Minority Report

California Latinos confound predictions


The oxygen went out of Gray Davis' election-night party at approximately 8:02 p.m. yesterday, when news of the networks calling a landslide victory for Arnold Schwarzenegger circulated around the Biltmore Hotel's ballroom and bar. More than an hour later, around 60 Democratic politicians, including Jesse Jackson, the Davis family, and elderly Latino women wearing United Farm Workers shirts, crammed onstage for the concession speech.

"Now this," said California Democratic Party Chair Art Torres, surveying the rainbow coalition on either side of the podium, "is California!"

Every Golden State politician knows what Torres meant, though almost none make it a central part of their stump speech. California politics, 154 years after Anglos first came to power, is still largely ethnic. The Democrats count on overwhelming support from the black and Latino "communities" (as they are euphemistically called by both parties); the Republicans tie themselves in knots trying to "reach out" to people who have historical reasons for not feeling comfortable in the GOP.

Republican dreams and Democratic nightmares notwithstanding, the one true storyline of yesterday's vote was that Californians rejected a single specific politician whom they have grown to detest. But a key subplot, and one that could potentially have national implications, is that the Latino vote might now truly be up for grabs.

Cruz Bustamante would have been the first Latino governor in modern California history. Arnold Schwarzenegger voted for Proposition 187, the popular anti-illegal immigration initiative that drove a generation of Latino voters into the Democratic camp, and drafted 187-champion Pete Wilson to chair his campaign. In the Democratic Party's downtown Los Angeles headquarters, where I watched the bowling-ball shaped Lt. governor fumble in Spanish on cold-calls to voters this Sunday, there is a poster of Arnold's body with Wilson's head photo-shopped on it, saying "I'm back!! This time I'll finish the job. Hasta la vista, democracy!"

The scare campaign did not work. Exit polls showed that Schwarzenegger got 30 percent of California's Latino vote, more than any Republican candidate in a decade. Bustamante received just 52 percent, a whopping 13 points less than the reviled Davis won in November 2002. CNN reported that Bustamante actually did better among blacks—64 percent—than Latinos.

Yet at the same time, Latino enthusiasm for Bustamante may have dealt a fatal blow to Gray Davis. Nearly half of Hispanic voters, who made up 18 percent of the electorate overall, voted yes on the recall; if they would have voted like Democrats (who were nearly 80 percent against), the 55-45 recall result would have been more like 51-49, and we would be talking for the next several weeks about endless court challenges.

Both major parties will be dissecting these results for years to come. George Bush and Karl Rove, since long before they reached the White House, have subscribed to the theory that the future of the Republican Party in the Sun Belt depends on Latino-friendly policies, and (in California, at least) social moderation. As governor of Texas, Bush criticized Proposition 187, and rejected the kind of English-only initiatives that Arnold Schwarzenegger has backed. As a presidential candidate, he campaigned heavily in California, promising to reform the Immigration and Naturalization Service and cut a new migration deal with his good pal Vicente Fox. And as president, he drafted the moderate Los Angeleno Richard Riordan to run for governor in 2002. But until yesterday, the most striking thing about Bush's Southwestern Strategy has been its utter failure at the ballot box.

On the Democratic side, last night's lukewarm Latino showing should provide a long-overdue wake-up call. Since receiving the electoral gift of Proposition 187, Art Torres' party has reflexively attempted to paint any number of reasonable initiatives as Pete Wilson's evil spawn. Democrats and Bustamante cried bloody murder at the repeal of bilingual education, despite broad Latino support for having kids learn in English, and painted opponents of the drivers-licenses-for-illegal-immigrants law as knuckle-draggers. By confusing tolerance with caving in to activists, and by blatantly reversing himself on a drivers license bill opposed by two-thirds of the population, Davis may have pandered himself out of some Latino support.

"Davis repeated a mistake many analysts have made during the recall campaign," political analyst Gregory Rodriguez wrote in the Oct. 5 Los Angeles Times. "He distilled the burgeoning and diversifying Latino electorate of 2.3 million into a lump of uniformity.

Schwarzenegger and the Republicans also suffer from the disease of treating Latinos like a monolithic bloc. On Friday, when the Governator-elect was asked by a Hispanic businessman in Santa Clarita just how exactly he was reaching out to Latino voters, Arnold said: "I'm a big fan of Latino families… I love their workmanship," and then talked about how much fun he had shooting four movies in Mexico.

It is possible that the unpredicted split in the Latino vote yesterday can mostly be attributed to the Schwarzenegger's star power, and that tomorrow's elections in California will more closely hew to old patterns. But today, at least, it looks like the fastest-growing segment of the population has finally started to become the swing vote that George Bush imagined it could be.

"Perhaps the one worthwhile lesson of this recall," Rodriguez wrote, "will be that Latinos should be seen for what they are rather than what the political class wishes them to be."