos polled Tuesday said they opposed the initiative by a margin of 2 to 1, many describing it as discriminatory, but it passed in an almost mirror image of that vote.
      "It leaves you feeling deflated," said Francisco Dominguez, an Oxnard school district trustee and executive director of the Latino advocacy group El Concilio del Condado de Ventura. "Now we just need to convince voters to become much more active. That's when we will make a difference."

4 Latinos in Bids for Statewide Office
      Still, Latinos' growing potential as an electoral powerhouse was evident Tuesday. For the first time this century, the likelihood of an elected Latino statewide official looms near, with four Latinos winning spots to compete in November for lieutenant governor, controller, state superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner.
      Based on Tuesday's results, state Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) will face state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) for lieutenant governor; Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) will face incumbent Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush; and San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales, a Republican, will face incumbent Controller Kathleen Connell.
      In the nonpartisan race for state superintendent of public instruction, pro-227 Latina Gloria Matta Tuchman also forced Supt. Delaine Eastin into a runoff. election.
      The one area where Latinos may have made a difference in Tuesday's vote was the defeat of Proposition 226, which would have restricted use of union dues. Exit polls showed they voted against it in larger-than-average numbers, likely in part because of the community's higher-than-average union membership.
      Earlier Times polls had shown Latinos favoring Proposition 227, albeit by a narrower margin than other voters. Poll Director Susan Pinkus said that last-minute campaigning by anti-227 groups in Latino media and the opposition of all four gubernatorial candidates probably tipped the balance.       "Being largely working-class communities, many Latinos do not start paying attention until two or three weeks before the actual elections," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a Latino think tank. Pachon said that was precisely when mailers opposing 227 started arriving en masse and television commercials picked up.
      According to the exit poll, Latino voters were younger, poorer, less-educated, newer to the political process and primed for change. Two-thirds of Latinos polled were under age 50, 15% earn less than $20,000 a year, a third have at most a high school education and nearly a third voted for the first time in a primary election.
      Since they are predominantly registered as Democrats, Latinos were far more likely than non-Latino white voters polled to advocate for a change from 16 years of Republican occupation of the governor's seat.
      Of course, the notion of a Latino voting bloc is increasingly disputed in political circles as naive, particularly as electoral rifts emerge, often between newer and more established immigrants.
      For example, Jose Sandoval, a Huntington Park father of three voting in his first primary, favored Proposition 227 because he felt his children's years in bilingual classes were a waste. "They couldn't even read English," he said.
      By contrast, a mother of four from Bell said she voted against the measure out of concern for the educational experience of her youngest daughter who "says some words in English but she's still learning."
      Still, Tuesday's outcome appeared to follow other recent elections, where Latinos went against the tide on measures they took personally: the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 and the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. Latinos opposed both measures passed by state voters.
      "Contrary to state voting patterns, Latinos continue to reject wedge propositions," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Willie Velazquez Institute, which analyzes Latino voting patterns. "The story here is that Latinos, again contrary to statewide currents, reject Prop. 227 with a big turnout . . . We're kind of like Michael Jordan right now: Every time he scores a point in the playoffs he sets a new record."
      Latinos bucked the trends elsewhere as well on Tuesday, largely without success: They were more than twice as likely as voters overall to support multimillionaire Al Checchi--liking him almost as much as they liked Democratic nominee Gray Davis--a nod to Checchi's attempt to beat a Populist tom-tom over the condition of public education. And they favored fellow Latino Charles Calderon for attorney general, while the rest of Democrats whisked Bill Lockyer into the general election slot.
      Only Proposition 226 seemed to offer a glimpse of the shape of things to come in this state, where Latinos are expected to become the majority in 2040.
      Like three in four Latino voters, Jose Montenegro, a former warehouseman and Teamster from South Gate, voted against the union initiative. He thought it threatened to diminish the power of working people. And the way he figures it, from his current vantage point as an independent truck driver working out of San Pedro, large corporations already trample truckers' rights at every turn.
      "Unions have lost a lot of power," said Montenegro, 50, who has lived in California for three decades. "They need the money to get more active, to start organizing people more."
      The measure did lose and by just a few percentage points. Without Latinos, the exit poll of 5,143 voters showed, the measure would have been a dead heat.
      "Lots of interesting things are going to start happening in the next couple of years," said assistant professor Abel Valenzuela of the Cesar Chavez Center at UCLA.
      He said that as the impact of Latino voters grows, so too will their diversity of interest and options.
      "You're going to see [Latino] movement into statewide campaigns, as you did this election, and into Republican races and into predominantly white areas, too," Valenzuela said.

Welcome News for Latino Politicians
      Although they are by no means assured of Latino support, Latino politicians generally consider this trend good news. This year, there are more vying for office than ever before.
      Barrales' campaign consultant, Kevin Spillane, said he considers the candidate a "benchmark for the Republican party," which lost the confidence of Latinos following Gov. Pete Wilson's advocacy for Proposition 187.
      "Obviously, the perception has developed that the Republican party is not friendly in the Latino community," Spillane said. "We have some work to do."
      The Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco issued a news release detailing those and other gains: of 20 state Senate seats up for grabs, seven have Latino candidates in the general election; of the 80 Assembly seats, 25 have Latino candidates.
      If November results emerge as expected, those candidacies could increase Latino representation in both houses to nearly one-fifth.
      "The giant is awake!" declared forum Director Guillermo Rodriguez. "No longer are we just electing Latinos from East L.A., but from places like San Luis Obispo and Monterey."
      In Los Angeles, statewide Latino political power follows a meandering route through East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. Tuesday's election indicates that trail may soon lead to the San Fernando Valley as well. There, the hotly contested state Senate race, which remained too close to call Wednesday, also had distinctly Latino overtones.
      City Councilman Richard Alarcon has repeatedly downplayed the role of the Latino vote in the race, but election returns pinpointed his base of support in the heavily Latino northeast Valley, while competitor and former Assemblyman Richard Katz drew more backers from the predominantly Jewish, middle-class neighborhoods of the southwest Valley.
      "I am only hopeful that people in the Northeast Valley now know they have this ability to impact the process," Alarcon said.
      An interesting case study in the pitfalls of defining Latinos as a monolith can be seen in the sharply contrasting voting results from from Huntington Park and Montebello, two largely Latino blue-collar suburbs of Los Angeles with similar population numbers--more than 60,000 residents each--but widely varying demographic make-ups.
      Huntington Park, where 92% of residents are Latino, is a new-immigrant enclave that is home to growing numbers of recent arrivals, especially from Mexico. Montebello, with a 68% Latino majority, is a more middle-class bedroom community, home to many multi-generational U.S. residents of Mexican ancestry.
      In Montebello, residents voted 58%-41% against 227, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder. But voters in Huntington Park weighed in against the anti-bilingual education measure by 71% to 28%--almost matching the 3-to-1 margins by which Latinos statewide rejected Proposition 187 four years ago.
      The two cities' voting trends also show the more unified opposition to 226 among Latinos.
      In Huntington Park almost 80% voted against restricting union ability to fund political measures.
Times staff writers Fred Alvarez in Ventura and Hugo Martin in the San Fernando Valley also contributed to this story.
* * *

The Latino Vote
Primary Turnout
1994: 6%
1996: 8%
1998: 12%
* * * Proposition 227
Yes: 37%
No: 63%
* * * Proposition 226
Yes: 25%
No: 75%
* * * By Candidate:
Checchi: 30%
Davis: 36%
Harman: 11%
Lungren: 17%

Source: L.A. Times / CNN exit poll
* * *

Ballot Breakdown (Southland Edition, A1)
63% of Latinos voted no on Prop. 227 (to end bilingual education).
57% of Asians voted yes on Prop. 227.
20% of Democratic women voted for Jane Harman for governor.
49% of Democratic women voted for Gray Davis for governor.

Source: L.A. Times / CNN exit poll