In Imperial County, Warning Signs for California Democrats

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In 2020, Raúl Ureña won a seat on the Calexico city council with a progressive grassroots campaign. But voters in Imperial County swung toward Donald Trump by 17 points.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Last summer, Raúl Ureña signed up to run for city council in Calexico just days before the filing deadline. The incumbent candidate looked likely to keep the seat, but Ureña, who had just graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, wanted to at least give voters a more progressive choice.

Months later, he soared to victory, winning 70% of the vote in the Imperial County border town, which sits across from the larger Mexican city of Mexicali, visible from Ureña's front lawn.

Ureña knew that a winning campaign would have to speak to Latino neighbors who had been hit by the pandemic worse than any community in California.

Trusting younger Latino neighbors to disseminate campaign information from social media to their parents and grandparents, "even in a pandemic setting where we're not able to make in-person events, was really what drove our success," said Ureña. "And just the content of the message: that people are suffering —  it really spoke to the fact that they did want a change in leadership."

A desire for change pulsed through the Imperial County electorate in 2020, from municipal races to the top of the ticket. While Joe Biden won the historically blue county with 61% of the vote, Donald Trump cut his margin of defeat by 17 points from 2016, the largest swing of any county in California.

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The political shifts along the southern border offer some warning signs for the state's ruling party. In California's most heavily Latino county, demographics alone could not deliver the gains Democrats have come to rely on from Latino voters.

And the county's one constant — low voter participation —  points to fossilized methods of party outreach to a largely Spanish-speaking community that is also grappling with twin health and economic crises.

"The Democratic Party doesn't really exist here in Imperial County," said Ureña.

If these trends spread beyond the Imperial Valley, it could spell trouble for Gov. Gavin Newsom in the state's September 14 recall election. Early polls on the recall show evidence of a depressed Democratic turnout and lukewarm support for Newsom among California Latinos —  two factors that could result in the governor's removal from office, although early tabulations of ballots returned so far indicate growing Democratic engagement.

Right now in Imperial County, Ureña said, "most people don't even know what the recall is about."

'No. 1 in all the bad things'

Imperial County stretches from the canyons east of San Diego to the Arizona border. Its economy is dominated by agriculture; the valley's priority claim to Colorado River water transformed the region into a winter vegetable powerhouse, sending lettuce and salad mix to supermarkets across the country.

Everyday issues ailing the residents of Imperial County can make civic participation a low priority, said Raul Navarro, a political science instructor at Imperial Valley College.

Job opportunities are few and far between: The county's unemployment rate is 18.9%, a mark far higher than anywhere else in the state.

Rates of diabetes, heart disease and asthma are exacerbated by local pollutants, like the chemical-laden dust blowing from the exposed bed of the Salton Sea and the exhaust of cars idling at the border port of entry.

COVID-19 has ripped through the county, resulting in the state's highest number of deaths per 100,000 residents.

“We’re No. 1 in all the bad things," said Navarro.

And in voter turnout, Imperial County comes last. In 2020, amid record participation throughout California, only 67% of registered voters in Imperial County cast a ballot.

Those who did largely eschewed the progressive changes pursued by statewide Democrats, rejecting ballot measures to expand affirmative action, rent control, gig worker employment and bail reform.

A president focused on the border

But no issue resonates for voters in Imperial County more than immigration. For many living along it, Trump's constant emphasis on the border hit a chord.

"We certainly saw that in terms of the money that was coming into the region to secure our border, upgrade our fencing," said Steven Mireles, treasurer of the Imperial County Republican Central Committee. "And I think that that was one of the issues of many that Trump spoke towards, that really motivated voters that hadn't voted Republican or maybe even hadn't voted in many years."

Man in button-up shirt smiling and sitting in an office
Steven Mireles, treasurer of the Imperial County Republican Central Committee, said Trump's focus on the border "really motivated voters that hadn't voted Republican or maybe even hadn't voted in many years." (Guy Marzorati/KQED) (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

In Imperial County, investments in U.S. Border Patrol agents and infrastructure means jobs and the potential for easier cross-border commutes.

"We have a large population of law enforcement officers in Imperial County ... immigration officers, border patrol agents," said Sayrs Morris, the central committee's chair. "I think a lot of people just really were not engaged, but when they saw what Trump was doing and his policies were helping make our area secure and prosperous, they really wanted to come out and support him."

Trump also showed up: In 2019 he visited El Centro and Calexico, touting a newly installed section of the border wall. Local organizers said the visit allowed them to build a network of Trump voters in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

"People that were present to show the support for President Trump when he arrived came up, followed up, they signed up to volunteer, and we got them more engaged," said Daniel Flores, a local GOP activist. "So subsequent to that, when we held the rallies for President Trump, we had great turnout."

The result was Trump winning 36% of the vote, after carrying just 26% of the county in 2016, far behind the 67% that Hillary Clinton garnered.

The gains made by Trump in Imperial County mirrored the extreme swings toward the former president in communities along the Mexican border in Texas —  and shifts in Latino communities across the country.

"Where the Republican Party did invest, there were some shifts and that included some minority voters," said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. "That does not necessitate that Latinos ... are somehow more Republican than they ever have been. But it provides this really clear and explicit recognition that in order to engage them, you have to actually invest in them."

The pandemic and recession also allowed Trump to pivot from the tenor of his first campaign, which, said Diaz, "was frankly anti-Latino."

In the short term, Diaz argues that none of the voting shifts among Latinos in California were alarming. Instead, Trump had nowhere to go but up after the trouncing he took among Latino voters in 2016.

Despite his gains in Imperial County, Trump still sat 10 points behind where George W. Bush finished 2004, when he won 46% of the county in his reelection campaign.

A progressive message 'doesn't click'

Still, some see legs in last year's shift of Latino voters away from the Democratic party and believe that 2016 may have been the nadir of the California Republican party's relationship with Latino voters —  a plummet that began with the GOP's embrace of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994.

Take Proposition 16, a measure on last year's ballot that would have ended the state's ban on affirmative action. Nearly every statewide Democratic official got behind the campaign, and supporters said it would open doors for Latinos in higher education and government procurement.

But in Imperial County, and the state as a whole, it lost by 15 points.

Voters in predominately Latino border communities "are closer to their religious organizations and they see themselves as more conservative," said Luis Alvarado, a Republican consultant. "So the progressive message doesn't click with them."

Man in white shirt, sunglasses and blue cap in front of wall-size sign with red Xes over pictures of Kamala Harris and others
Danny Ramirez, a Calexico Democrat, said on social issues, local Democrats "are more Republican than they think." (Guy Marzorati/KQED) (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Danny Ramirez, a Democrat living in Calexico, said his socially conservative views have made him a reliable voter for Republican candidates. And he thinks Catholic and Evangelical fellow Latino Democrats in the region are ripe for a similar political conversion.

"I believe that the majority of the Imperial County is also pro-life and pro-family, but they don't vote that way because they don't know," he said. "Those Democrats are more Republican than they think."

Ramirez isn't shy about his beliefs: At his used bus dealership along Highway 98, he displays large signs denouncing state and national Democrats for their abortion-rights positions.

Some locals have written him off as "brown on the outside and white on the inside," Ramirez said.

"People call me a coconut," he added, joking: "I don't care what they call me —  just don't call me late for dinner."

Joel Gonzalez, who owns an RV repair business and a hobby shop in El Centro, said fears of inflated costs — whether or not they're actually related to who's president — were behind his vote for Trump.

"I get a price increase, so does the consumer," said Gonzalez. "I said if Biden wins the election, we're going to see $5 fuel prices and we're 50 cents away from that happening right now."

Will momentum carry into recall?

For voters like Rosalba Jepson, economic anxieties are carrying over into the recall election against Newsom.

"Get rid of him ... we work hard, he gets paid," said Jepson, a teacher, on her way into an El Centro supermarket. "I had to switch from teaching in class to doing something online I had never, ever done before. You think that wasn't stressful? Nobody paid me that extra time and then he's enjoying all this."

Polls on the recall vote released this month paint a mixed picture of where Latino voters stand: An Emerson College survey found 54% of Latino voters want Newsom recalled, compared with just 40% who plan to vote "no" and keep the governor in office. A CBS News poll found likely Latino voters split 50% to 50% on the ballot's first question ("'Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?' Yes or no"), although political strategists caution that unless sample sizes are statistically significant, polls of Latino voters can have wide margins of error.

More recall coverage.

Ureña, the Calexico council member, said a focus on the roots of this current recall campaign could be an effective message to convince Latino constituents to support Newsom.

The petition to remove Newsom from office, written in early 2020, charges the governor with hurting residents in myriad ways. But the first is this: "Laws he endorsed favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over that of our own citizens."

"It's not about COVID, it's not about stealing money," said Ureña. "The proponents of this measure think that Governor Newsom is helping [undocumented] immigrants too much and all of this racist rhetoric ... is coming out."

And the delivery of the message is important, too, said Ureña. A progressive vision can win in Imperial County in the recall election and beyond, he said, "but the cultural representation just needs to be there. Things need to be bilingual."

"Governor Newsom has been attentive to the needs of Latinos and low-income people across the state: protecting us, sending us the stimulus checks and things of that nature," he said. "It's just a matter of, again, communication, getting into our homes and genuinely visiting our communities."

Voting 'last thing' on many residents' minds

Language access and economic anxieties contribute to the Democrats' greatest short-term hurdle in heavily Latino communities like the Imperial Valley: getting voters to register and cast ballots.

Biden added fewer than 2,000 votes to Hillary Clinton's 2016 total, while Trump added 8,000. Despite the overall increase in turnout, Imperial County ranked last in the state in the share of registered voters who cast ballots, for the second consecutive general election.

"If you're a parent and you're not fluent with English and you have to work more than 40 hours a week, the last thing that's going to be on your mind is 'how do I register to vote?'," said Yomar Aguilar, a member of Valle Vota, a nonpartisan group working to boost voter engagement.

Last year, while he was still in high school, Aguilar joined dozens of Valle Vota organizers who canvased neighborhoods to encourage residents to vote and created voter guides with information on statewide ballot measures and local candidates.

Young man smiling in sunglasses and red polo shirt
Yomar Aguilar, of El Centro, worked to register and turn out voters as a high school student in 2020: "It was no easy feat." (Guy Marzorati/KQED) (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

The recall election, taking place earlier than expected and outside of a normal election year, has left groups like Valle Vota scrambling to catch up.

"We're a little bit slower this time around, but we're definitely getting some [social media] posts rolling out," said Aguilar.

Ureña sees a model for boosting turnout in the local distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. It's a success story for the community after months of despair: 77% of Imperial County residents have received at least one dose, the fifth-highest rate in California.

"Making sure everything's bilingual and making sure that it's in walking distance ... if we were to treat voting like vaccines, we would be very much more successful, because people do want to vote," Ureña said. "It's just that there are some practical things that ... get in the way."