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Now For The Ballot Box
Gathering The Immigrant Vote Is Not Easy
March 11, 2000
Becerra: Latino ascendancy
THE office of Congressman Xavier Becerra on Sunset Boulevard is an impressive illustration of Latino ascendancy. Copies of Hispanic Business magazine sit in the rack; a banner from Mr Becerras alma mater, Stanford University, hangs on the wall; a new computer has just been delivered.
Asked to define "Latino issues", Mr Becerra replies that they are much the same as everybody elsesthings like jobs, schools and health carebut usually with an extra twist. For instance, whereas most other American voters are fuming about their Health Maintenance Organisations, Latinos are more worried about getting access to an HMO in the first place.
Penelas: bridge builder
At the other end of the country, another young Democrat, Alex Penelas, who is Cuban-American, delivers broadly the same message. "I am a bridge builder," says the mayor of Miami-Dade (and the sexiest politician in America, according to People magazine). To get elected in Miami-Dade, where Cubans account for only 40% of the vote, and most of them are Republicans to boot, Mr Penelas had to build a coalition that included a number of other Latino groups and blacks. He is now hammering away at issues such as corruption. Mr. Penelass mother was a hotel maid, his father a farm worker; he himself is sometimes mentioned as a running mate for Al Gore.
It is easy to pick holes in these two Latinos show of modernity. In Miami, Mr Penelas dutifully inveighs against Fidel Castro. But playing the occasional ethnic card is hardly an exclusive Latino preserve (listen to any Kennedy on Ireland). The new thing about politicians like Mr Penelas, Mr Becerra and many of the younger Latino politicians is that they have other cards to play as well.
New York politics was changed by the emergence of two figures: Fiorello LaGuardia, who was half-Jewish and half-Italian and built a multi-ethnic coalition to become mayor in 1933; and Al Smith, an Irish politician who realised that local politics had to bring in other groups, and went on to become governor of New York four times and to run for president. Is history beginning to repeat itself?
In New York, it is not only Latinos, but also Dominicans, Jamaicans and even Russians who are beginning to flex their political muscles. In California, Korean churches have been among the steeliest supporters of conservative causes such as restricting gay rights. Angela Oh, a Los Angeles civil-rights lawyer, says Asian-Americans are spitting with fury about two things: the arrest on spying charges (on minimal evidence, they say) of Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American scientist; and the prominence given to Asian donors in the various Clinton fund-raising scandals.
But the Latinos are the ones who matter most, if only because of sheer numbers. And they are finding power elusive because their supporters will not turn out at elections. Despite its large Latino community, Los Angeles is still essentially run by Jews and blacks. Of the citys 15 councillors, only three are Latinos. In the forthcoming mayoral election, Latinos may cast only 20% of the votes, even though they make up 45% of the electorate. It will probably take another election for a Latino mayor to emerge. In national politics, Latinos make up only around 7% of the likely voters, half the figure for blacks, but they may punch above their weight in the election later this year. Most of their votes are concentrated in states such as California, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, which enjoy an above-average representation in the electoral college. Intriguingly, both Republican candidates, John McCain and George W. Bush, have won majorities of Latino voters in their home states.
Latinos are strong believers in the family and most of them work in the private sector, but in the past they have mostly voted Democratic: in 1996, 72% of them plumped for Bill Clinton. Of Americas elected Latinos, some 90% are Democrats. But there are differences. Cubans in Miami and Mexican-Americans in Texas tend to be much more conservative than, say, Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexican-Americans in California.
If Latinos are mainly in the Democratic camp, it is largely thanks to a Republican.
"Wherever I speak, I can rally support just by mentioning Pete Wilson," says Mr Becerra. The erstwhile governor of California infuriated Latinos by sponsoring Proposition 187, which cut off benefits to illegal immigrants. Since 1994, 600,000 Latinos have registered to vote in California, most of them as Democrats.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst at Claremont College in southern California, points to another dangerous sign for the Republicans: the increasing importance of Latinos in trade unions, which have managed to halt their decline by recruiting Latino service workers as members. The unions have also been contributing heavily to Latino candidates.
What will Latinos do as and when they gain power? Privately, almost all of them pledge "not to do another Miami". This is a veiled hint at Miamis pervasive corruption, but also reflects a genuine belief that Miami is too separate from the rest of America. Outside Miami, Latino politicians have been much less proprietorial about their fiefs, and Latino voters seem much more inclined than blacks to vote for politicians of any hue.
Yet it would be odd if Latinos did not put their stamp on national politics. A more conservative attitude to abortion and stronger ties with Latin America are sometimes mentioned. Rodolfo de la Garza of the University of Texas thinks that in the longer term the closest political comparison for Latinos will not be Italian-Americans (who have largely stopped being an identifiable constituency) but Jews. Latinos, he thinks, will have "a set of prior commitments", such as improvements in immigration policy. Provided that candidates are offered the chance to honour those commitments, they might give their loyalty to either political party.
The white minority
It is conceivable that the new Americans biggest impact on politics will be among whites. Ron Unz, the man who ended bilingual education, points out that white voters in California have begun to assume the political habits of a minority. Californias previous generosity to immigrants was rooted in white voters self-confidence, he says; now that their numbers are declining, they are developing the same protective instincts as any minority group. They are attacking affirmative action and immigrant benefits, and are preparing a new version of Proposition 187.
On the national stage, the only candidate who voices white concerns is Pat Buchanan, now of the Reform Party, who says he wants to reduce the number of immigrants to 250,000 a year. Wander around west Los Angeles, and you will hear complaints about changing neighbourhoods; but you will also see children of all races playing together. The odds are still on the side of the melting pot.