A Tale of Two Cities

By the middle of the 20th century, Los Angeles and Houston were the dominant cities in the dominant states of the just emerging Sun Belt. Politically, though, they were both still tight, white little towns.

Each city had a remarkably small informal governing committee -- all white, all Protestant, all CEO, all right-wing -- that held sway over matters large and small. In Los Angeles, the Committee of 25 met regularly in Asa Call's office at Pacific Mutual Insurance, tending to the selection of pro-business mayors. To persuade Norris Poulson, a conservative congressman, to run for mayor in 1953, committee members had to promise him that they'd personally shell out for a chauffeured limousine should he be elected. (He was and they did.)

In Houston, the city's real business was conducted in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel. In the 1950s, recalled Leon Jaworski, later the Watergate prosecutor but at that time a young Houston lawyer, "Jesse Jones [a right-wing Democrat who'd served in the Roosevelt administration], for instance, would meet Gus Worthman, Herman Brown [of Texas's mega-construction company Brown and Root], and maybe one or two others and pretty well determine what the course of events would be in Houston."

Half a century later, the cities have evolved along strikingly similar lines. Each saw its black electorate grow to roughly one-quarter of the citywide total, and each elected and re-elected an African American mayor. But the most dramatic change, surely, has come to each over the past 20 years, during which both cities have been substantially remade by the epochal migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States.

The racial and economic recomposition of the two cities has been little short of astounding. In 1950, Los Angeles was the whitest major American city (78 percent in that year's census), with Houston not far behind (at 73 percent). In 2000, Los Angeles had become the least white of America's eight largest cities (just 29 percent) with Houston lagging by only a bit (at 31 percent white). In both cities, the percentage of blacks has also been in decline for the past two decades as the Latino populations have soared. In Los Angeles in 2000, 47 percent of the city was Hispanic, while in Houston, the figure stood at 37 percent. In both cities, the levels of Latino registration and voter participation lag far behind those of whites and blacks, especially because so many Latinos are not citizens.

To walk through the Hispanic working-class communities in either city -- and the immigrant communities in particular -- is to see American urban poverty at its most extreme. In Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of immigrants live, totally illegally, in the converted garages of decaying single-family homes. In Houston, Sylvia Garcia is the only Latino on the Harris County Board of Commissioners, half of whose district is within Houston city limits. She comments, "I have a [Third World] colonia in my district -- 95 percent of the residents speak only Spanish, and most have [annual household] incomes beneath $15,000."

Most of Houston's poor don't live in colonia-like conditions, but a large number don't have any more income than those who do. Eighteen percent of all Houston households had annual incomes below $15,000 in 2000; another 15 percent had incomes between $15,000 and $25,000.

In Los Angeles, things weren't a whole lot better. In 2000, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the city's living-wage coalition, found that 59 percent of the city's Latinos lived in households making less than $25,000 a year. What's more, the low-wage sector of the L.A. economy -- in restaurants, day labor, non-union janitors, off-the-books factories, and the like -- was booming: Overall employment increased in Los Angeles County by a scant 2 percent during the 1990s, but the number of working poor grew by 34 percent. Once the epicenter of the post-World War II middle-class miracle, L.A. had become a poverty-wage boomtown, overwhelmingly Latino and immigrant.

But there is one way in which Los Angeles' and Houston's Hispanics have fared very differently: political power. In Los Angeles, with a great assist from the labor movement, the Latino community has achieved considerable political representation and, as part of a dominant multiracial Democratic political culture, helped build a movement for progressive change that has begun to affect the lives of many of its members. In Houston, absent a sizable labor movement and hemmed in by right-wing Republican domination of every aspect of state politics, a vast Latino immigrant community remains largely unmobilized and markedly underrepresented.

Most striking is the disparity in congressional representation. Houston has no Hispanic member of Congress, making it by far the largest Latino community in the nation not to have a representative. Los Angeles County has five Hispanic members, and the Los Angeles metropolitan area seven. (The total Los Angeles County delegation consists of the five Latinos, five white Jews, and three African Americans.)

Slightly less than a quarter of the members in each house of the California and Texas legislatures are Hispanic, but there the similarities end. In Texas, most Latino legislators and congressional representatives come from the long-established Mexican American communities that constitute virtually the whole southern part of the state; the vast new immigrant populations of Houston and Dallas remain woefully underrepresented. In California and Los Angeles, by contrast, most Latino officeholders represent new-immigrant districts. In Texas, both houses of the legislature are overwhelmingly Republican, as is every statewide officeholder. In California, both houses are heavily Democratic, as is every statewide officeholder except, of course, Governor Schwarzenegger. Two recent Assembly speakers (Antonio Villaraigosa and current Speaker Fabian Nunez, a former political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor) have been Latino.

At the level of city and county, the disparities don't seem quite so great. Harris County and Los Angeles County each have one Hispanic commissioner or supervisor out of five. L.A. has four Latino city-council members out of 15; Houston has two out of 14. In his 2001 race for mayor of Los Angeles, left-Democrat Villaraigosa lost with 46.5 percent of the vote, while in Houston's mayoral race that same year, conservative Cuban Republican Orlando Sanchez lost with 48.5 percent of the vote.

But these differences are actually far greater than the numbers suggest. To begin with, L.A.'s Latina supervisor, Gloria Molina, is one of three liberal Democrats who control the board, while Houston's Commissioner Garcia is the only Democrat on her board. The four Latino Democrats on the Los Angeles City Council have nine other Democratic colleagues; there are just two Republican members. Eight Republicans sit on Houston's council.

Not surprisingly, the difference between the largely liberal Democratic control of California and L.A. and the conservative Republican stranglehold of Texas and Harris County (with a kind of centrist hegemony in Houston proper) has meant a huge difference in terms of legislation affecting the Latino poor. California has a state minimum wage that's $1.60 higher than the federal wage; Texas does not. California has 23 cities and counties that have passed living-wage ordinances, led by Los Angeles in 1997; Texas has one (San Antonio, a city that has been heavily majority Hispanic since the time of the Alamo).

Two days before the election that recalled him, then-Governor Gray Davis signed landmark legislation (Senate Bill 2, or SB2) that required employers with at least 200 workers to offer family health insurance by 2006, and employers with more than 50 workers to offer individual health coverage by 2007 -- in both instances, with employers picking up 80 percent of the costs. Texas has the highest rate of medically uninsured residents in the United States; California is in the middle of the pack. But in both states, and in Houston and Los Angeles especially, a clear majority of Latinos have no coverage. Calling SB2 a "job killer," the California Restaurant Association has qualified an initiative for the November ballot to nullify it, and the issue is shaping up as the major state ballot-measure brouhaha of the fall election. Should SB2 survive, it will provide health benefits to more than 1 million Californians, the majority of them Latinos, who currently go without.

Why this disparity between California and Texas, and Los Angeles and Houston more particularly? It's not the weight of Hispanic numbers, at least not at the state level. Latinos constitute 32 percent of each state's population; they represented 20 percent of the turnout in the 2002 election in Texas and 17 percent in California. The major difference is at the local level: Hispanics constitute nearly half of all Angelenos but just over one-third of all Houstonians. With more than 4 million Latinos living in Los Angeles County, most in overwhelmingly Latino communities, not even a Tom DeLay could block the formation of large numbers of Latino-dominated districts. (And, of course, the California districts were drawn by Latino-friendly Democrats.)

But the disparity in power and outcome between Hispanics in the two cities is as much a result of qualitative as of quantitative factors. Foremost among those is the different political and institutional cultures of Texas and California. In Los Angeles, certainly, large numbers of white voters have been willing to make common cause with Latinos. Antonio Villaraigosa came close to being elected mayor in 2001 in an election where Latinos constituted just 22 percent of voters; he received about as many votes from liberal whites, clustered chiefly on the city's Westside, as he did from his fellow Latinos.

In Texas, of course, white Democrats are an endangered species. With Republicans in control of both chambers of the state legislature, it matters little that Latinos' share of the legislative delegation is the same as in California: There are way too few white Democrats in the legislature for Hispanic Democrats to claim any power. In Houston, the level of Latino representation in city and state legislative seats has actually declined in the past couple of years: They suffer from a dearth of white Democratic voters. (In both cities, tensions between the Latino and African American political elites -- and voters -- wax and wane, but the key differential in level of Latino power is the one between the two cities' white electorates.)

One big factor in this disparity is organized labor. The key institution in the rise of Hispanic political power in both Los Angeles and California has been the city's Latino-led labor movement, which mobilizes more Latino voters, anoints more Latino candidates, and constructs more progressive coalitions than any force in the state. Under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, who assumed control of the County Federation of Labor (the local AFL-CIO) in 1996, L.A. labor has registered and mobilized hundreds of thousands of new immigrant voters, turning out thousands of activists at election time to walk precincts and work phone banks. In recent city-council and state-legislative elections, the union has been able to produce 400 to 600 volunteers in a single district on election day; when Villaraigosa was running for mayor, the union had 2,100 volunteers working on the day of the vote.

Houston, by contrast, is a corporate-dominated city in a right-to-work state. Its labor movement is capable of writing some checks to candidates and mobilizing its own members -- but there aren't many such members, and the movement is still shrinking. Councilwoman Garcia estimates that in her election as controller in 1998, only a fraction of her 200 to 300 election-day volunteers were from unions. One young union activist in Houston estimates that on a typical weekend shortly before election day, local labor is doing well to turn out 20 to 30 volunteers.

What this means is that Hispanic candidates in Houston often have to assemble their campaigns from scratch. Houston does have a network of Latino elected officials, often referred to as "the Tejano Democrats," who hail from long-settled, nonimmigrant Mexican American families. In Los Angeles, by contrast, both Villaraigosa and Nunez, the two Assembly speakers, come out of the immigrants'-rights movement and have worked closely with Contreras to highlight immigrant concerns. Moreover, the two local unions that constitute Contreras' shock troops at election time are the immigrant-dominated janitors and hotel workers. (The two locals turn out more volunteers than any of the County Federation of Labor's roughly 350 other affiliates.) That explains why when the janitors bargained with management during their successful 2000 strike, they always had a number of elected officials joining them.

Since the mid-'90s, three L.A.-area congressional seats have switched from Republican to Democratic, in large part due to the union's efforts in closely fought elections; a fourth new seat was created in the latest reapportionment. Democratic funding sources and international unions spent vast amounts of money in L.A. to produce those outcomes. As well, the unions have forked over additional millions to mobilize Latinos for Gray Davis' gubernatorial campaigns and a series of significant ballot measures. These efforts continually draw in new Democratic voters, most significantly from the burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods around Los Angeles.

No such outside assistance comes to Houston. For now, at least, all statewide elections are effectively conceded to the Republicans. There are no progressive initiatives with any chance of enactment. The kind of ongoing registration that's a permanent part of the L.A. landscape is absent from Houston's. Indeed, national Democrats come to Houston to take money out of it. John Kerry recently raised $2 million at a fund-raiser there, with everyone's full understanding that it would be spent in a faraway battleground state. Democrats "drag the bag in Houston," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray, "to spend it in Ohio."

That said, at least one national institution doesn't think that labor or the Democrats can afford to ignore Houston, or Texas, for the indefinite future. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina says that his union, in conjunction with other groups, will soon kick off a campaign to register 1 million new voters in the state, and that the SEIU will initiate a Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston later this year.

At least twice before, in 1938 and 1946, labor unions made a concerted effort to organize the South in the correct belief that a non-union South would be a huge impediment to progressive change at the national level. Now the SEIU is taking up that battle again, in fiercely anti-union terrain. But if Houston Hispanics are ever to achieve the clout of their Los Angeles counterparts, this is a battle they need to join. From their perspective, it should be the biggest game in town.

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