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The Power Of The CA Latino Worker

 By Nina Martin, New America Media


SACRAMENTO - Latinos have a reputation for being unreliable voters. Yet in the midterm elections, Latino turnout ensured that California remained a blue state and the U.S. Senate remained under Democratic control. Much of the credit in California goes to the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which spent millions supporting Democratic candidates and ballot measures such as Proposition 25, the balanced-budget initiative. 

To find out more, NAM talked to Richie Ross, a Democratic political consultant for 37 years and a communications specialist for labor unions across the country, who has been deeply involved in efforts to organize Latinos in California since the Cesar Chavez era. 

What has been the biggest insight as you try to understand the political impact of anti-immigration laws like SB 1070, which passed in Arizona this year, and Prop. 187, which passed in California in 1994?

In the course of my work around the country, I’ve done many, many focus groups of Latino workers and at some point I stumbled upon a question that was very enlightening. The question was: “If people don’t like you, why do they hire you?” 

The first place I asked this was in a group of ladies from Honduras working in a commercial laundry in Atlanta. They all just smiled and gave me what they felt was a self-evident answer: “Because we’re the hardest workers.”

So I began to ask that question everywhere I went. And in every case the answer was the same: “Because we’re the hardest workers.” What they mean is, of course, not just that they work hard but that they do the hardest jobs.

Now, what was the basis of Proposition 187? The assumption was: “We think you’re here to get free stuff—free health care, free welfare. You are a community of freeloaders and we don’t want to pay for your free stuff.” And if that’s what’s underneath the Republican Party’s view of why you [as Latinos] are bad, but your view of yourself and your community is diametrically the opposite….well, those are two very conflicting messages. The Republican Party should not be surprised at how Latinos have voted.

The Republican mistake was that they were saying, “We’re pretty conservative on abortion and gay marriage, so you ought to support us even though we don’t like you.” But when has anyone ever supported someone who didn’t like them?

The Democratic problem is that they’re afraid of saying, “We like you.” They’re nervous. 

Did you intentionally make SB 1070 the centerpiece of the California campaign and efforts to get out the Latino vote around the country?

We did not set out to run a campaign that was about Arizona. When we started the focus groups in Los Angeles, we were just going to explore the question: “Why do some people vote sometimes and sometimes not vote?” 

When we did the groups, we segregated them, by first-, second-, and third-generation Latinos, and by male and female. The first group I asked was third-generation, mainly blue-collar men. When I would ask them a question and they would give me a really pat answer like, “Well, I didn’t vote because I was busy,” I would challenge them. Finally, one guy blurts out: “I go [to vote] when someone really pushes my buttons.” I say, “Oh yeah, like what?” He says, “Like this Arizona thing.”

It was like opening the floodgates. All these guys jumped in and started talking about profiling. Not police profiling, which is what people in the political class think of when they hear that word, but things like: “When I was a kid, my mother tried to buy a house, but…” or “When I was a kid, I got picked on in school….” Everyone had a story about being singled out. That’s what they meant by profiling.

Then we do the next focus group with women, and it wasn’t two minutes before they brought up SB 1070. That experience repeated itself night after night. The mistake of people in the political class was to think: This is a law about undocumented immigrants in another state—this has nothing to do with us here and now. Yet when we did polling, we found phenomenal numbers—93 percent of California Latino voters knew about the Arizona law; 84 percent used the word “profiling.” Only 16 percent used the word “immigrants.” And 73 percent believed it could happen in California. It was a striking finding. I don’t think even other Democrats in California or around the country really understood the depths of these feelings.

In the focus groups in June [soon after SB 1070 was signed into law], Meg Whitman had already spent $60 million or $70 million trying to define herself. But more people in our focus groups could tell us the name of the Arizona law—SB 1070—than could tell us the name of either [major] candidate running for governor in their own state. That’s when we thought, maybe we should make our candidate Election Tuesday and our opponent Arizona.

For years, people have said that a majority of Latinos would never elect Republicans to statewide office in California because they remembered Prop. 187. But that was 16 years ago. Did Latino voters in California really remember Prop. 187? 

No, of course not. But what they do remember is the impression Prop. 187 made on them at the time. [There was a famous TV commercial]: You’re in your living room and you see the footage of people crossing the border at night, and the announcer says, “They keep coming.” I remember watching that ad with my kids, who are half-Mexican, and I didn’t say anything to them about it. A few days later, I’m driving them to school and I say to my younger son, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” He says, “A Democrat,” and I ask why and he says, “Because the Republicans don’t like me.” What they remember isn’t the number of the ballot measure or even what it did. What they remember is: These people who call themselves by this name Republican don’t like me.

But many Latino voters are too young to remember those commercials.

True, but then this year the Republicans came back with the gift that keeps on giving. They pass another bill in Arizona, signed by Jan Brewer, then get Sarah Palin to make it famous. In California, Latinos know that they have rich Republican ladies running for office [Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina] and one of those ladies [Carly Fiorina] likes the Arizona bill. They don’t remember which one, and it doesn’t matter. They think the Republican women are united against us: Brewer, Palin, Whitman, Fiorina.

Unionizing Latino immigrants, especially in Los Angeles, was a brilliant long-term strategy that really paid off this year. How did unions do this?

It goes back to 1990 and discussions we had then with Miguel Contreras, who was the leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, and his wife, Maria Elena Durazo, then the leader of the Hotel Workers and his successor at the Labor Fed after he died. The question came up: If you’re a new immigrant to this country, where do you feel welcome? The answer is, Nowhere. There’s only one place, and that’s church. So we thought, instead of trying to unionize people, how do we make the word “union” appeal to them emotionally, the way church does? How do we make the word “union” feel like something that says, “You’re welcome, you can come in here, we want you to be here.” Everything we did was about that. We just said unions are like churches. “They like immigrants, they like you.” Over time, it worked. We were creating a new kind of cultural reality, that whatever a union is, it likes [Latinos.] And our success flowed from that. 

What’s the big lesson from this year’s elections that people could learn from in states like Arizona or even in Washington, D.C.?

The overarching lesson for me is one that took me until I was in my late 50s to understand. Whenever I’ve made a political judgment in a campaign that was based on fear, it was always the wrong judgment.

The reason I think the Republicans lost in California is they’re making a move based on fear: they’re afraid that the racial makeup of the country they grew up with is changing. The Democratic mistake is that they’re afraid the Republicans could be right. The Democrats are afraid to engage in a discussion about immigration. They’ve perfected the art of lip service. They say things like, “Yes we know we need immigration reform, yes we know we need to have justice for farm workers, but this year is not the year.” So what are they afraid of? Are they afraid that if they do something, they might lose 60 seats in the House? 

Oh, s---, you didn’t do anything and you still lost 60 seats. 

But the fear tactics worked very well this year. Do you really think that eventually they will backfire?

It is inevitable. In 2020, 2030, 2040, the United States of America will be a different place. I believe politics is simply a reflection of cultural reality. Gay marriage is a good example—why do young people embrace it? Because they grew in a time when it was okay to be gay and for their friends at school to say they were gay, whereas I grew up at a time where if you were gay, you kept that secret. So their reaction to people who oppose gay marriage is: “Why are you picking on my friends?”

Kids now are growing up in a state where half of students are Latinos. What will be the impact of that [on attitudes toward immigration and laws like SB 1070]? The kids who aren’t Latino are going to say, “What’s the big deal? Why are you attacking Jose’s mom? Why can’t Maria’s mother work?” I do think it’s inevitable.


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