In 1994, then-Gov. Pete Wilson stoked fears of a porous U.S.-Mexico border and of hordes of brown people pouring into California in a cynically racist campaign that earned him re-election and enduring infamy.
Last year, President Donald Trump took Wilson’s bigoted blueprint national by first trashing Mexicans in his campaign kickoff and then by banging a drum of ethnic animus all the way to the White House.
It doesn’t matter that Latinos are 39 percent of California’s population, the largest ethnic group, when a persistent political narrative condemning Latinos continues to win elections.
The end result contributes to disenfranchisement of potential Latino voters that plays out in election after election. The end result is a Latino population with a median age of 28 who are more likely to protest on street corners than use their power by casting a ballot. This is bad for all Californians because disaffected Latino voters are ultimately stalled from assimilating into a broader society, as Italian and Irish immigrants did generations ago.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
I’m a 54-year-old son of Mexican immigrants and a journalist for more than 30 years in California. This story is personal to me because I’ve been covering it my entire career. The dynamic has barely changed. It outlived my parents, who were both American citizens and active voters before they died. I’m afraid it’s going to outlive me. I’m afraid there always will be politicians who win by vilifying us on the way to the most powerful offices in the country.
So the question becomes: Should we continue to support U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a super-rich Bay Area political icon, despite the fact that this narrative hasn’t budged in the quarter century she served in the U.S. capitol?
Are we supposed to believe that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the wealthy former mayor of San Francisco, is going to change this narrative while running for governor of California? He’s long supported marriage equality, and that’s great. He’s touted as a real “progressive” and that’s great. But his campaign has given little indication that he could be the change agent needed to activate disenfranchised communities.
Forgive me, but I don’t believe in fairy tales.
For all the self-congratulatory proclamations of California as a progressive haven, the state is not as cool as it thinks it is. The traditional paths to power in California have been closely guarded by a Bay Area pecking order heretofore off-limits to Latino candidates.
Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown, all Bay Area political icons, have ruled the roost in California for decades. Then Kamala Harris, the former San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general, was anointed to replace Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
Remember when Willie Brown, former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor, warned that Antonio Villaraigosa – the former Los Angeles mayor – should not challenge Harris when Boxer’s Senate seat came open?
“His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that,” Brown told The Bee after an appearance in Sacramento in January 2015.
This is precisely why Villaraigosa’s campaign against Newsom is significant.
It’s why Kevin de León’s audacious challenge of Feinstein is generating a repeat of Brown’s “how dare you” incredulity from California’s Bay Area power base.
“In many ways, I find it selfish,” Boxer said of de León’s Senate bid in a Roll Call interview. “I don’t think it’s time for an intraparty squabble.”
This is the way it’s going to play. How dare Villaraigosa? How dare de León? It’s starting already. Nathan Ballard, a Bay Area political operative and former Newsom aide, said this to the Bay Area News Group: “Newsom looks like the future of California. He’s tech savvy, he’s energetic, he’s not afraid to lead the way on controversial issues like he did on marriage equality. He’s got a star quality – which only a handful of politicians in the U.S. currently have.”
Newsom looks like the future of California? What does that mean? State demographers predict that Latinos will be roughly 50 percent of the state population by 2060, but that’s not what Ballard means. He’s talking about preserving the political order in California.
In a San Francisco Chronicle commentary, Ballard compared de León to Brutus, the Roman politician who betrayed Julius Cesar.
“Playing the role of Brutus is Kevin de León, the state Senate president pro tem. He is ‘Sacramento famous,’ although his modest accomplishments have been dutifully recorded by the media there, he is largely unknown outside of that insular world.”
This seems like a refined way of saying that Villaraigosa and de León are uppity and the attitude promoted by Ballard is not lost on those who are excited that Villaraigosa and de León are challenging the status quo.
“What I love about de León’s gesture is that it belies the idea that white liberals are capable stewards of Latino interests,” said Phillip Rodriguez, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, mostly for PBS, who is based in Los Angeles.
“There are two distinct, cultural and political realities playing out. One of elder whites who are comfortable and protected and have received much from the state – and one of a younger generation who are still waiting their turn and to whom the state has been much less generous.”
As it happens, only two Latino candidates in California have inspired Latino voters to head to the polls in big numbers: Villaraigosa and de León.
In 2005, when he was elected mayor of Los Angeles, Latino voters were 22 percent of registered and 26 percent of actual voters. “That means they turned out in higher numbers than the non-Latino population,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.
“The only other time we saw this was in the 2006 primary with Kevin de León (when elected to the state Assembly),” Mitchell said.
“In that district, Latinos were 43 percent of registered voters, but 54 percent of those who voted on Election Day.”
In previous election cycles, the Latino vote was often framed as a protest vote. They turned out to fight Trump or a ballot initiative that inspired fear or dread. In 2016, when pundits predicted a “Trump effect” that would mobilize a Latino electorate, the numbers in California were ultimately unimpressive. Latinos were 25 percent of registered voters, but 23 percent of actual voters, Mitchell said.
Villaraigosa and de León have a chance to flip the narrative, to turn Latino voters into aspirational voters rather than protest voters.
“Latinos becoming the first is significant. It carries a message,” said Matt A Barreto, professor of Chicano Studies and Political Science at UCLA.
“It sends a message of inclusion and respect.”
Barreto compared the ascension of de León, Villaraigosa and others to the political deliverance experienced by Italian American politicians generations ago.
It’s a legitimate comparison in that de León, Villaragosa and others represent assimilation and acceptance.
It’s a tougher comparison to make when considering that Italian immigrants no longer are lighting rods in American politics, yet Latino immigrants still are.
On Oct. 27, the Los Angeles Times published a story about how Republicans could help elect Feinstein barring the rise of a Republican challenger because de León is more liberal – and he’s Latino.
“I’m not racist. But (de León) is Hispanic,” said El Dorado County resident Robert Tatman in the Times story. “I’m afraid to give more power to Hispanics until we get our illegal immigration down.”
In 2012, when he was mayor of Los Angeles, Villaraigosa was walking in downtown Sacramento when a man told him to “Go back to Mexico.” It happened in the presence of Dan Morain, the Bee’s editorial page editor.
Ethnicity still matters in our politics and to suggest otherwise is naive. These are but small samplings of the kind of comments de León, Villaraigosa and their employees say they experience routinely.
It’s a level of ethnic vitriol that Feinstein and Newsom, the leading candidate in the gubernatorial race, won’t have to confront.
“Maybe after we’ve had five or six Latino governors it won’t be an issue anymore,” said Barreto of UCLA.
Only a robust democracy of truly contested elections will change that.