The legislation could prove problematic to Republicans as the gubernatorial contest here could ultimately be determined by the state’s growing Latino electorate.
By Maria Elena Durazo
July 16, 2010
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which I oversee, set out to learn how local Latinos decide whether to participate in elections. The issue was more complicated than we’d anticipated.
We began our research with six focus groups composed of registered Latino voters who had cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, yet hadn’t always voted in elections for California governor. We wanted to know why they sometimes didn’t vote.
But the groups had something else they wanted to discuss. It took no more than 10 minutes for each of the groups to shift to very emotional discussions about Arizona’s draconian new immigration law. It was a subject we hadn’t planned to raise, but we soon learned that it was very much on the minds of Latinos here as they talked about government and why they do or don’t participate in it. In fact, to our surprise, more focus-group participants knew the number of the Arizona bill (SB 1070) than the names of California’s two major candidates for governor.
In discussing the Arizona law, group members passionately recounted how they had been “singled out” by law enforcement, schools, stores and employers because of their skin color. They held a variety of views about immigration issues, but they all strongly viewed Arizona’s law as both an outgrowth of racial profiling and as a policy that would lead to more of it.
The focus groups were followed by a poll of 600 “occasional” L.A. County Latino voters from all political parties. About 92% knew about the Arizona law, and 81% opposed it. And 73% feared that California could pass a similar measure.
Like the focus groups, poll respondents worried about the Arizona statue’s intent, with 84% seeing it as being more about racial profiling than about controlling illegal immigration. And they overwhelmingly believed it would have ramifications outside of Arizona, including more racial profiling by law enforcement here in Southern California.
So what effect are these fears likely to have on future elections? After former Gov. Pete Wilson‘s 1994 attack on immigrants, Latinos flocked to join unions, and they then went on to vote for pro-union, progressive candidates and measures. The growing strength of the labor movement has made the difference in election after election since then, producing four Latino Assembly speakers, a lieutenant governor and a mayor of Los Angeles and making the Latino caucus the largest in the Legislature outside the two parties.
According to the Field Poll, the Latino share of registered voters in California nearly doubled between 1990 and 2005 (from 10% to 19%), and the trend is continuing. If the past response among Latino voters to immigrant-bashing is a model, this year’s Arizona law could prove problematic to Republicans. California’s gubernatorial contest could ultimately be determined by the state’s growing Latino electorate and by the proven ability of organized labor to turn that vote out on election day.
And Arizona Republicans shouldn’t be overconfident either. The last time Arizona voted for a new governor, Democrat Janet Napolitano won by 12,000 votes. On the same ballot, Republican Secretary of State candidate Jan Brewer, who took over as governor when Napolitano went to Homeland Security and who went on to sign SB 1070 into law, won with 37,000 votes.
This fall, Arizonans will vote again for a governor, and Brewer hopes to retain the office. But Latino leaders there have a goal of registering and turning out 50,000 more Latinos this fall than voted in the last statewide election. We intend to help. Hundreds of California labor activists will begin that effort by traveling to Arizona in a caravan of chartered buses July 29, the day the Arizona statute is set to take effect.
In 1972, when Arizona passed a law preventing farmworkers from organizing a union, Cesar Chavez responded with a 25-day fast and campaign against the measure, calling people to rally behind the phrase “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”). Time after time since then, people have found that yes, they can. And this fall, in both California and Arizona, we will see once again that careful organizing against wrongheaded policies can carry the day.
Maria Elena Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.