Two Ways of Looking at Latino Vote


The days when politicians could afford to ignore Latino voters, the state’s fastest-growing electorate, are over. But less than a year before the next general election, Orange County Republicans and Democrats alike are stumped about the best way to court them.

Pointing to Robert K. Dornan’s back-to-back losses to Democrat Loretta Sanchez, surging voter participation among Latinos and a potential backlash from continuing campaigns against illegal immigrants, political experts and leaders say Republicans could suffer further losses in the next election cycle without a strategy.

By the same token, Democrats who swayed Latinos by opposing anti-immigrant measures in the past five years could easily lose them if they become complacent and do not explain to Latinos what that party can offer, observers say.


“Every political party has to worry about emerging trends,” said Fred Smoller, chairman of the political science department at Chapman University.

In the past, “Latinos did not have a record of high voter turnout for so many years that both parties could ignore them,” Smoller said. But election in recent years of Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) and other Latino leaders around the state show that “whoever ignores Latinos ignores them at their peril.”

Latinos are projected to become the majority population of Los Angeles County by 2010 and the largest ethnic group in Orange County by 2040. Nearly 40% of the California’s new voters since 1990 have been Latino. And since 1994--when an initiative to block illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits polarized the state--1 million Mexican Americans became citizens and 600,000 Latinos registered to vote.

In Orange County, where nearly half of registered voters overall belong to the GOP, Latino voter participation jumped by more than 4,000 from 1992 to 1996. And Orange County Latinos voted Democratic by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 in 1996, according to a Times analysis that year.

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes is reluctant to campaign heavily for Latino support even though he admits his party has sometimes made it easy for Latinos to vote Democratic.

“I find it very awkward to practice ghetto politics or barrio politics,” Fuentes said. “I don’t think ethnicity should be a factor in anyone’s decision to join the party. It should be a decision influenced by heartfelt values, not color of skin. Our success with Hispanics has been with the upwardly mobile element of the community. But where we have failed is at the barrio level, in pockets of poverty and economically depressed areas. But then I must say our party has not succeeded in those areas around the country either.”


Plans to Make a Plan

While local party leaders agree on the need to pursue Latino voters, they have yet to find a strategy for doing so, said Fred Armendariz, a member of county’s Republican Lincoln Club.

“We’re the natural party for the Hispanic community,” Armendariz said. “We’re hard-working Americans who believe in limited government, family values and right-to-life. But slowly but surely, Hispanics are being swayed away. I’ve been to meeting after meeting where this has been discussed. But no one agrees on one plan.”

Because Republicans hold all five seats on the Board of Supervisors, four of the county’s five congressional seats, three out of four of its state Senate seats and six of the seven seats in the California Assembly, Fuentes believes his party has nothing to worry about in 2000.

Armendariz agrees. “But five to 10 years down the road, when Latinos are the majority, if Latinos are not in the Republican Party they will be Democrats. The party really needs to make Latino voters aware of the fact that Republicans are not immigrant-haters as has been depicted in the media. There is a small segment who have voiced their ugly opinions in areas that are anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrants and have been a thorn in the side of the party for the last 10 to 25 years.”

Many observers point out that Democrats also must work to keep and recruit Latino voters.

“Both parties have to really learn how to speak Spanish--not George Bush-style Spanish--and take the lead on economic equality, opportunity, outreach and, most importantly, condemning anything that stigmatizes schoolchildren,” Smoller said.

To keep its new Latino members and win over thousands more, Democrats will need to harp on the anti-immigrant nature of recent Republican-endorsed measures, leaders say. The grass-roots organization that launched Proposition 187 have filed a similar proposed initiative for the November ballot.


“A lot of it will depend on whether or not there is a real strong effort to the causal relationship connection,” said Steven Ybarra, chairman of the California Chicano/Latino Caucus. “The Democratic Party has not figured out what to do with the Mexican American. We are by nature conservative and family-oriented. We’re not into welfare but we care about health care. Does that sound like a Republican? The balance will be whether or not the Democratic Party is able to focus on the anti-immigrant demagoguery of the Republicans.”

In May, a Latino political action committee, chaired by Rep. Sanchez, was formed to provide financial assistance to local, state and federal candidates who are Latino or support Latino agendas. Sanchez, who has already raised nearly $1 million, hopes to raise $2 million to $4 million in the next two years.

“Poll after poll shows that the issues that are the backbone of the Democratic Party--education, health care and Social Security--are the family values that are playing well with minority voters,” said Jeanne Costales, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. “The Latino population is just as smart as any other population and it can figure out when it’s being pandered to. I feel really good going into 2000.”

Candidates and Causes

As the outreach coordinator for the county’s Republican Party, Manny Padilla organizes speaking engagements in the county’s Latino, Vietnamese and Korean communities. Padilla’s team of 40 volunteers speaks to individuals and small groups about the party’s values.

“We’re not doing anything flashy or glitzy, we’re just building a network of people,” Padilla said. “In Orange County, we could probably win without the Latino vote. But I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I would like to see more Latinos involved in the party. It would add a lot of value to the party. I don’t know if we could win without the Latino vote in 10 years.”

To succeed in the long run, the Republican Party needs to find Latino candidates to run for offices at all levels, said Art Pedroza, who once served as the party’s Hispanic outreach director and remains an activist.


“It’s a double-edged situation,” Pedroza said. “Not only do you have to have good candidates who are from the community, but we also have to champion causes that are important to Latino families. If we don’t react to that now and come out with good candidates and good issues, we don’t deserve to do well.”