Because the election in the new, court-mandated Los Angeles County 1st Supervisorial District has such significance for the future of Latino politics in Southern California, the predictions of political “experts” have the potential of shaping public opinion about Latino political empowerment. Therefore, let’s consider the conventional wisdom, or “insight,” that were being bandied about before the election:
Latino voters will not turn out in a special election; instead, non-Latino voters will determine the balance of power in the new district. A curious thing happened on the way to the polls. Although voter turnout was low (21%), it was higher than the turnout for the last two general mayoral elections in Los Angeles (16% in 1985 and 11% in 1989.) This turnout occurred even though voters’ attention was diverted--and quite rightly so--by the Persian Gulf War.
In addition, these overall figures on turnout conceal some important differences. In 60% of the Eastside precincts (which are largely Latino), the turnout was actually higher than in last November’s general election, which saw a yearlong gubernatorial campaign and a multitude of political offices up for grabs. In comparison, the turnout in the suburban precincts in the district was actually lower than the turnout for those districts in the November general election. The farther out you went into the suburban ring, the lower the turnout, compared with last November.
What is the significance of these patterns?
It reaffirms the belief of civil-rights advocates that minority voters will go to the polls when they see that there is a chance for their votes to make a difference. They will turn out in spite of a war, in spite of only having six weeks to register and to become informed about the candidates, and in spite of having difficulty finding polling places because some were not clearly identified (a problem reported by many of the campaigns involved).
The Republican Party, with its large war chests, will contribute heavily to the campaign of Sarah Flores. Despite this prediction, the Flores campaign, according to latest accounts, came in third in fund-raising. What happened to the Republican coffers? Sarah Flores had proved her ability as a vote-getter last June. She ran a competent and tough campaign, but she came up short on funds. This puzzles many activists in the district and ranks--along with Gov. Pete Wilson’s not appointing a Latino Republican to the U.S. Senate--as another missed opportunity by state Republicans to woo the Latino vote.
Since the election of a new supervisor is such a significant political event in Southern California’s Latino community (it represents the last rung of the political ladder not scaled by Latino elected officials in county politics) perhaps we should look at the real lessons to be learned from this important race. Latino votes count.
The Los Angeles County primary election clearly shows that Latino voters will participate if they have a chance to choose among candidates who are addressing issues that resonate with the community. As the front-runner’s success demonstrates, Latino voters will respond to campaigns that heavily utilize volunteers and grass-roots efforts. Typically, direct mail and expensive media buys have been considered the keys to victory. The winner of the runoff next month will be the candidate who combines these traditional high-tech campaign tools with the grass-roots efforts involving face-to-face voter contact that were successful Tuesday, and that campaign will serve as a model for the future. Both parties should keep this in mind for the next general election.
The runoff campaign has already begun for the February election. A sign of the growing political development of the Latino community is the abundance of qualified candidates that can be fielded. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina and state Sen. Art Torres, who will face each other in the runoff, are engaging and charismatic personalities who would bring a wealth of experience to the Board of Supervisors.
But no matter who wins, his or her hands will be full in overseeing a bureaucracy with 70,000 employees and a multibillion-dollar budget. Hopefully, as the February election proceeds and after the new Latino supervisor takes office, those “analysts” who convey conventional wisdom will take to heart the lessons of this election and apply them to the efforts for Latino political empowerment throughout Southern California.