Latino Impact Felt Through Labor Movement

One last point about the L.A. mayoral election: It showed that most Latinos have moved beyond the reach of the Republican Party.

At least in L.A. and probably throughout California.

And it's not just because of that GOP scapegoat, Proposition 187--the old illegal immigration initiative that Republican politicians conveniently blame for their rejection by Latinos.

True, Latinos were alarmed by Pete Wilson's pro-187 TV ads. Democrats demonized the Republican governor and jarred many Latinos into becoming citizens and registering to vote, mostly as Democrats.

But it's not the immigration issue that's now motivating Latinos politically. In fact, a preelection city poll by The Times found that Latino voters are split over the question of whether "the growing immigrant population in Los Angeles is a good thing or a bad thing for the city." (41% good; 42% bad.)

What's motivating increasing numbers of Latinos is that they're moving into the working class and joining labor unions, the historical incubator of Democratic activism. Like the immigrant Irish and Italians before them, these new immigrants are finding a home in labor and the Democratic Party.

The Times exit poll found that Latinos comprised a record 22% of the city voters, still only about half their share of the adult population. But there also was this finding: Union members made up 22% of the voters; 77% were Democrats and 14% Republicans.

And whether these union members backed winner James K. Hahn or loser Antonio Villaraigosa is not the point. The point is they backed a Democrat. No Republican even made it into the runoff. The lone GOP candidate, businessman Steve Soboroff, got only 13% of the labor vote in the April primary.

The biggest loser in the election was not Villaraigosa. It was the GOP.

Miguel Contreras, 48, who grew up picking crops in the San Joaquin Valley and followed his dad into union activism with Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, is head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. It leads the nation in union organizing, Contreras says; 109,000 new members have been signed up in the last two years. He figures half are Latinos, 80% of them immigrants.

"They're looking to be part of mainstream society," he says. "They don't want to live in the underground economy. How can they best achieve the American dream? There's one party that talks to them.

"Republicans talk about entrepreneurs, job creation. But what kind of jobs? Jobs that are low-paying with no health benefits. That's not an American dream. That's a nightmare."

Many union members still are not citizens, let alone registered to vote. In the city, Contreras says, 170,000 are registered and 31% are Latinos. In the election, 46% of voting union members were white, 25% black and 21% Latino.

But Latinos are the fastest growing slice of the California electorate, notes Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. In L.A. city, he says, Latino voter registration increased by 14% from the 2000 presidential primary to last week's mayoral election.

"In L.A." he notes, "the union movement has really latched onto the Latino wave."

Contreras had 1,500 union members out walking precincts for Villaraigosa on election day. Their candidate lost, he notes, but "we're very resilient. We're in for the long haul. . . .

"The reason to get involved in electoral politics is not to achieve a grip-and-grin photo at a banquet, but to achieve legislation that brings the rank and file a higher standard of living."

Issues like family health care, public education, a living wage and job protections motivate working-class Latinos.

Can any Republican make headway? "The only guy on the horizon who can do that," Contreras says, "is Mayor Richard Riordan. He's someone who's caring. The kind of businessman who says labor is part of the equation."

Riordan, who may run for governor, got 43% of the Latino vote in his first mayoral race and 60% in his reelection.

I asked two of the four GOP Latino legislators their thoughts.

"There's a disconnect," says Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside). "Republicans keep talking about 'big government.' But Latinos see a place for government in their lives. They want government to provide good schools, public safety, bus service. . . . They say, 'what do you mean less government?' "

Assemblyman Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria): "We can't just put up a sign saying, 'Viva a candidate' and eat nachos. Those days are over."

You don't reach California Latinos with mariachi bands, sombreros and white guys butchering Spanish.

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