At long last, California’s burgeoning Latino population has captured national headlines that are not about illegal immigration. Because they now comprise 13% of the voters in the most politically potent state in the union, Latinos are outgrowing their image as America’s “silent minority.” But other than their evident desire to see more Latinos in political office, it is unclear what their voice is saying and how it will influence state politics.
The relative newness of the Latino electorate makes predicting difficult. Fully 30% of the state’s Latino voters have entered the electorate since 1994. Yet, several recent opinion surveys indicate that, politically speaking, Latinos look much like other Californians. Few Latino voters, for example, place themselves at either end of the political spectrum. According to an April survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 28% consider themselves liberal, 36% moderate and 35% conservative.
Surveys also show the Latino electorate skewing moderate on social issues, even while preferring an activist government. Latinos, for example, are less likely than Californians as a whole to believe that the choice to have an abortion should be left to a woman or her doctor. Yet, they are more likely than other Californians to be in favor of raising taxes and spending more money on social programs like health care, Social Security and unemployment benefits.
Within the Democratic Party, growing Latino political influence is likely to push the agenda toward the center. “This is a big swing away from Barbra Streisand liberalism,” says Leo Briones, a Democratic strategist. “Latinos centrify the Democratic Party.” In other words, Latinos will keep the party focused less on, say, environmentalism and more on old-fashioned, bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, education and crime.
On Nov. 3, coalitions of Anglo and Latino voters in three distinct regions of the state elected a new brand of Democratic Latino leader. Dean Florez, freshmen assemblyman from the southern San Joaquin Valley, Assemblyman Lou Correa of central Orange County and Ron Gonzales, mayor-elect of San Jose, are all pro-business moderates whose presence could help steer the state’s growing cadre of Latino officials away from their more liberal, activist origins. “What you’re seeing is a more moderate, conservative, private-sector approach to government,” says Florez, who holds an MBA from Harvard. “I want to make sure that the Latino caucus will stay in the middle.”
The success of Lt. Gov.-elect Cruz M. Bustamante should be instructive to any ambitious, young Latino politician. The former Assembly speaker became the first Latino statewide officeholder in this century by running as a rather bland, middle-of-the-road candidate.
While a much smaller presence on the other side of the aisle, the new Republican Latino caucus will also serve to counterbalance GOP extremism. Although its strategy could not overcome the legacy of Gov. Pete Wilson in the minds of Latino voters Nov. 3, the state Republican Party, for the past two years, has taken steps to appear more inclusive and moderate on issues affecting Latinos. Even when he was the sole Latino member of the Assembly Republican Caucus, Rod Pacheco contends that his mere presence served to remind his Anglo colleagues of the need to take into account minority opinions before jumping headlong into potentially racially charged issues. Now that he will head the new Republican Latino caucus and serve as Assembly minority leader, the pro-choice former prosecutor is likely to have an even stronger moderating affect on the culture of the state GOP.
While it is indisputable that Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative, and Wilson’s embrace of racially charged wedge issues boosted their political participation, Latinos’ inability to move beyond these motivators could block them from gaining even greater political influence. By championing the anti-immigrant movement in 1994, both in California and in Congress, the GOP wiped out what inroads it had made among California Latino voters during the Reagan years, when statewide Republican candidates could sometimes garner up to 40% of the Latino vote. But, nationally, Latinos are not voting as lopsidedly Democratic as they currently are in California.
Latinos voted less heavily Democratic in House races in 1998 than they did in 1996. While two years ago, 73% of the Latino vote went to Democratic candidates, only 63% did this year. Conversely, over the past two years, Republican candidates for the House of Representatives, across the nation, have gained 10 percentage points among Latino voters. This shift doesn’t mean that Latinos are becoming more conservative. Rather, it means that Latinos outside California are more inclined to vote candidate rather than party. By tactfully avoiding racially charged issues over the past four years and persistently wooing Latino voters, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, raised his percentage of the Latino vote from 28% in 1994 to an unprecedented 49% this year. Texas Latinos, who, as in California, are predominately Mexican American, also supported Tony Garza, the Republican candidate for Railroad Commissioner. But farther down the ballot in state and local races, Latinos voted heavily Democratic. In short, Latino voters split their tickets.
“One of the real winners [this election] was the Mexican American voter,” says Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Texas. “Clearly, they’re the vote to be courted. With Republicans making gains among Latino voters, the Democrats can no longer take that vote for granted.”
Carlos Ramirez, the Democratic mayor of El Paso, which is 72% Latino, claims that its strong support for Bush has made the Texas Latino electorate more competitive. He claims that when El Paso Latinos automatically voted Democratic, both parties wound up ignoring his city. “You can’t vote straight ticket anymore,” says Ramirez, who endorsed Bush. “You have to exercise your political muscle.”
Once considered diehard Republican, the Cuban American electorate in Florida also has begun to split its tickets and thereby flex its muscles. While it wasn’t much of a surprise that Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush captured 85% of the Cuban American vote Nov. 3, it was newsworthy that 69% of the Cuban vote went to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to aggressively campaign for the Cuban vote. Four years later, his effort paid off: He won 40% of their votes. “You can’t take the Cuban American vote for granted,” says Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University. “This is a vote still very much in play.”
Despite its tremendous gains this decade, California’s Latino electorate will never achieve its full potential as a political force unless it behaves more like Latino voters in Texas and Florida. Much depends, to be sure, on how well state Republicans succeed in reinventing themselves as a party that is more responsive to the needs of non-Anglos. By now, most state GOP leaders recognize that their party must broaden its base to remain competitive in statewide races. Latinos, too, must look beyond party labels if they are to broaden their influence. Ironically, as the state GOP matures, so will the Latino electorate.*