Is the Race to Succeed Xavier Becerra a Test of Latino Power?

LOS ANGELES

SPECIAL ELECTION DEOMGRAPHICS-Three decades ago, as Latinos were about to overtake African Americans as the largest ethnic voting bloc in California, a founder of the state’s oldest and most influential Hispanic political organization admitted his fear that too much was being made of the anticipated age of Latino Power. 

Joe Sanchez, a rags-to-riches Los Angeles businessman and co-founder of the Mexican American Political Association in the 1960s, worried that the historic Latino population changing the face of California would fail to produce equally dramatic changes in politics. 

“The nightmare that scares the hell out of Latinos,” he said, “is one day waking up and finding African Americans holding the governorship, one if not both of the U.S. Senate seats and many of the offices in California that we’ve all thought that Hispanics were destined to win in the future when we are the majority in the state.” 

Indeed, today that fear – or was it prophecy? – already has been partly self-fulfilled, even as the black population of Los Angeles and California has been steadily declining, from more than 14 percent in LA in 1990 to 9.5 percent today. 

And despite the shifting demographic changes, African Americans today wield incredible political power, arguably more than Latinos: The LA County district attorney, the LA City Council President and the chairman of the LA County Board of Supervisors are all African American. 

In 2010, Kamala Harris, daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, was elected the state’s Attorney General, and last November she became only the second black woman in America to win a seat in the U.S. Senate – both offices to which no California Latino has ever been elected. 

Now Harris’ historic senate election, which led to the gubernatorial appointment of longtime Los Angeles Congressman Xavier Becerra to succeed her as Attorney General, threatens to open an old political wound for Latinos. 

For 12 terms, since about the time of Joe Sanchez’s dire warning for Latino politics, Becerra served in Congress representing an inner city district that over the years changed numerical designation and boundaries but has long been considered a politically safe Hispanic seat, especially since its population is almost two-thirds Latino. 

In an upcoming April 4 special election, Becerra’s own successor in California’s 34th Congressional District stretching from the Latino Los Angeles Eastside through downtown and west to Koreatown will come from a field of 23 candidates on the ballot – of whom no fewer than 15 are Hispanic, including two who are immigrants and 11 who are the children of immigrants. 

So ethno-centric is the speculation and jockeying in this special election campaign that has no established frontrunner that the Los Angeles Times, in a Feb. 15 preview, featured photographs of only six candidates – all of them Hispanic Democrats. Only two of those have ever held or run for elective office, indicative of the new blood and politically inexperienced hands drawn to the race. 

Still, the resumes of many of the candidates shone with brilliance and exceptionalism: Ivy League educations; former organizers in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign; a former staffer of the Obama White House; City commissioners and community volunteers; labor organizers and heads of non-profits; successful sons and daughters of immigrants chasing American dreams. 

But what was that great line that the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn once used to caution Vice President Lyndon Johnson about raving too much about the genius that John F. Kennedy’s Ivy League appointees had shown in the administration’s first Cabinet meeting? 

“Lyndon, you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn said to LBJ, according to David Halberstam’s landmark 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” 

This perhaps underscores the political shortcomings of most of the candidates in the 34th District race, not to mention the failure of some to understand that a savvy politician recognizes the importance of identifying closely with the lives and lifestyles of the people they seek to represent.

At recent campaign events, for instance, some candidates who should know better have appeared wearing $500 boots, expensive designer coats and looking as fashionably attired as they would be at an art show opening on the trendy Westside. 

This in a campaign in which many of the candidates don’t even live in what is a predominantly working class district of immigrants, working mothers, garment laborers and minimum wage workers who, in some neighborhoods, are being pushed out by new development, gentrification and millennials. 

Make no mistake. Progressive politics are being heavily pushed. Some are even using an inconclusive Latino Decisions poll released in mid-January to laughably maintain that a Bernie Sanders’ connection could make the difference in an area that has been voting heavily for liberal Democrats dating back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt. 

My own month-long door-to-door walking survey of the district, talking to over 500 registered voters, suggests that longstanding concerns – jobs, schools, crime, immigration, health care, the economy – weigh more heavily on people’s minds than on any white progressive political hero. 

And in that survey, more than three-fourths of those interviewed had no idea who any of the 23 candidates on the special election ballot were. 

In fact, the only candidates who registered recognition from even 10 percent of residents I interviewed were: 

-- State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, 42, a Los Angeles area political insider whose endorsements include the Democratic Party, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Congresswoman Grace Naplitano (D-Norwalk) and State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon.

-- Former Los Angeles school board member Yolie Flores, 54, a social worker who was once the political darling among the Latinas who have historically fought against the good ol’ Latino boy Eastside political machine.

-- And Sara Hernandez (photo above center), 33, the former downtown-area director and special counsel to 14th District LA City Councilmember Jose Huizar, for whom she tackled such issues as urban planning and homelessness policy. 

If there was a favorite or front-runner who emerged in my conversations with voters, many held over a cup of coffee or dinner in their homes, it was Sara Hernandez.

A former middle school teacher in the Teach for America program, Hernandez has also been the first candidate in the 34th Congressional District to air a television commercial, which began running on TV and cable channels in mid-February.

Fitting of the temperament of the time, the 30-second spot goes after President Trump, the bane of many in Latino America.

“How do you stand up to a bully?” a woman narrator’s voice asks. “It takes a classroom teacher… “Vote Sara Hernandez for Congress and take Trump back to school.”

The ad was immediately successful enough to grab the ire of Trump supporters who retaliated by protesting in front of Hernandez’s campaign headquarters.

The expensive ad campaign is also indicative of who has the money in the race. So far it appears to be Gomez, who has raised more than $300,000, and Hernandez with more than $200,000.

Additionally, my door-to-door canvassing mirrors the conclusion of another recent survey showing that the campaign to succeed Xavier Becerra appears to be wide open. No candidate is expected to win 50 percent or more of the votes, meaning that the two highest primary vote-getters likely will face off in a special election runoff June 6.

So remember Joe Sanchez’s words, and enter Adrienne Nicole Edwards (photo left), 28, a community advocate and business owner -- and an African American mom who today can boast what no other candidates in the race can.

Edwards ran against Becerra in two campaigns in which she carved out a niche in a district where 4.4 percent of the residents are black.

But African Americans historically vote at a high rate in Los Angeles. Just look at Los Angeles’ ninth City Council district in South LA, where blacks comprise less than 20 percent of the population but make up more than a third of the people who vote. In 2013, Curren Price, who is African American, defeated a popular Latina for the council seat -- even though the district is 75 percent Hispanic.

In the last two congressional campaigns in District 34, the underdog, under-financed Edwards has won 27 and 23 per cent of the vote running against the longtime incumbent Becerra when he was one of the most powerful members of Congress. That includes Edwards taking 16,924 votes in the mid-term election of 2014 and 36,314 votes in 2016.

Edwards ran those campaigns on so little money you couldn’t even accurately call the one-woman staff and operation as a shoe-string budget. Her biggest asset in those races was a Twitter account with over 34,000 followers.

So what does her past experience count for in this election, one that like in most special elections -- especially in non-Presidential voting years -- is expected to have an abysmally low turnout? And in a heavily Latino district, where voter turnouts are notoriously bad? Not to mention that while Latinos make up 65 percent of the district’s residents, only 38 percent of them are eligible to vote.

Was Edwards’ showing at the polls just an anti-Becerra protest vote or did Edwards tap into something more? Has Latino Power been little more than a myth, a question that former Assembly Speaker John Perez’s stunning defeat in his 2014 California State Controller's race also raised?

In that campaign, Perez had what seemed insurmountable advantages. He was heavily favored, running on the mantel of his legislative power in a state where Hispanics now outnumber whites as well as blacks and Asians. He also had the statewide connections of his famous cousin, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who remains arguably California’s most influential Latino.

But in the 2014 primary, Perez finished a disappointing 481 votes behind fellow Democrat Betty Yee in the race for the second and final spot on the November General Election ballot. That political debacle left Perez and Latino pols across California stunned and looking for excuses.

Understandably, seeking vindication and a comeback, Perez last December was the first candidate to jump into the 34th district race just 45 minutes after Gov. Jerry Brown nominated Becerra to succeed Kamala Harris -- only to drop out a little more than a week later, citing a recent diagnosis of a serious health problem.

His departure opened the floodgates to today’s slew of candidates -- and to the decades-old question of whether Latino Power is real, or just more spray-painted graffiti vandalizing walls in the barrios.

 

(Tony Castro, a former political reporter and columnist, is the author of five books, the most recent being “Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and a Final Rite of Passage” (Lyons Press) He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. Twitter: https://twitter.com/Tony_Castro). Prepped for CityWatch for Linda Abrams.

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