In Valley Congressional Race, a Big Test of Latino Enthusiasm
Voting sign. (John Myers/KQED)
It’s a warm October night in Delano, the farming town north of Bakersfield where Cesar Chavez’s union got its start. At the annual Delano Harvest Festival, field workers coming in from the grape harvest stop for some fresh tacos. Other families sit on hay bales, eating caramel popcorn and listening to the band play Latin rock and cumbia.
Democrat Amanda Renteria is working the crowd on her uphill quest for the 21st Congressional District, stretching from Kern County to Fresno County.
She stops to have long conversations with everyone she meets, like 72-year-old Robert Zuniga.
“Renteria?” he asks. “Renteria,” she confirms, rolling the “r” with emphasis.
“Where are you originally from," asks Zuniga. "La familia?”
“Woodlake. But my Dad is from Zacatecas,” she tells him, and launches into a story in Spanglish about how he worked the fields.
“You got my vote, Zacatecas,” Zuniga tells her.
Renteria, a Stanford and Harvard graduate who went on to work for a U.S. senator from Michigan, was heavily courted by the Democratic Party to come back home to the Central Valley and run for office. And on paper she should be a shoo-in because of voters like Zuniga. She’s a Latina Democrat running in a district where 55 percent of registered voters are Latino, and Democrats have an almost 18-point registration edge over Republicans.
But there might not be enough voters who will actually turn up in this rural district on Election Day, which in recent elections has been the most lopsided in California when it comes to Latino voter registration versus turnout.
“It could be a problem year for Latinos, because there’s not a lot to get them to the polls,” says Gary Segura, a Stanford political scientist and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a polling group focused on the Latino vote.
“The things we know that drive down voting participation are youth, low income, low levels of education, low levels of information and the absence of mobilization,” says Segura. “And all of those things are likely to be true in the 21st of California. That’s Amanda Renteria’s challenge.”
Her biggest challenge, of course, is unseating the incumbent Republican congressman, David Valadao, a Portuguese-American dairyman with his own son-of-immigrants story. He’s willing to debate her in Spanish on Univision, albeit with a lot of Portuguese mixed in.
“I did struggle with my Spanish,” Valadao admits. “The fact that I’m making an effort, willing to embarrass myself with how rough it is, I think people appreciate it.”
Portuguese or Mexican? Republican or Democrat? Valadao says the thing that’s unique about the Central Valley is that voters here are not so tied to ethnic identity -- or political party -- including those who are registered Democrats.
“They may have stuck with their registration, but they’re not happy with the party,” says Valadao. “Especially when you look at water, you look at things where government is involved and how it’s hurt our valley. They’re finding they’re not being served well by their party, and they’re not falling for it anymore.”
Valadao was among the first to buck his Republican Party and support comprehensive immigration reform, an effort that remains stalled on Capitol Hill. He says that support helps explain his lead in the polls.
But there could still be a Latino turnout problem, says Paul Mitchell, with the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.
“Latino voting power is kind of like a series of Russian nesting dolls,” says Mitchell. “You have a very large Latino population, underneath that Latinos who are of eligible age and citizens, then those who are registered, and a subset who will actually vote.”
Mitchell's data analysis suggests a gap between the 21st Congressional District's registered Latino voters and likely Latino voters of as much as 13 points this fall. That would be the biggest gap of any congressional district in the state.
And it's one that Amanda Renteria is trying to overcome.
“Growing up here, politics or the political system wasn’t anything I knew anything about.” says Renteria, who grew up the daughter of farmworkers.
“I understand where these communities are coming from. [They say] ‘I’m working hard, trying to make it, I don’t have time for that stuff.’ Coming from that experience gives me an opportunity to be a different kind of bridge, to be able to say that’s why it’s important for you to have a voice, be able to vote,” says Renteria.
Renteria’s focus has been signing up voters as permanent absentee, setting up a bilingual hotline to help with their questions and returning again and again to urge them to vote.
“It’s not just, ‘sign me up,’ ” says Renteria. “The metrics are more than that. The metrics have to be: Did you make a connection?”
At the Delano festival, Renteria tries to make that connection with the teenage harvest princesses by chatting about their pigs, who are also vying for a title at the annual weigh-in.
“Is he still a little pig?” Renteria asks one of the teens, Samantha Ortiz, who was bitten by her pig while she tried to force-feed it.
“No, he’s 263 pounds now,” says Ortiz.
Renteria asks each of the teens whether they plan to vote. Some are too young, some aren’t citizens, and the rest? They just haven’t thought about it.
Mitchell, of Political Data, says that kind of apathy in this congressional district tells a larger California story: Latinos may take a long while to vote at a level near or equal their demographic strength.
“The electorate was 19 percent Latino in 2012, but the state as a whole was 19 percent Latino back in 1980,” says Mitchell. “That really is shocking. Today we have a population where Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the state. When will Latinos be the largest ethnic group in a statewide election? That might be when Chelsea Clinton’s daughter is running for president.”
Mitchell says efforts to increase Latino voter mobilization across the state sometimes just focus on short-term results for one particular election. But they need to have a long-term, sustaining impact.
“All Californians should hope that they’re successful,” adds Mitchell. “Not for any short-term gain of a Democrat here or Republican here, but simply because an electorate that is more reflective of our population is going to be a stronger democracy.”