Column: It’s not even election day, but a Latino Republican radio show is already giddy
It was a chilly night in downtown Glendale, but up on the fifth-floor studios of KRLA-AM (870) “The Answer,” Latino conservatives were caliente.
Talk show host Michelle Martinez strode into the break room with her guests, Luz Parduzco and Judith Gray, known as the Conservative Comadres on social media.
They greeted Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club Chairman David Hernandez, who was getting ready to host his group’s weekly Saturday night show, three days before the Nov. 8 election. Claudia Agraz, a Republican who’s running against state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo for a northeast Los Angeles seat, was in the hallway.
Someone prepped a video camera for Hernandez’s show. A guest read through her talking points about why Latinos should vote Republican — especially if they’re Democrats.
“We’re going to educate our liberal brothers and sisters,” said Martinez. “We’re activating our people,” added Parduzco, which drew a laugh and a correction from Gray.
GOP conversion stories were passed around the break room like Porto’s potato balls. Pasadena resident Sal Gonzalez, who handles digital media for the Hispanic Republican Club’s radio show, said he was a “Democrat by default” until 2016 and that most of his Latino friends have since become Republicans.
“We were told that’s what we are,” he said. “Well, don’t tell me who I am. Let me decide for myself.”
Don Monroe’s metal recycling business sponsors the two-hour program. His mother came to the United States illegally from Mexico and voted Democrat after gaining her citizenship. This year, she became a Republican.
“We can’t even find things to argue about anymore,” Monroe said with a laugh.
Jeffi Girgenti is a self-proclaimed “Irish redhead” who unsuccessfully ran for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors this summer. She isn’t Latina but is Hernandez’s co-host because she believes in his cause. “The Hispanic community has a lot to teach the white community,” she said. “We’ve forgotten the values they have.”
The bespectacled Hernandez, 74, took it all in with a smile. “There’s a lot of us ready to speak on election day,” he said.
It was 8 p.m. — time for his team to go on the air. What they produced was as Chicano as the right-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium.
In a prerecorded intro over the stirring horns of a paso doble, Monroe boasted, “You heard it right — Hispanic Republican. Why? Because brown is the new red. ... It’s time to wake up to see how the chorizo is made, and smell the menudo.”
The first guest was Agraz, who shared how many of the Latinos she talked to while knocking on doors were so disillusioned with politics that they weren’t even registered to vote. “Are they surprised that you’re a Republican?” Hernandez asked, as Agraz nodded.
“They think of someone that doesn’t look like them,” he told her. “But you’re speaking their language — and I’m not [meaning] Spanish.”
Chicano soul classics like “Viva Tirado” and “Suavecito” played between segments. Hernandez’s avuncular voice spun stories from his decades of activism in the northeast San Fernando Valley on issues ranging from the 2002 secession movement to animal welfare to even helping Democrats win races. The sharp-tongued Girgenti hammered on conservative talking points like parents’ rights and “election integrity.”
The show was at its best when the hosts focused on Los Angeles-area politics. When they tried to swing national, it was just like any other right-wing babblefest. When Girgenti, Monroe and other guests made jokes about the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, I rolled my eyes (Hernandez just kept his gaze fixed in front of him).
Still, what I was hearing was a movement confident that it was about to go big.
In a 2022 election that could be a ballot-box bloodbath for Democrats, more Latinos going Republican could unleash an electoral earthquake.
In this midterm election season, pundits, politicians and the press have alternately dismissed and obsessed over polls and voting results that show Latinos are leaving the Democratic Party and going Republican. States such as Nevada and Arizona could swing red and deliver the House and Senate to the GOP, upending decades-long conventional wisdom about what Latinos want politically and unleashing a blamefest among Democrats.
Such a doomsday scenario is mocked outright in Los Angeles, the bleeding blue heart of Latino Democrats in the U.S. That naive, smug stance ignores the small but significant rightward steps among Latinos happening even here.
More Latino Republicans than ever in L.A. County are seeking California Assembly and state Senate seats in the general election. Cudahy Councilmember Jack Guerrero is running for California treasurer. The only Latino Republican in the Assembly is Suzette Martinez Valladares of Santa Clarita, which is the home base of Mike Garcia, the only Republican member of Congress to represent a district that is mostly within L.A. County.
A Public Policy Institute of California survey of likely voters released in August found that 17% of Latinos in California were registered as Republicans — the second highest of any ethnic group after whites. Locally, recent Los Angeles Times polls show Latinos are the only ethnic group to support L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso. While both are Democrats, Villanueva and Caruso have lambasted the liberal establishment they claim has ruined L.A.
When Hernandez’s show debuted four years ago, Nielsen ratings tracked only 800 listeners per hour. Now, he says more than 30,000 tune in on a typical night.
“Activists always say about how we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” Hernandez stated on the air. “Well, we didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left us.”
The Navy veteran has been a GOP member for most of his adult life, but he didn’t start the club until 2018, after looking over L.A. County voter registration rolls during his unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor.
“I was shocked to see how many Hispanics were already registered to be Republican,” said Hernandez, a North Hollywood resident. He approached Republican Party of Los Angeles County officials with a plan to corral their votes and register more Latinos.
“They told me, ‘What the hell are you doing with identity politics? You’re using Democrat tactics,’” he said. “I told them, ‘Well, the Democrats win, you lose. Do you want to win?’”
The skepticism that Hernandez’s activism drew is familiar to Northwestern University history professor Geraldo Cadava, who wrote a well-received 2020 book on the history of Latino Republicans. He noted that they have faced similar intraparty roadblocks as far back as the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign.
Latino Republicans “were saying, ‘We got our asses kicked, and if we want to make serious inroads with Latinos, we need to talk to them loud and often,’” Cadava said.
The GOP is listening in earnest this election cycle, he said. Key Republican planks — the economy, the danger of wokeism, an overreaching government — are landing with Latino voters in a way that Democratic messaging isn’t.
“You hear Democrats in this election warning about fascism and threats to democracy if Republicans win,” Cadava said. “Yes, that’s going on, but that’s not going to win the election” for Latinos.
Hernandez demurred when I asked how influential his efforts were, responding, “We’re just a pebble on the beach.” But he’s confident that more Latinos in Los Angeles will vote conservative, even if they don’t end up with the GOP.
“I know a lot of conservative Democrats that feel like they don’t have a voice now,” he said.
Referencing the L.A. City Council, he said, “The Democrats that are more to the left of progressives are gaining more power and are relentless. Republicans, on the other hand, are like 31 flavors. You have both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between.”
After the show, everyone hung out to enjoy the energy. They were excited, even as they acknowledged L.A. County would remain blue.
But if ever there was a year for Republicans to draw in disaffected Latino liberals in Southern California, it’s this one. The last two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, inflation and no seeming solution in sight to homelessness have many lifelong Democrats reconsidering their party. Maybe they’ll never become Republicans, but that doesn’t mean they won’t vote for one or go for DINOs like Villanueva and Caruso.
That gradualism is what Hernandez is banking on. He knows the red wave expected to subsume the country Tuesday won’t cascade onto California. But, Hernandez said with a wink in his eye, “There might be a couple of drops that come across.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.