There’s an emotional ceremony every month in which 3,500 newly naturalized citizens pledge their loyalty to the United States, and it really feels like they’ve joined a community of shared values, goals and purpose. Then, as soon as they pass through the gates of the L.A. County fairgrounds and enter the parking lot, they are charged from the right by Republicans and from the left by Democrats, begging them to register to vote. It is a bit like kissing the bride and being told your new father-in-law is a Capulet and your mother-in-law’s a Montague and they’ve each registered you for a Glock.
Signing up new citizens is a huge battleground because, according to a study released this week, immigrants and their kids will make up 29% of potential voters in California by 2012. To see how this fight is going down, I spent Wednesday with volunteers recruiting new citizens to join the GOP. They were a happy bunch, 27 well-dressed people sitting at a table covered with a cloth decorated with a subtle pattern of the firefighters raising a flag at ground zero. They were all smiles and pamphlets and life-size cutouts of President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator. It made sense that it looked like a boy’s birthday party because, if you think about it, the two naturalization ceremonies that day were the best voter-registering opportunity around until 7,000 people born on the same day throw a joint 18th birthday party.
As soon as I arrived, I was besieged by controversy. The Democrats, who sat 10 feet away at a table covered with no cloth, had accused my new Republican friends of being overly helpful in filling out the registration forms for these new voters -- most notably the box for party affiliation. Sadly, the one person uniquely qualified to fairly resolve an intraparty dispute had left the GOP table just minutes before: Ken Starr’s wife, Alice.
When I asked for advice on how to persuade new citizens to join the party, I was told that I shouldn’t have bothered bringing Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” because I wasn’t going to have time to quote from it, getting only about two minutes with each potential recruit. My biggest challenge, I was told, was that a lot of people from Latin America were going to think that “democracy” and “Democratic Party” were synonymous. And there might be other misguided ideas too, warned Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez from Centro Cristiano Betel in South Gate: “The perception is that only rich people are in the Republican Party. It’s not true.” It was my job to inform them that the Republican Party is also for people who want to be rich. I found Mendez’s party-of-the-poor speech slightly less convincing when he told me that he brought 10 teenagers from his church and that the party paid them $6 for each person they registered.
I had lots of good suggestions, like hiding the life-size cutout of Bush. “I think you’re right,” said Linda Boyd, the chairwoman of the L.A. County Republicans and, more impressive in terms of party loyalty, the mother of a girl named Reagan. I also suggested we get some kind of food to bribe people with, a technique I noticed was very effective at the Iowa caucuses. “We’ve tried several different gimmicks,” Boyd told me. “We’ve had lemonade and balloons for the kids. We’re shameless.” We looked through the coolers Boyd bought that morning for the volunteers and found one half-eaten box of chocolate chip cookies.
I was armed with a clipboard with a sticker on the back that read, “Los Republicanos Registrense Aqui,” which going by the Spanish I learned from “Sesame Street,” means “The Republicans 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.” Shirley Baldwin, who has volunteered at naturalization ceremonies 10 times, told me to congratulate everyone walking by and make eye contact. After 10 minutes of pure failure, I finally locked eyes with Guadalupe Anguiano, who agreed to come by and fill out the forms for her blind mother, with whom the eye-contact trick was a total bust. The daughter told me I was doing a fine job, but when it came time to fill in the bubble indicating party affiliation, she chose the Green Party. I had not only failed the GOP, I had failed phenomenally. “You did fine,” Baldwin said. “You got her to be a part of the American system. Then it’s up to the candidates.” The Obama-Clinton fight really is making these Republicans cocky.
Next, I lured Michaeline Wilkins to the table. She was a harder sell, even after I gave her a cookie. “Tell me about Rush Limbaugh,” she said. I explained that Rush knew a lot about recreational drugs, an issue Democrats usually get all the credit for. Then stupid Bishop Mendez started talking about how the Republicans are the party of the poor. I countered that it was actually the party of the filthy rich -- people she wanted to be around. I told her that Republican country clubs are way better than Democratic ones. “I don’t think Republicans are the party of poor people,” she said to Mendez. “That would be a bad thing.” She finished her cookie and filled in the GOP bubble.
By the end of the day, we’d registered about 300 people. And although I didn’t get into any deep philosophical debates about libertarian principles, unless you count the Rush Limbaugh thing, I felt good about registering new citizens to vote. Because even though they were being bombarded at a celebratory moment when they were confused and vulnerable, they got to see how vibrant the democracy they signed up for really is. In America, their vote is worth $6 and a cookie.