During the 2000 presidential elections Latinos were serenaded with salsa and
Mariachi music. The Spanish media made a financial killing with a greater share of political advertising revenue. Most of the "crossing over" action was not taking place in the musical arena but in the political arena as Anglo politicians dusted off their high school Spanish and entered Latino living rooms telling potential voters: "Vota Por Mi."
The efforts of the GOP and the Democrats to attract Latino voters during these 2002 congressional elections do not revolve around Anglo politicians crossing into the Latino space but on a significantly large number of Latino candidates vying for Anglo and Latino votes. In fact, it must be noted that the Republican Party has been able to get 32 Latino candidates to run for federal and state offices this year. Quite an accomplishment, since there are as many Latino Republicans as there are Muslims in President Bush's cabinet. There are a number of reasons for this surge of Latinos in the Republican Party.
Peter Skerry, in his 1993 book "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority" wrestles with the question of whether Mexican Americans are just another immigrant group like the Italians or whether their experience of discrimination has turned them into another disadvantaged "minority" group that deserves the civil rights protections accorded to African Americans. Skerry, an Anglo, joined the chorus of other Mexican American conservatives like Linda Chavez who have argued that the Latino political leadership liberal stances on issues is out of step with Latinos who in reality are social conservatives.
In public opinion surveys on a number of issues, Latino elected officers, particularly in state assemblies and congress, do tend to have more liberal positions than their constituents. For example, while most Latinos oppose abortions, most Latinos in Congress or in large state assembly delegations like in California (26 Latinos) support a pro-choice alternative.
Polls also indicate that since the 1980s Mexican Americans in particular, tend to express a stronger support for defense spending, than their elected leaders. We should not then be surprised by the findings of a recent (August 2002) poll commissioned by the conservative Latino Coalition. This poll indicates that Latinos gave President Bush a strong job approval rating (68%). This is significant given that only 38% of Latino voted for President Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. However, in California, where the largest number of Latinos live only 23% voted for Bush Jr. With the exception of Cubans in Florida, Republicans have not been able to break that 40% ceiling of Latino support. In the 1980s, President Reagan carried 42% of Latinos in California. Since then, Republicans have been unable to establish but a tenuous beachhead in the Latino electorate. There are no signs they will be able to dramatically surpass that threshold anytime soon.
Peter Skerry tells the story of a recent Latino Harvard Law school graduate who threw his hat into the Republican fold and while he lost, was eventually named to a judgeship by former California Republican governor Deukmejian. When asked about his Republican Party membership he responded "the line is shorter over here." In other words, there are so few Latinos that it is easier to get visibility in a party wanting to establish some presence in the Latino community. It is obvious to any political strategist that given national demographic changes, if a political party wants to remain viable in the next few decades, it must have a significant number of Latinos in its fold.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, most of these Latino Republicans are not connected to the community. Ironically, the social and economic mobility many of them have enjoyed (thanks to civil rights legislation and affirmative action in many cases) was at the expense of bonds to the Latino community. Many of them have joined Anglo dominated firms, live in upper middle class neighborhoods, interact with whites during most of their daily life and merely have a symbolic link to the community of origin. While this is true of many Latino Democrats, the pro-labor orientation of many of these leaders keep them connected to grassroots organizations that provide them with a community base. Latino Republicans however, tend to be in the business or professional community without many structural ties to a community that is still overwhelmingly working class.
The recent debate over the appointment of Miguel Estrada to the federal court is a case in point. A man of upper class background, educated in elite Honduran schools with no strong attachments to the U.S. Latino community is named to occupy a powerful judgeship because he is a conservative Latino Republican. Republicans are now engaging in the practice of tokenism, something strongly criticized by Republicans whenever Democrats engaged in it. The fact that he does have some credentials (to be a token you need to have them) does not challenge the fact that others are equally or more qualified than he is, but in his case, his main qualification is that he is a Latino.
Recently in a candidate forum sponsored by La Mirada Chamber of Commerce I
was asked to serve in a panel that asked questions of three congressional candidates for the 39th district in Southern California. Each candidate could choose one of the three panelists and I was chosen by Linda Sanchez, the Democratic contender. The Republican contender, Tim Escobar was a classic case of the new tokenism practiced by Republicans. Mr. Escobar, is a nice, affable young man who has served in the armed forces, was laid off from a major defense contractor and later began his own business as a financial advisor. His everyday life today revolves around Anglo businesspeople, he married an Anglo woman, their children are home-schooled, he lives in a mostly Anglo community and was strongly supported by numerous national Republican leaders. His community base was made of Anglo conservative groups, including the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative contractors group, a pro-life group that includes him as a pro-lifer, and only the mostly discredited Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) appears as a Latino supporter.
Linda Sanchez, on the contrary, has extensive support from labor and the Latino and Anglo community. The influential Spanish daily La Opinion supported her candidacy. But what was striking in the forum was that Republicans had placed a Latino because they thought he could pull some votes way from Ms. Sanchez. The district is majority Democratic and the only way a Republican would be elected is by a spoiler who could divide the Democratic vote. Sanchez is also was a much articulate and experienced candidate, knowledgeable about details of the issues while Mr. Escobar stuck to a script full of slogans and innuendos against Ms. Sanchez. He completely ignored some of the tough questions and repeated a mantra that failed to deal with the substance of the issues. If the Republican national strategy was not to attract Latinos into the party, lightweight candidates like Mr. Escobar would never make it to any congressional race
In the 2000 elections the Latino vote only comprised 5% of the national vote, and according to the recent (October 2002) Pew Hispanic Center report only 40% of all Latinos are able to vote. Until this changes, the outreach efforts of both parties will still fail to bring a qualitative change in the Latino presence at the national level. Redistricting in states like California basically protected incumbents so not many new Latinos will join the Hispanic Congressional Caucus (or the state Latino Assembly caucus) this year. Sanchez will be one of a few Latinos to be elected to Congress, despite the incredible growth of the Latino population since 1990. This growth will not be reflected in any way in new Latino elected officers.
Latinos will most likely continue to vote Democratic because the most strategic issues for working people are still part of the Democratic platform. While the growth of a Latino middle class has been celebrated, the reality is that recent studies indicate that Latinos still face strong barriers to upward mobility. This is even clearer in California where a significant portion of Latinos live. The Pew Hispanic center and others have released a number of studies that indicate the educational and economic challenges that Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, continue to face today.
In an authoritative analysis of the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) researchers David E. Lopez and Ricardo Stanton-Salazar conclude when looking at the prospects of the Mexican American second generation: "This suggests that today's Mexican American generation may not serve as a traditional transition between their parents and their fully integrated and assimilated children but may rather represent the transition from a permanently disadvantaged minority to a permanently disadvantaged majority in California and in the southwest."("Mexican Americans a Second Generation at Risk" 2001).
In what is probably the most authoritative sampling of Latino public opinion, the Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) by Rodolfo O. De la Garza and a team of political scientists from across the nation established a benchmark for the analysis of Latino political values. This survey, carried out from 1989 to 1990 clearly indicated that Latinos are a complex community that eluded the facile characterizations constructed in the media. What is clear is that Latinos support a strong role for government in addressing social ills, they strongly supported bilingual education and are even supportive of tax raises to accomplish these goals. Contrary to the mainstream political trends in California, when Latinos have exercised their vote they supported bond measures to support education in Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
These are not issues that a party that supports tax cuts for the top 1 per cent of the wealthy can swallow, and neither will Latinos jump in the bandwagon just because someone serenades us in Spanish. Fortunately, most Latinos are bilingual and have learned to read the party platforms, including the small print.
Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez
Chicano & Latino Studies Department
1250 Bellflower Boulevard
Long Beach, CA 90840
Phone: (562) 985-8560
FAX: (562) 985-4631
Web Pages: http://members.cox.net/rodrigvm/rodrigvm.html
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Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez:
Dr. Rodriguez is an Associate Professor, Chicano & Latino Studies at California State University, Long Beach.