The congressman who represents California's 51st District is 63-year-old Bob Filner, and on the day of the Brawley Cattle Call Parade he was where a candidate was supposed to be: in the back seat of a '59 T-Bird convertible, waving at thousands of voters camped out along Main Street.
Juan Vargas, the state assemblyman challenging Filner in the June 6 Democratic primary, also motored past the mid-century storefronts and the vendors hawking empanadas and cotton candy, a smiling reminder to vote for a 45-year-old Latino Catholic with roots right here on the hem of California.
People lugging lawn chairs had come on a clear November morning from Westmoreland, a few miles northwest, and from the direction of the Mexican border and the Imperial Valley fields filled with strawberries, tomatoes, sugar beets and corn. Almost every spectator either worked on a farm or for the government--at a prison, on a military base, for the Border Patrol--or they didn't work at all. There were mostly brown faces and a smattering of olive faces and some gringos wearing cowboy hats or sombreros.
After the marchers and pickups posing as floats dispersed, I asked Filner if he liked spending his Saturday at a civic event celebrating agriculture. "Life is one big campaign," he said, shrugging. Filner believes that ideas matter and that politicking, with its cheap emotion, is a farce. Despite a timid handshake and a scholar's layered syntax, he was elected to Congress in 1992 to lead, or at least help shape, a national discourse that many liberals like him had begun to mistake for a Republican infomercial.
All of which is fine and noble until you're at the post-parade picnic and you run into constituents such as the eight Castro brothers, with their God Bless America baseball caps, war stories and Purple Hearts. Then you have to throw back a few beers, try the barbecue pork and pose for a Polaroid. You have to give the people what they want.
Would that be Filner, a Jewish kid from Queens, N.Y., a civil rights freedom fighter and an Ivy League grad who was a history professor for many years at San Diego State before adopting a strict Capitol Hill haircut? Or Vargas, a Southern California native with a Harvard law degree and well-honed people skills?
Filner says that his opponent, now running for Congress for the third time, offers no ideas or policy prescriptions. He says that Vargas campaigns by subtly exploiting cultural and religious differences that pit rural, conservative, underrepresented Latinos against urban, liberal, overrepresented Jews. If true, it's too soon to tell how that tactic will play out in the 51st--or whether it will be repeated in other congressional districts in future races. But one thing is clear: California Democrats are already wrangling with the internecine emotion behind it, and with the burgeoning prospect that its liberal core will melt.
California politics on almost every level, and especially Democratic Party politics, reckons with the influence of a generations-old liberal power base loosely tied to L.A.'s affluent Westside--and to the so-called Berman-Waxman machine. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman have represented the districts stretching from Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade to Pacoima, in the upper San Fernando Valley, for a collective 50-plus years.
Party insiders call the pair "good Democrats" because their voting records reflect the platform of the American Civil Liberties Union and the deeply held attitudes of most Jews nationwide. But neither congressman is an overbearing liberal. Waxman, especially, in his role as the thoughtful ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, hardly comes off as an underhanded manipulator of the democratic process. Yet that is exactly how many Latinos in and out of office privately view Berman, Waxman and their numerous acolytes, some Jewish, some not.
As a result, many Republicans say that California's power structure, cobbled together through the decades, is nearing collapse. Orange County Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, among others, argues that conservative values and the Republican Party eventually will lure away huge numbers of Latinos. Moderate Democrats maintain that Latinos will stay put--and so far they've been proven correct--but they concede that the party could veer to the right.
Meanwhile, Waxman and others downplay any enmity between the Jewish and Latino communities. They say that any rift--in the 51st District or elsewhere--is nonsense or, more likely, a GOP ploy to rankle the opposition.
But Filner, who often strays from the party line, points to the state's demographic profile--more than 30% Latino and rising--and notes what he regards as a discomfiting status quo: The seven white Democrats representing districts from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, including him, are Jewish. So are California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats. The head count of California Latinos in the House? Eight.