Minorities have growing visibility in proposition campaigns

African Americans make up only about 7 percent of California’s population, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the Proposition 19 campaign. The public face of the campaign to stop the marijuana legalization initiative has been Bishop Ron Allen, a prominent black preacher, while one of the most visible backers of the yes side has been California NAACP head Alice Huffman.

Meanwhile, the Prop. 23 campaign has been lining up African-American and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in their effort to suspend AB 32, California’s law to fight global warming. The campaign recently did a photo opp outside Texas Mexican Restaurant in Sacramento featuring owner Griselda Barajas.

On Monday, a new coalition against Prop. 23 was unveiled. Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Prop was partially designed to bring more minority voices into the effort against the initiative. Its being run out of the Ella Baker Center on Human Rights in Oakland, named after the famed black civil rights leader.

These are probably the two most prominent examples. But it seems clear that in this fall’s initiative campaigns there has been a major push by all sides to put faces of color in central roles.

“People of color are numerically more than 50 percent of the people of California, and they are 40 percent of the electorate,” said Ian Kim, the campaign manager for the Communities United effort out of the Ella Baker Center. “Latinos themselves are over 20 percent of the electorate, and that’s growing. In the last 10 years, the number of Latino voters has doubled. For any statewide campaign, it’s become more important to know what voters of color are going to think.”

One thing a lot of these people were thinking two years ago was that they had been ignored. Nowhere was this more stark than in the Proposition 8 campaign. While there has been controversy over the exact numbers, it is clear that a majority of African-American and Latino voters approved the bid to stop the same-sex marriages that were then taking place in California.

Both of these groups are lower income and more likely to attend church than the general population, two key factors when it came to predicting how people would vote. But the no campaign was also widely criticized as being run by middle-class whites out of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with little or no outreach to minority communities until it was too late. In the meantime, a group of socially conservative black preachers set the tone with fiery rallies promoting the measure.

Proposition 19 may be close, and partisans on both side know that every vote counts. Each campaign set out early to stake out a pro-minority position, long before the average voter was even engaged.

For months, the Yes on 19 side has been promoting a study that shows that African-Americans are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates than whites — a trend that exists across many years and in every single county in the state.

“When you look at who we’re putting in prison, its three to one blacks and Latinos, but whites use more drugs more often,” said Dale Sky Jones, a spokeswoman for Yes on 19 and executive chancellor of Oaksterdam. They could have made an even stronger historical case, she said, except that many crime statistics counted Latinos as white until well into the 90s.

“How many of those ‘white’ people were actually white?” Jones asked. “It’s been a longstanding issue.”

In fact, she said, they conceived of the campaign as a civil rights issue long before Huffman got involved. Instead of having to go out and get minority support, she said, Huffman and many largely-Latino labor unions came to them instead.

When that arrest rates study came out at the end of June, it appeared to spark a rhetorical war between Huffman and Allen for the soul of African-American voters.

“Alice Huffman and the California NAACP don’t speak for the minority community,” Allen said, when approached at a No on 19 rally at the Capitol on Tuesday being led by the operators of several medical marijuana dispensaries. In his many public appearances, Allen – a former drug addict himself, who claims that a pot addiction led him to cocaine – has laid out a scenario of pot shops littering minority communities the way liquor stores do now.

Anita Mengel, the main spokeswoman for the California Jobs Initiative, as the Yes on 19 campaign is known, said the campaign didn’t “make a conscious decision” to specifically court minority voters in particular. But their outreach to chambers of commerce and business groups led them to numerous black and Latino groups, for whom the issue of jobs and the faltering economy are major concerns. The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the measure.

“They’re very concerned about jobs,” Mengel said. “They’re also concerned about how rising energy costs will hurt small businesses that are minority owned. If you take a look at our endorsement list, you will see a large number of not only Latino and African American groups but other minority groups.”

Those who want to keep AB 32, meanwhile, have been trying to brand the Yes on 23 with the mostly-white faces of Texas oil executives — particularly those of Valero and Tesoro, who have given a combined $5.6 million.

“From our point of view, anybody can say that,” said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Greenlining Institute, which is a member of Communities United. “But the notion that a couple of Texas oil companies would be spending millions of dollars to benefit minority communities in California does not pass the smell test.”

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