We’ll never know if Antonio Villaraigosa could have beaten Attorney General Kamala Harris in a race to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer.
Those who know the former Los Angeles mayor cited personal reasons as to why Villaraigosa announced on Tuesday that he wouldn’t challenge Harris in 2016.
“He spent time huddled with his family and came out of that deciding he didn’t want to do it,” said Fabian Núñez, the former California Assembly speaker.
The news generated widespread headlines. But there is a far larger story here about the numbers that were stacked against California’s highest-profile Latino politician – numbers that could still haunt Villaraigosa if he runs for governor in 2018.
Though California’s Latino population is 39 percent and growing, the community remains a paper tiger as a statewide political power.
In Villaraigosa’s native Los Angeles County, only 23 percent of Latino registered voters participated in last November’s election.
According to polling data presented to the Democratic National Committee last week and published by Buzzfeed on Monday, only 33 percent of Latinos across America think the Democratic Party “truly cares” about their community. For Republicans, the number is 12 percent.
Latino voter turnout was lower in 2014 than in the previous two election cycles, but it’s never been what it could be.
“Even in stellar years, our community doesn’t break a 50 percent turnout,” political consultant Jose Parra told Buzzfeed. “The basic issue is that many campaigns talk at our community, instead of talking to them, or with them, and often only a couple of months before Election Day.”
Herein lies the crux of this issue. Latinos are disconnected from the political process in larger numbers than whites, African Americans or Asian Americans.
Because the overall population numbers of Latinos is growing, an increasingly apathetic electorate will mark the future of California unless the current trend changes. That’s bad for everyone.
“If you look at the numbers, not just in 2014 but in the past several cycles, then one could say that our democracy is weak,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told the Los Angeles Times this week.
Instead of focusing on why there aren’t more Latino elected officials, the conversation needs to dig deeper.
Why is a young Latino population in California with a median age of 27 so disconnected? The answer is poverty. More and more Latinos in California are working in lower-paying service-sector jobs while manufacturing jobs – once the traditional springboard for assimilation – diminish.
Latinos are failing in California public schools at higher rates than other groups. They’ve suffered more home foreclosures. Until these issues are addressed, questions of who is running for political office will be far less relevant than the legions of disaffected people who wouldn’t vote for them anyway.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.