As California Democrats eye the once-in-a-generation opportunity of an open U.S. Senate seat, the formidable Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate campaign is encountering a rival movement.
Latino elected officials, saying they lack fair representation at the federal level despite a growing demographic dominance, are clamoring to see one of their own on the ballot.
In a sign of continued disagreement within the party about who should succeed outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Latino California state lawmakers on Tuesday urged that a Latino candidate seek Boxer’s seat. They emphasized that such a candidate would motivate voters to go to the polls in 2016 – particularly Latinos.
“Almost 40 percent of the population are Latino, and the Latino community has been shown to be able to elect some very viable candidates,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who chairs the California Latino Legislative Caucus. “Most of the discussion so far has been focusing on a narrow list of candidates and largely dismissing Latinos who have proven they’re able to have broad appeal.”
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has yet to make a decision, tops the list of potential challengers to Harris. For now, Harris faces no formal opposition. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and California State Treasurer John Chiang have all passed on running for the seat.
U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez , Secretary of State Alex Padilla and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra also are among potential candidates caucus members promoted as options. But rather than seeking to promote a particular candidate, Alejo said, their hope was to avoid “having our community and Latino candidates be dismissed.”
“I think as Latino legislators we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t look at this seat closely and ask the question not often being asked: Is there a Latino candidate who can be a competitive candidate and excite the voter base?” Alejo said.
Despite California’s soaring Latino population and the clout of Latino lawmakers in Sacramento, the state has never been represented by a Latino in the U.S. Senate. The Latino Caucus is seizing what Alejo called a historic opportunity to change that.
“As such a large voting bloc in the Democratic Party we need to make sure the media, (and) our leaders, don’t take the Latino voters for granted and don’t continually tell us to wait our turn when we’ve been waiting a long time,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.
State Democratic Party officials stress that they have not sought to anoint Harris. But comments by former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown urging Villaraigosa to step aside to make space for Harris have angered some Democrats and reinforced the notion that the party is closing ranks around the state attorney general.
“I think there was just a feeling of, do other people know something that we don’t know? Why are we suddenly being discounted as a group of voters and leaders?” Gonzalez said.
The push to elevate a Latino candidate mirrors how broadly California has changed since Boxer won her seat in 1992, said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics. Latinos now comprise a plurality in California, yet their presence in state-level elected offices trails far behind their share of the population.
“I think that we are at a transcendent moment in Latino history here,” Madrid said. “There is a big, glaring problem with our statewide representation. “Kudos to the Latino Caucus – that’s what they should be doing, is bringing attention to this.”
A spokesman for Harris’s campaign said that the attorney general “has never taken any campaign for granted” and said Harris would appeal broadly to voters.
“As the daughter of immigrants and a champion on so many of the issues facing California’s Latino population – homeowner protections, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, combating gang crime, fighting elementary school truancy – she looks forward to once again earning the support of the state’s Latino population and representing all Californians in the Senate,” spokesman Brian Brokaw said in an emailed statement.
Latino legislators yoked their push to a new poll, commissioned by the caucus and conducted by the Garin-Hart-Yang research group, suggesting that a Latino candidate would energize the Democratic electorate and Latino voters in particular. A third of Latino respondents said they would be “more favorable” toward a Latino candidate.
The caucus conducted the poll specifically to examine the potential impact of a Latino candidate, said Roger Salazar, an adviser to a Latino Caucus-affiliated political action committee that seeks to elect Latino candidates.
“What they really wanted to see was, would a viable Latino candidate generate enthusiasm?” Salazar said. “Based on the findings, they think it would.”
Latinos tend to vote less frequently than other demographic groups. Having a Latino on the ballot could spur more people to participate, said Mindy Romero, who studies Latino voting trends as director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis.
“In these times of extremely low turnout for Latinos, seeing someone of the same background and similar life experiences can be enough potentially to change someone from a non-voter to a voter,” Romero said.
“You don’t have to be Latino to represent the Latino community,” she added, “but the fact that we haven’t had a lot of folks to choose from, I think, is concerning for a lot of leaders in the Latino community.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.