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Column: Latino Republicans face a tough task: turning blue Orange County red again

A man in a suit stands for a portrait
Randall Avila, pictured at the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana, is executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, once the citadel of the American conservative movement.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Randall Avila looked every bit the undercover agent as he asked for two tongue tacos from a lonchera last month in Santa Ana.

The 30-year-old first ordered in English, then haltingly said “dos de lengua” when he realized the cashier only spoke Spanish. While the other customers wore loose clothes or hats to help against the heat, Avila barely broke a sweat in a long-sleeve white shirt, well-tailored face mask and shiny shoes.

Avila stood out from the crowd — and they didn’t know the half of it.

He’s the executive director for the Republican Party of Orange County, once the citadel of the American conservative movement. But the county went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry it since FDR; its congressional delegation went all-blue two years ago for the first time ever.

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So Avila has taken on a mission that seems downright Sisyphean: Not only help take Orange County back for the Republicans, but also bring Latinos to a party that demonized them, in this very county, decades before Trump sauntered into the White House by calling Mexicans “rapists.”

And you thought fighting the Bobcat fire was tough.

Still, Avila exuded a quiet confidence when we met. The fact that he agreed to see me at my favorite lonchera, instead of a GOP hangout like Gulfstream in Newport Beach, showed he’s savvy enough. No errant cilantro leaves stained his tie as he alternated between his tacos and arguments as to why more Latinos should vote Republican.

“The distrust that Latinos have against the Republican Party has been cultural and reinforced by our past actions,” the skinny Avila said. “But those turn into sound bites that reinforce an opinion that’s wrong. We have a lot more in common with Latinos than what the misconception is.”

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“Misconceptions”? I reminded Avila about Trump, who said in his inaugural campaign speech that when Mexico sees its residents migrate to the United States, “they’re not sending their best.” I brought up the O.C. GOP’s notorious 1988 poll-guard fiasco, where party leaders were fined about half-a-million dollars for posting rent-a-cops outside voting precincts in Santa Ana — a move that Trump is now actively calling for.

Avila offered a pained smile.

“There can be some hesitance” for Latinos to go Republican, he allowed. “It’s not that the history doesn’t matter. It’s not that it wasn’t wrong. But the folks of the past are not who’s in the party today.”

Um, Trump? Let me repeat that: Trump. And the Mexican-obsessed — and not in a good way — Montgomery Burns-lookalike guiding him on immigration. Might have heard of him. Santa Monica kid named Stephen Miller.

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“He’s a double-edged sword,” Avila acknowledged of Trump. “But it’s about who these other candidates are instead of just the president. It’s about policies. You can’t run as a pro- or anti-Trump. You have to run as you are.”

As a pro-border wall, anti-ethnic studies kind of party? Got it.

It’s tortured justifications like these in the face of anti-Latino facts that make Latino Republicans a favorite piñata every election cycle. Democratic pollsters obsess over why anyone in America’s largest minority would side with a party that snuggled up to xenophobia long before Trump.

Progressive Latinos scream “¡Vendidos!” (Sellouts!) at Latino Republicans if they’re nice, and create savagely funny memes when they’re not: one is a photo of Tejana music legend Selena and her assassin, Yolanda Saldivar, with “Latinos” superimposed over the singer and “Latinos 4 Trump” pinned on her killer.

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But every time I see such venom directed at people like Avila, I cringe a little. That’s because it’s dangerously arrogant and ignorant of what’s happening with Latinos and the GOP:

Far from abandoning him, polls show Trump’s support among Latinos hasn’t slipped since his 2016 victory over Clinton.

Surveys by Democrat-run Equis Research found he’s actually gaining among young Latino males in key battleground states like Arizona and Texas. The election in places like Florida, of course, but also North Carolina can be won or lost — with the most razor-thin of margins — thanks to the Latino vote.

Trump’s Latino supporters have assiduously rallied for months with actions that have included everything from caravans in the Rio Grande Valley to roundtables in Phoenix where Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno declared it was “very necessary” for fellow Latinos to vote Trump. There was even “Latinos for Trump 2020” graffiti in Pico Rivera that someone quickly crossed out and replaced with “Not in This Hood” followed by a vulgarity.

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Biden? So far, he has sparked nowhere near the same love from Latinos as former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — and that has party leaders worried.

Trump isn’t going to win Latinos across the U.S. No Republican presidential candidate ever has. But in a race that has the potential to be super close in key battleground states, the GOP is smart to try to chip away, just enough, at the Latino support that Democrats count on.

“Yeah, it makes no sense that as many Latinos support a candidate that has tried in every way imaginable to alienate Latinos,” said Northwestern history professor Geraldo Cadava, who studies Latino Republicans and released a book about the subject earlier this year. “But calling them traitors only further pushes them away.”

And leads them straight into the hands of the GOP. Just ask Avila.

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He was born and raised in Monterey Park to working-class Mexican American parents — dad is still a security guard, while mom works in the L.A. County foster care system.

Politics was never important in his household, although Avila said the family leaned conservative due to their opposition to abortion and their father’s upbringing in East Los Angeles.

“He’s one of those wanna-be-left-alone people who never trusted politicians because they never fixed anything,” Avila said. “A lot of East L.A. is like that. People aren’t reliant on government. They just take care of each other.”

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I’m familiar with this trait — that’s how most of the rural Mexicans I grew up with feel. I even have a nickname for it: rancho libertarianism. Ronald Reagan mostly had it right when he memorably said “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.”

We grumble at tax increases, have a soft spot for strongmen real and imagined, and smirk at the excesses of political correctness. (I won’t even get into our tendency toward conspiracies).

The GOP could’ve easily courted my friends and family members long ago with such catnip. Except most of those mexicanos vote Democrat — because of the California GOP’s racist track record. Avila knows O.C. Republicans will forever have to battle this legacy.

His political awakening happened at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello. During a government class, Avila said the teacher told students — overwhelmingly Latino and blue-collar — that the GOP didn’t like them for being “brown” and wanted to bring McDonald’s into the barrios to make their communities fat.

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“Everyone accepted it,” Avila said. “But that was just so evil. Democrats and Republicans share most of the same goals of trying to improve this country; there’s just a difference in opinion in how to get there. Neither party is actively trying to kill Americans. But this teacher made it seem like Republicans did.”

Soon after, Avila began to volunteer for the few Republicans he could find on the Eastside, taking the bus to Commerce to moonlight on campaigns. That led to jobs with the California Republican Party while he attended UCLA, and a political consulting firm in Orange County. His prowess in organizing events and fundraising got the attention of O.C. GOP chairman Fred Whitaker, who hired Avila as his party’s executive director at the beginning of 2018.

“As a millennial and a Latino from L.A., there are things that he knows that we just don’t do as well,” Whitaker said. “I like his demeanor and his approach with people, but he’s relentless. He gets the job done.”

“He comes from a unique vantage point — a Latino who’s from L.A. trying to change O.C.” said LuisAndres Cruz, political director for the Democratic Party of Orange County from 2018 until this January. The two became friends after they found themselves staffing tables at community events like the Orange County Fair and naturalization ceremonies. “We [Latinos] blame white people as a whole for degrading us, but in L.A. County, the elected officials are majority Democrat and Latino. And they can’t seem to fix issues. That’s what Randall knows and can argue well, even if I don’t agree with him.”

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Avila’s star took a thrashing, however, after the O.C. GOP’s disastrous 2018 election. Although Avila insists that it was a “green wave” of outside money that helped the Democrats win all of Orange County’s congressional seats and not a changed county, he took the blame for the losses.

Shortly after election day, he submitted his resignation to Whitaker, who declined it.

“He did his job,” the O.C. GOP chairman said. “We turned out more Republicans to vote than we did in the 2016 elections. The Democrats just turned out even more.”

That’s why the job people like Avila do is important, Cruz said.

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“The GOP as a whole has the largest runway to change their viewpoint and embrace Latinos,” he said. “But that’s why the party needs to listen to people like Randall. It’ll remain irrelevant if they don’t.”

But the national Grand Old Party still feels like one fully stocked with people who don’t like people who look like me, my friends and family. It has had generations to change that. It has had numerous chances to learn from its mistakes.

I brought this up to Avila, who accepted my critique.

“We’re not in an Orange County anymore where just because you’re a Republican, you win,” he said. “But I’ve never seen us try this hard [for Latino votes]. Even if we don’t win, I hope we learn our lesson.”

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He declined my invitation to a second round of tacos — a full day of work lay ahead. And as Avila took off, I remembered what he said about his dad. Politics mattered so little to the guy that he had never even registered to vote until 2016.

And Avila’s dad only did it so he could vote for Trump.


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