LOS ANGELES — Latino political power has never been stronger in California.
They are the largest ethnic group in the state and make up about 30 percent of registered voters. They have propelled Democratic victories in California for decades, giving the party super majorities in both houses of the state legislature, where Latino senators and members of the Assembly hold powerful positions and pass some of the most immigrant-friendly legislation in the country.
But as Governor Gavin Newsom tries to win a recall election within days, the Latino voters he relies on appear disengaged and ambivalent about the prospect of him being removed from office.
In 2018, exit polls showed Mr. Newsom with support from about two-thirds of all Latinos. Now polls show Latinos are almost evenly split on the recall. And so far, only 15 percent of all registered Latino voters have mailed their ballots, compared to 29 percent of white voters, according to Political Data Inc., a Sacramento research group.
For many Latino voters, the mixed feelings stem from an ongoing battle with the pandemic as they face higher infection and death rates, as well as unemployment. For others, there is a deep rift with the Democratic Party and Mr. Newsom himself, a multimillionaire Napa Valley winery they view as aloof and aloof.
Interviews with Latino voters, strategists and lawyers across the state reveal a frustration among Hispanics that Mr. Newsom has never addressed. The pandemic has further entrenched inequality across the state and deepened anger at the pervasive class divide.
Karla Ramirez, 43, a Democrat living in Downey, a heavily Latino suburb southeast of Los Angeles, said she believed Mr Newsom had generally handled the pandemic well. But Ms. Ramirez, who runs a commercial cleaning business with her husband, said she intended to sit out the race and did not have the resources to pay attention to state politics while the virus is still raging. Her 9-year-old daughter and her husband both tested positive for Covid-19 and are recovering from mild symptoms.
All registered voters have received ballot papers by mail and will have the option to mail them, drop them off at the ballot boxes or vote in person from now until Election Day on September 14. Voting by mail is no longer an option for Ms. Ramirez.
“I got my ballot and threw it in the trash. I don’t think I would be honest,” Ms Ramirez said. “I’m working to get my kids back to school and getting vaccinated.”
With just a week to go before the polls close, public opinion polls suggest Mr Newsom will remain in office. But many see his struggles with Latin American voters as a troubling warning sign to Democrats, both at the state and national levels, glimpses of the consequences of failing to cooperate deeply with a vital political force whose loyalty is up for grabs. Democrats became concerned after the 2020 presidential election, when many Hispanic voters in Florida, Texas and other parts of the country waved at President Donald J. Trump. But the problem is potentially even greater in a state where Latinos make up nearly a third of the electorate.
“The real problem is that Governor Newsom has failed to spark enthusiasm among Latino voters,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the chairman of the Mexican-American Fund for Legal Protection and Education, who has been involved in California politics for decades. “That’s part of why he’s under threat. They are not motivated by his policies and practices, and he has utterly failed to address the Latino community as a Latino community and recognize its importance in the state.”
California’s Recall Elections
Mr Newsom’s campaign staff deny that they have failed to engage or listen to Latino voters. Aid workers point to his expansion of Medi-Cal to residents over 50, including undocumented immigrants, and a lengthy moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, as two key policies they say have helped thousands of Latinos in California. His campaign has repeatedly boasted of Alex Padilla’s nomination to the U.S. Senate, making him the state’s first Latino to serve on that body.
Nathan Click, A spokesperson for Mr. Newsom’s campaign said the governor’s strategy for reaching Latino voters had remained essentially unchanged. All along, Mr Click said, the campaign viewed Latinos — and young Latinos in particular — as difficult but essential to reach.
“Since day 1, we have known that voters who vote in presidential years but don’t vote in midterm elections and really not in special elections are the prime target for all our efforts,” he said.
A generation ago, Proposition 187, a voting initiative that would have barred undocumented immigrants from receiving most public services, gained widespread support among California Republicans, including Governor Pete Wilson. The anti-immigrant measure largely drove Latino voters away from the Republican Party and into the embrace of Democrats, who have publicly viewed the ballot measure as crucial to their takeover.
But many Latino voters are too young to remember the struggle for Proposition 187 in the early 1990s and feel no particular loyalty to Democrats. Despite all the talk about the political potential of Latinos in California, no governor in recent history has effectively brought Latinos together to become staunch supporters.
“We haven’t argued long enough for things to be different and better, especially for young Latinos,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents a heavily Latino and working-class San Diego neighborhood in the region. state meeting. “It’s like it’s become enough for many Democratic politicians to do no harm to Latinos.”
The recall also comes as many are still reeling from the impact of the pandemic. Latinos in California were much more likely to get infected and die from the virus than white residents. The unemployment rate among Latinos remains above 10 percent, and many small Latino owners have lost significant income over the past year and a half.
Frank Oropeza, 27, a barber in Montebello, just east of Los Angeles, said he voted for President Biden last year and considered himself a Democrat. But he said he had given little thought to how to vote on the recall. He said he was torn when he read posts on social media from fellow barbers and hairstylists in favor of Mr. Newsom, who had closed their businesses twice, and from others who looked at things differently.
“I’m so easily influenced,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Close your eyes and throw a dart.'”
Mr Oropeza said he understood the need for some pandemic restrictions. But he was frustrated that barbers and hairstylists had to stop working for the second time, even after taking precautions such as universal masking.
The critique is a critique where Mr. Newsom jumped, arguing to try and convince more Latinos to vote for the recall.
“A lot of those small businesses that are closed forever are owned by black and brown people,” Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host who has become the Republican frontrunner in a crowded field of recall candidates, told reporters last week.
At the virtual press conference, Mr. Elder along with Gloria Romero, a Democrat and former state legislator who is now an outspoken advocate for charter schools. She was featured prominently in a recent Spanish ad that sent the Elder campaign to Latino voters via text message.
“This is about sending a message about how the Democratic Party has largely abandoned Latinos,” Ms. Romero said. “We are taken for granted.”
Latino voters are a force in every part of the state and represent a wide spectrum of political views. While college-educated liberals in urban centers are part of the Democratic core, moderate working classes in the suburbs of the Inland Empire and Silicon Valley are essential to winning statewide. And in Orange County, the Central Valley and the far north of the state, religious voters and libertarians have helped elect Republicans in key congressional districts.
And there are signs that Republicans are having some success in seeking support from Hispanic voters, including first-time voters.
“I’m tired of the way things are,” said Ruben Sanchez, 43, a construction worker who lives in Simi Valley, a conservative stronghold north of Los Angeles. Mr. Sanchez, who attends an evangelical church, said he cast his first vote in 2020, voting for Mr Trump largely because of his religious beliefs and that he intended to vote for Mr Elder in the recall. “This governor and this state are not for working people, for people who care about this country.”
Campaign officials from Mr. Newsom have promised a blowout targeting Latino voters in the final days before the election. Last week, the Newsom campaign ran an ad featuring Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the former presidential candidate who so popular among many young Latinos in California that some call him Tío Bernie, meaning Uncle Bernie.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, the Sanders campaign focused much of its reach on Latino voters from the start, opening campaign offices in heavily Latino neighborhoods and releasing videos intended to be circulated on social media. The efforts have been widely regarded as some sort of roadmap to effectively reach Latino voters, and some Democrats have criticized the Newsom campaign for failing to do more to replicate them.
In addition to outreach, Mr. Sanders appealed to many young Latino voters, largely because of his ideology, calling for Medicare for all, forgiving student loans and sweeping bills to fight climate change.
“Latinos still have some core frustrations that Bernie spoke to that have not been resolved,” said Rafael Navar, California state director for the Sanders campaign. “We’ve had high death rates, high unemployment, and huge inequality.”
Despite the skepticism about Mr. Newsom, many Spanish voters say they fear what would happen if a Republican took office. But even when repelled by Republican politics, some liberal voters don’t call themselves enthusiastic Democrats. Party loyalty, they said, is not as important to them as supporting a candidate who will address their concerns more directly.
Ernesto Ruvalcaba, 27, a map specialist who lives in Los Angeles, said that although he voted against the recall because Mr Newsom was “getting the job done,” he remained dissatisfied.
“What he did, he could have done better,” Mr. Ruvalcaba said. “The parties are just very old – both. They just have to break up.”