Latino voters may make the difference for California Democrats on Election Day

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; A19


As Election Day looms, the Democrats look to be embattled in places where they've not been embattled for decades. Republicans are threatening Democrats in such true-blue regions as New England and the Pacific Northwest.

But here in California, Democrats are increasingly upbeat about their prospects. Jerry Brown has withstood Meg Whitman's $140 million assault and for the past two weeks has finally been up on the air with ads of his own. In Carly Fiorina, Sen. Barbara Boxer has been blessed with an opponent who stands well to the right of Californians on social issues such as abortion. Both Brown and Boxer are up in the polls, and union-funded polling for congressional and state legislative seats shows that Republicans will have trouble picking up seats in November, even though California's unemployment rate -- 12.5 percent -- is the third highest of all 50 states.

With just three weeks to go to the election, Whitman's handlers are scrambling to find new ways to spend her money. On Tuesday, her campaign announced that a new Whitman ad, entirely in Mandarin, would begin appearing on Chinese-language television. That's not likely to make up for the damage that Whitman's China policy -- her offshoring of tens of thousands of jobs while chief executive of eBay -- has done to her prospects. Both Brown and Boxer are hammering their opponents (as Hewlett-Packard's CEO, Fiorina offshored 30,000 jobs) with ads that contrast the number of jobs they outsourced abroad with the multimillions in pay they received while wielding the ax.

The key to Democratic victories in California is high Latino turnout. In 2008, Latinos were 21 percent of California voters -- a six-point increase over their share in the 2006 midterms. California's unions are waging a massive statewide campaign in Latino communities both to boost turnout and to introduce Brown to Latino voters who

weren't around during Brown's first go-round (1975-83) as governor.

One ad running on Spanish-language television features images of Brown and Cesar Chavez together. In the mid-'70s, then-Gov. Brown signed the first law in the nation granting collective bargaining rights to farmworkers. But it wasn't until half a decade later that the great Latino migration to California began, and the vast majority of the newcomers live in cities and don't work on farms. To bridge this gap, the ad is narrated by Chavez's great-niece, Christina Chavez, an emergency-room physician decked out in surgical garb, who tells viewers that Brown, working with her great-uncle, opened the doors of opportunity for Latinos such as herself. A more compelling encapsulation of Brown's contributions to California Latinos is hard to imagine.

With Whitman touting her chops as a job creator, Brown's labor backers assiduously argue that his commitment to Latino opportunity is greater than hers. Whitman's pledge to reduce the number of state employees by 40,000 (notwithstanding that, on a per capita basis, California has fewer such employees than almost any other state) plays well among white Anglo voters, but it's a net negative among Latinos and African Americans. Brown supports the state version of the Dream Act, which would enable undocumented immigrant students to attend state colleges and universities at in-state rates. Whitman opposes it, as she coldly told the undocumented Latina student who asked her position during a debate aired on Spanish-language TV.

Saturday, among the many hundreds of canvassers whom the unions mobilized to walk heavily Latino precincts across Los Angeles were 40 "Dream Act" students, matriculating at local public colleges and universities while struggling to come up with the funds for courses and textbooks. Jose, a double major in English and early childhood education, would like to become a teacher; Angelica, a business administration major, hopes to open her own business. Both are 19; each came to the United States 10 years ago with their parents and without documentation. Bright and earnest, they make a strong case for the Dream Act and -- on the doorsteps of Latino households -- for Brown.

The unions are confident they can boost Brown's level of Latino support to over 70 percent, but they're concerned that too few Latinos will turn out to vote. In the unions' polling, more than 70 percent of California Latinos fear, however improbably, that a racial-profiling law such as that passed in Arizona could become law in California as well. Only casting a ballot for Brown, the unions contend, can quash the Arizona option in California. Their Spanish-language ads end with the slogan, "Martes [Tuesday] sí; Arizona no." And their get-out-the-vote program on the Tuesday in question will be the biggest they have ever waged.

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