Mariel Garza

Where have all the Latinos gone? A statistical mystery in local politics

Deputy editorial page editor

Mariel Garza

The four people who competed to replace Bonnie Pannell on the Sacramento City Council in November were all African American. That probably didn’t surprise anyone; District 8 is a historically black seat representing historically black communities.

Historically, however, as in, used to be.

Although the neighborhoods that make up District 8 are strikingly diverse, by the numbers, this is a Latino district. According to the demographic figures used in the city’s 2011 redistricting process, about 30 percent of the residents are Latino.

So, how is it that no Latino candidates were running in this race, and that there never has been a Latino representing the district? For that matter, why isn’t there any Latino representation on the City Council?

It didn’t make sense. This was especially perplexing because the Sacramento City Council is among the most diverse – racially, ethnically and culturally – that I’ve ever seen. And, while Sacramento’s Latino population may be significantly lower than the 38 percent statewide, it is still the largest ethnic minority in town at 27 percent. That’s almost twice as large as the African American community.

What’s going on?

This mystery led me first to The Bee’s’ voter guide for the Nov. 4 election to see if I could get a bead on where Latino candidates were running. What I found baffled me all the more. There weren’t many Hispanic names among those running for local government seats.

Then I called Phil Serna, the only Latino on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. If anyone had a long view of local politics, it would be the son of one of the city’s most beloved politicians, Joe Serna Jr., the first and only Latino mayor of Sacramento.

He had some great insights, but no easy answers for me, something I’d encounter again and again.

“There’s no concerted force trying to mute Chicano political activism,” he said. But he also pointed out that other groups have been able to better elevate their presence on the local political stage. Just look at the current makeup of the city and county’s elected leadership from council to the congressional representation, Doris Matsui, a Japanese American and Ami Bera, an Indian American.

Yet, not since Joe Serna’s death 15 years ago has another Latino been elected to city leadership. Deborah Ortiz, one of just three Latinos ever elected to the Sacramento City Council and a former state legislator, told me there has never been the kind of political machine here that you see in other parts of the state, such as Los Angeles. Ethnic pride is not enough to get you elected in Sacramento, she said; you have to have smart policy chops first.

Also, there hasn’t been a groundswell from Latino communities to get more representation. “We’ve never pushed as a united community,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz, who is currently a trustee for the Los Rios Community College District, experienced that firsthand when she ran for City Council in 1993 to finish Joe Serna’s term representing District 5. The new Mayor Serna threw his support to a non-Latino candidate. Ortiz won anyway.

It takes more than just supporting other Latino candidates, though. You have to find the young up-and-comers and develop them. That doesn’t happen much in local politics, if my conversations with five of the city’s Latino elected officials are any indication.

Eric Guerra, who is running for Sacramento City Council in the April 7 special election to replace Kevin McCarty, concurred. “There isn’t a machine or group of people to organize and get Latinos in there,” Guerra said.

“I think for whatever reason past electeds haven’t nurtured that,” he said.

Although it was Supervisor Serna who appointed Guerra to his current Sacramento County Planning Commission position, Guerra’s path to politics began long before when he was an engineering student at Sacramento State, working as janitor to pay for his studies. One of the offices he cleaned belonged to Gary Davis, then the student-body president and now the mayor of Elk Grove, who sometimes worked late. These encounters turned into conversations that started Guerra on a career trajectory that would take him from student-body president to the Legislature as a staffer. There his political interests were influenced even more by a Los Angeles legislator, Sen. Gil Cedillo.

Sacramento City Unified school board Trustee Diana Rodriguez has a similar story. Rodriguez was also a government staffer when she ran for office after being recruited by someone looking for candidates to support.

She also found inspiration outside the area. In fact, the same as Guerra, Cedillo became her mentor. Since then, she has looked outside the region – way outside – for Latino colleagues for inspiration and support. “I have a network of my own,” she said, “statewide and national elected officials.”

Another possible factor is that political districts and city borders have divided historically Latino neighborhoods, which could have reliably elected Latino representatives. One idea that has been proposed is to annex the finger of county land that separates much of south Sacramento, with Districts 5 and 8 to the west and District 6 to the east. Doing so would create two Latino districts, Ortiz said.

But election turnout in Sacramento, as well as the November race in District 8, shows that it isn’t all about population numbers.

Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, studies voting patterns and says that Latinos in Sacramento have lower turnout rates than other populations. In 2012, the latest data she has, Latinos accounted for just 11.5 percent of the voters in the county, although they account for about 22 percent of the population.

Richie Ross, a longtime local political strategist, however, believes the dearth is more likely just a historical a quirk, especially because the Sacramento region elected one of the first Latino mayors of any major city west of Mississippi in modern times, “So it’s not like Sacramento or region is somehow racially backward. It’s just not the truth,” Ross said.

What’s more likely, he said, is that Sacramento offers more options for smart young people, Latino and otherwise, who are interested in politics.

“Because it is the capital, if a person chooses public service, unlike other places you’ve got a whole range of options open to you in state government,” Ross said.

Of all the explanations, this makes the most sense to me. In other cities, those with political ambitious must go to work for a council member or a school trustee to get a foot in the door, creating an imperative for a political machine. In Sacramento, they can get a job as legislative staffers or union officials or association advocates and corporate lobbyists, thus, putting less pressure on local jobs.

And they do get those jobs. The Capitol was the political starting point for almost everyone I talked to: Ortiz, Guerra, Rodriguez and Gustavo Arroyo, another SCUSD trustee who came to Sacramento from Los Angeles as a college student precisely because he was interested in politics. And for one I didn’t: Nancy Chaires, a Planning Commission member who ran for Elk Grove City Council in November, and who should have won, according to our endorsement, but didn’t.

It’s a bit of a relief. If Ross is right, and I think he may be, then there might be a lack of Latino politicians in Sacramento but not a lack of Latinos in politics.