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Vying for Latino Votes --in Spanish

April 12, 1998|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy

Win or lose, financier Al Checchi has upped the ante on what it will take to be the next Democratic nominee for governor of California. By dipping early and often into his deep pockets, he not only scared off potential rivals by ensuring that this gubernatorial primary will be the most costly ever in California, he also for the first time targeted a minority constituency for special attention--Latinos. His rivals, and his party, have jumped on the bandwagon.

But recognizing the Latino electorate is not the same as understanding it. Although welcome, this year's Latino strategies still tend toward simplistic approaches to an increasingly complex electorate.

Between 1994 and 1996, California's Latino electorate grew by 10%. Between 1996 and November 1998, it is expected to grow by as much as 30% more. Only 7% of the state's electorate in 1990, Latinos may make up 13% of all voters this year. A few years ago, new citizens led the surge in Latino voting. This year, growth will be driven largely by newly registered, young, U.S.-born Latinos. Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project says the immigrant portion of the Latino electorate is likely to plateau at 40% by the end of the decade.

Last August, before voters knew who Checchi was, he secured the endorsement of California's most visible Latino politician, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). The endorsement was the first step in Checchi's unprecedented drive to garner support from the state's rapidly growing Latino electorate. Checchi's personal wealth and his self-conscious Latino outreach gave him a temporary advantage over then-probable candidates Gray Davis, who was financially challenged by Proposition 208's fund-raising restriction, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had offended many Latino officials with her stands on immigration.

In November, the Checchi campaign began running Spanish-language television ads on the heels of their first spots in English. Democratic candidates, to be sure, have run Spanish-language ads before, but they never went much beyond tokenism. Citing increasing Latino voter participation, the Checchi campaign plans to spend a whopping 15% of its TV-ad budget on Spanish-language stations. These ads are not simply general-market commercials dubbed in Spanish. Two of the three released so far were produced specifically for a Spanish-language audience. In the two ads, the candidate's wife, Kathryn, speaks in Spanish of her husband's commitment to improving education and fighting discrimination, and she also mentions her husband's Italian immigrant grandparents.

By last month's Democratic state convention, Checchi's strategy of accumulating Latino endorsements and highlighting an immigrant past was co-opted by his gubernatorial rivals. Rep. Jane Harman, who entered the race in January, stressed that she is the daughter of a German- Jewish refugee. She counts among her endorsements Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina; Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), and state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte). Although Davis doesn't have any star-power Latino endorsements, he claims to have the most. He's an immigrant, too. "I was born in the Bronx," he joked at the convention.

Early indications are that Checchi's Latino media strategy is paying dividends. Though the most recent Field poll, taken in mid-March, showed Harman was more popular among the general electorate, Checchi maintained a commanding 20-point lead over her, and a 29-point lead over Davis, among likely Latino voters.

Checchi's Latino support, and the media strategy that created it, may be more the result of symbolism than substance, however. According to the William C. Velasquez Institute, in November 1996, when more Latinos voted than in any other election in California history, about 75% of them received their political information from English-language TV. Political scientist Fernando Guerra, who conducted a survey in January for the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco, says that while a third of the Latino electorate are foreign-born, only an estimated 18% of them are likely to be getting their news from Spanish-language media.

Still, the symbolism of Spanish-language ads resonates with Latino voters who watch English-language television. In the '90s, the majority of Latino voters have found themselves on the losing side of controversial, racially charged issues. Checchi's use of Spanish-language ads tells them that, while he may not fully understand Latino heterogeneity, he does take Latino voters seriously. The first newspaper editorial board Checchi sat down with wasn't that of any of the largest English-language newspapers. Instead, it was with the Spanish-language daily, La Opinion.

Harman's first editorial-board visit was also at La Opinion. Furthermore, in the last week of March, her campaign began airing ads on Spanish-language TV.

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