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Latino economics, political clout linked

A portion of the hundreds of thousands of people who protested federal immigration policies in Los Angeles in 2006. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

California’s growing Latino population is numerically strong but traditionally under-performs at election time – and that may have as much to do with economics as with politics.

“The bottom line: If you see a growing Latino middle class, you will see a growing Latino representation in government,” said Mike Madrid, a veteran political strategist and author of a study by the newly formed California Latino Economic Institute. The CLEI report, which looks into economic as well as political issues, was jointly commissioned by the Legislature’s Latino Caucus and the California Business Roundtable.

The goal is to keep that participation up going into the next election cycle, no easy task given that turnout often slides in non-presidential election year.

Getting into that middle class has proven difficult, although Latinos account for roughly 39 percent of the population, a percentage point above whites, the next largest group.  But for Madrid and others, the goal is worthy: Economic ascension and political clout may go hand in hand.

Statewide, some 22.7 percent of Latinos live below the poverty level, about 6.4 points higher than the statewide average. Latino poverty increased sharply, about 5.7 percent, between 2012 and 2015 alone. Latino unemployment is higher in virtually every area of the state, while Latino home ownership is about 20 percent lower than non-Latino households and has fallen dramatically in the most populous counties, Madrid noted.

But there are positive political changes for Latinos in recent elections, although they were largely overlooked because of the tumultuous national campaigns.

Latino participation increased and represented about 31 percent of the electorate, according to exit polling — inspired in part by the immigration views of presidential contender Donald Trump. About a fifth of were first-time voters, and well over half of them were women.

The goal is to keep that participation up going into the next election cycle, no easy task given that turnout often slides in non-presidential election years.

L.A. County alone accounts for a third of all Latino elected officials in the state, although it contains only a fifth of the state’s municipalities.

Latinos recently made recent gains in five of six political office categories – congressional, statewide constitutional officers, the Assembly, and county and city governments. There were no gains in the state Senate. The statewide offices gained two Latinos – Xavier Becerra, appointee, as attorney general, and Alex Padilla as secretary of state, both from southern California. In 2015, more than 30 additional Latino mayors and council members were elected across the state, now comprising about 17.7 percent of California city officials and some 10.6 percent of supervisors in the 58 counties.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles County has the largest Latino electorate. The county alone accounts for a third of all Latino elected officials in the state, although it contains only a fifth of the state’s municipalities. Fresno County is second, with about 9.5 percent local officials being Latinos. Meanwhile, northern California’s San Mateo County led a handful of counties losing Latino representation.

In the 80-member state Assembly, about a fourth of the members are Latinos, while the 40-member Senate has six Latino members, including Senate Leader Kevin de León. All the caucus members in both houses are Democrats.

“It is the first time you will start seeing a real shift of power away from the San Francisco bay area down to southern California,” Madrid said. “This is another generational moment.”

In seven of eight key Assembly races last year, “rising Latino participation carried a Latino candidate to victory,” according to CLEI report. The exception was in the 40th Assembly District, when challenger Abigail Medina came within 2,000 votes, or 1.3 percent, of defeating incumbent Republican Marc Steinorth of Rancho Cucamonga.

The rise in Latino clout and participation may fuel a shift in power from north to south, although nobody is sure when that tipping point will be reached.

The change has been gradual and has been happening for years, reflected in the Legislature and its leadership. But over the past decade it has intensified and the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections will be pivotal politically.

“It is the first time you will start seeing a real shift of power away from the San Francisco bay area down to southern California,” Madrid said. “This is another generational moment.”

An earlier generational moment for California Latinos? The 1994 ballot initiative, Proposition 187, which targeted illegal immigration It ultimately was thrown out by the courts, but it political strategists in both major parties believe it galvanized the Latino electorate.

For 2018 statewide races, Latinos have publicly declared for at least five of the eight constitutional offices, and more are likely.

“L.A. County is about a third larger than the San Francisco Bay Area, but the Bay Area is actually bigger than L.A. in terms of voter turnout.” — Paul Mitchell

The apparent north-south power shift rests in part on a burgeoning Latino population.

But to actually take place, that shift will have to be accompanied by an increase in Latino voter participation, especially in the south. Voter turnout has long been a weak spot in building the Latino base.

“L.A. County is about a third larger than the San Francisco Bay Area, but the Bay Area is actually bigger than L.A. in terms of voter turnout,” said Paul Mitchell a political strategist and vice president of Political Data, a data research company that sells information to the campaigns of both major parties. In part, that stems from “a consistent vote-by-mail effort in the north and Bay counties. Also, the heavily Latino voters in L.A. show a lower turnout than similar voters in the Bay area. “

“The 2018 election cycle will be a real test of this, obviously,” Mitchell added.

“By virtue of population change, L.A. is the biggest growth area with the biggest proportion of the voters,” said Mindy Romero of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. If turnout remains flat, however, there is little likelihood of a sea change.

“But if they increase their turnout rates along with their population, then wow!” she said.


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