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Elections '96: A Voter Handbook | The Fight for Calfiornia:
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Getting Out The Vote

Young Mayor Sets Lofty Goal for Turnout

November 03, 1996|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baldwin Park's Harvard-educated, 27-year-old mayor made an announcement earlier this fall that would have raised eyebrows even in Chicago during the glory days of machine politics, when corpses were registered to boost the rolls and the motto was "vote early and vote often."

Fidel Vargas said he wanted 100% turnout of the registered voters in this blue-collar, racially mixed San Gabriel Valley city, launching a campaign for good citizenship in an age of voter disillusionment and low voter turnout.

It would be ambitious for any city to make such a bid, but particularly so for Baldwin Park. In 1994, only 45.3% of the city's registered voters went to the polls, well below the countywide average of 58.8%.

The effort proved difficult from the outset, resting on a loosely organized cluster of political and grass-roots organizations. Meeting the related goal of registering all eligible voters was also rough going: Fifty volunteers working over two weeks signed up only about 500 new voters. It got tougher: The grass-roots group doing the door-to-door canvassing now says it is no longer working toward Vargas' goal.

But the disorganized, quixotic effort to boost turnout in Baldwin Park is not about hard numbers. It combines touches of the past--neighborhood leafleting sponsored by the local church--with what activists and analysts say could be the politics of the future, the long-promised mobilization of California's massive, but mostly politically dormant, Latino population.

"Six years ago, the goal would have just been met with raised eyebrows," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which is affiliated with Claremont Graduate School. "But in 1996, with the politicization that has occurred in the immigrant community and Baldwin Park having a significant amount of naturalized residents, it's somewhat plausible."

And even if it was doomed to fail, Baldwin Park's drive may leave its mark.

"It's a noble goal, but they'll fall short," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College. "I certainly don't fault them for stating that ideal. If you want to hit the treetops, you've got to aim for the stars."

Despite initially pushing the 100% goal at public meetings, Vargas has steadily backed away from it and in interviews freely concedes it is unattainable. The more realistic goal, Vargas said, is to boost turnout above the 55% level. "That, to me, would really make a difference for people and democracy."

The idea to shoot for 100% turnout came at a community meeting this summer, one of a series Vargas has organized to plan the city's future. But the campaign didn't truly crank into gear until late September, about two weeks before the voter registration deadline. Vargas visited high schools to sign up 120 young voters, and volunteers staffed tables at City Hall, at St. John's, the city's biggest church, and at the Sanwa Bank.

The total yield was modest--Vargas estimates about 500 new registered voters.

But changes in demographics have done much of the activists' work. Baldwin Park, with a population of about 70,000, and an estimated 50% of whom are under age 18, has been a home both to longtime citizens of Latino heritage and newer Latino immigrants. And as these immigrants rush this year to become citizens in the wake of national legislation restricting government benefits to legal immigrants, Baldwin Park has seen its voter rolls swell by 16%, from 17,060 in 1994 to 19,798 as of Oct. 7, according to the county registrar.

One of those new registrants is Manuel Melendrez, 61. A driver for a local auto dealership, Melendrez has lived in Baldwin Park since 1956 but only became a citizen this June, after futilely trying to persuade his 26-year-old son, John, to vote.

At St. John's, Melendrez heard about the drive to boost turnout and joined the precinct walkers at the East Valleys Organization, the grass-roots group that is doing the most local canvassing.

"A lot of people say 'Why?' " when he urges them to vote, Melendrez said on a recent Saturday after two hours of walking one precinct, where he garnered only 12 names of people who promised to go to the polls. "I tell them you count in this city."

Melendrez explained the importance of 100% turnout: "There are 49,000 [eligible voters] in this city and only 20,000 names [of registered voters] in the computer. What happened to the other 29,000? We'll go to people in Congress and say, 'Can you help our city?' They say, 'Why? Baldwin Park? You only have 20,000.' "

But the activists working with Melendrez aren't pushing for 100% any longer. Organizer Lucy Boutte, director of parish activities at St. John's, said the coalition was initially working both for its own objectives--to get 3,500 new voters to the polls--and to boost citywide turnout. But activists have since given up on Vargas' plan, saying they need to focus on their own agenda.

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