Banking on Hispanics

On a hot Saturday morning last weekend, about 40 casually dressed Hispanics were packed into a small suite of offices in an East Los Angeles strip mall, diligently quizzing themselves -- in Spanish -- on California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown in hopes of becoming more effective precinct walkers on Brown's behalf. When I entered, they were looking for the most telling contrasts between the two candidates. "She flies around the state on her private jet," one woman said. "He takes Southwest."

In a political career that's now in its 42nd year (Brown was elected to his first political office, that of trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District, in 1969), Brown has seldom been typed as a populist everyman. But running against former e-Bay CEO Whitman, who's spent more than $120 million of her own money on a gubernatorial campaign that has yet to ignite, can turn even political royalty like Brown -- a former governor who's the son of a former governor, whose sister was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1994, and whose onetime chief of staff (Gray Davis) was governor from 1999 through 2003 -- into a regular guy. Well, almost.

Brown may fly Southwest, but he's finally on air with ads that, if they don't match Whitman's in frequency or variety (on Tuesday, the Whitman campaign unveiled a new ad, entirely in Mandarin, for Chinese-language TV), at least get his message across: She's a novice, a CEO who offshored jobs while raking in pay and bonuses that made her a billionaire. (Barbara Boxer is using much the same line of attack against Carly Fiorina.) Brown's an old hand who knows the ropes and can cut the deals that will make California functional again.

Not surprisingly, both Brown and Boxer have opened up leads on their Republican opponents. No matter how much of their wealth Whitman and Fiorina spend on their own campaigns, this doesn't look like the year of the CEO in California politics -- at least, not for CEOs who both offshored tens of thousands of jobs and then opted to run for office in a year of record unemployment.

California elections, of course, are determined by a multitude of variables, the most important of which, for the Democrats, is probably Hispanic turnout. In 2008, the Hispanic share of the electorate topped 20 percent. In 2006, it was roughly 5 points lower. The Democrats' voter-education and mobilization machines -- the AFL-CIO and SEIU, which this year are working together -- are waging the biggest, most expensive campaigns they've ever run in California to ensure that Hispanics turn out on Election Day and vote for Brown and Boxer at rates of 70 percent or higher.

In all likelihood, they'll hit their target, but it's no easy task. Most of the state's Hispanic voters weren't around during Brown's earlier tenure (1975-1983) as governor and don't know that Brown, who signed the nation's first law extending collective-bargaining rights to farmworkers, was the most powerful friend the United Farm Workers ever had. A particularly ingenious ad running on Spanish-language TV that links Brown's past to the Hispanic present features Dr. Christina Chavez, an emergency-room physician and the great niece of Cesar Chavez. Talking against a background of footage showing both Jerry and Cesar together, Dr. Chavez says that Brown, working alongside Cesar, opened the doors of opportunity for Hispanics like her.

California's Hispanics tend to vote more Democratic than any Hispanics in the U.S., save the Puerto Ricans of New York, and the GOP's increasingly nativist politics, both nationally and next door in Arizona, make Whitman's quest for Hispanic votes even more difficult. But Whitman has added to her woes with a series of actions that could not be better calibrated to alienate Hispanic voters. Her campaign is chaired by onetime Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the champion of the much-despised Proposition 187, which would have kept undocumented immigrant children from attending school. In her debate with Brown on Spanish-language television, Whitman responded with an icy "no" to a question posed by an undocumented Hispanic college student asking the candidate if she supported a bill that would establish a California version of the Dream Act, which would enable undocumented students to attend the state's public colleges and universities at in-state rates. Brown, affirming that "we're all God's children," said he'd sign such a bill.

Most damaging has been the controversy around Whitman's peremptory firing of her family's undocumented nanny, after nine years of service, as the election loomed. ("After [the nanny] working there for nine years," Brown said in his final debate with Whitman on Tuesday night, Whitman "didn't even get her [an immigration lawyer.") Last Monday, as Elba Polanco and Aaron Gonzalez, both veterans of Los Angeles' fabled janitors' union -- the local union that produces the greatest number of precinct walkers in the entire state -- went door-to-door in a working-class LA suburb, they discussed with one stay-at-home mom Whitman's conduct with both her nanny and the undocumented college student. Elba invoked her eldest son, who came with her to the U.S. from Guatemala at the age of 5 months without documentation and who is about to enter college -- if the family can scrape up the funds.

It's a tale that resonated on the doorsteps where Polanco and Gonzalez talked to prospective voters. Labor's campaign strategists are confident that their message will help tilt Hispanic voters toward Brown. Their concern is that Hispanics, demoralized by the failure of federal lawmakers to enact immigration reform at the national level, will opt not to vote. Los Angeles, after all, was home to the largest single immigration-reform demonstration -- more than half-a-million people clogging Wilshire Boulevard back in 2007. One woman whom Polanco and Gonzalez encountered told them she wants to make a statement by not voting. Polanco remonstrated with her, and the woman replied that she's "going to have to think about it." Polanco told her that she would be back to talk about the election several times in the next three weeks. "You may get sick and tired of us," she said. "No, that's OK," said the woman. "I'd like to keep talking about it."

The unions are already making many thousands of phone calls to prospective voters -- not with recordings but by actual human beings -- every night. They can scarcely do otherwise. Fully 895,000 of SEIU's roughly 2 million members are in California, many of them public employees or state-supported home-care workers whose pay, pensions, and work are controlled by the state. A number of unions that don't normally produce many campaign volunteers are turning them out by the hundreds this year. Unemployment in the usually less-activist building-trades unions is so high -- well over 50 percent in many locals -- that a number of locals have been running phone banks out of their headquarters several times a week, some of them attended by nearly 100 members. The reserve army of the union unemployed is enlisting in labor's campaign for Brown in the hope that he'll do more than Whitman to jump-start infrastructure and green-construction projects.

Over the summer, the unions commissioned a poll of Hispanic occasional voters showing that 72 percent of them feared that a racial-profiling law like Arizona's could pass in California. The message with which all the unions' ads conclude is that voting is the one way to ensure such a law won't happen in California. "Martes si; Arizona no," the ads say. "Tuesday yes; Arizona no." Between fear of Arizona and hope for jobs and a dream act, the unions mean to lock down and rev up the Hispanic vote for Boxer and Brown.

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