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A letter-perfect political story

The `immigrant' mailing isn't a scandal. It's an opportunity for pols and the media.

October 29, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

IDON'T KNOW what was more disturbing, the lame attempt to suppress immigrant voter turnout in California's 47th Congressional District or the breathless reporting and hyper-indignation that followed it.

Editorialists called the incident "despicable." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger labeled it "racist" and a "hate crime." The chairman of the Orange County Republican Party called it "grotesque and obnoxious." You'd think they were all talking about a lynching, or at least a cross-burning. But no, it was a rather pedantic letter sent to fewer than 14,000 foreign-born Democrats with Spanish surnames in Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim.

It didn't matter that the mailing targeted only a tiny stratum of the district's 417,000 Latino voters, or that it made no mention of race or ethnicity; the media were all too happy to label this a "racial" incident. For Democrats, it was an easy don't-let-them-keep-you-down and get-out-the-vote rallying point, and for Republicans mired in an internecine battle over immigration, it was a great opportunity to say "Hey, don't mistreat Mexicans!" in front of a lot of microphones.

After a couple of years of politicians condoning ugly anti-immigrant and openly racist AM radio blather -- think Schwarzenegger, during the recall campaign, kissing up on KFI's "The John and Ken Show" -- you have to admit that the level of indignation in response to this incident appears at least slightly incommensurate. It makes you wonder: Why this outburst? Why now?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 4 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino voters: In the Oct. 29 Gregory Rodriguez column, the number of Latino voters in California's 47th Congressional District was misstated. It is 72,756, not 417,000.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez used the occasion to tell voters to stand up to the powerful right wing. But Tan Nguyen, the underdog Republican congressional candidate on whose behalf the letters were sent, is hardly a friend of Karl Rove's. In the United States, you can gauge someone's power by the number and relative status of the people who come to his defense when he screws up. And let's face it, only the loons have backed Nguyen in his hour of need. And that's the point.

Not only did Nguyen never have a chance of beating five-term Rep. Loretta Sanchez, but the letter -- which was designed to confuse and dissuade some recently registered immigrant Latino voters from going to the polls -- was not approved by any institution or person other than the dishonorable candidate himself. In other words, it required no great act of political sacrifice for Republican activists and officials to bash and disown a marginal candidate running against a popular incumbent.

For that matter, the pathetic letter -- which didn't even target the largest segment of the Latino electorate, those born in the United States -- never got close to creating anything that would amount to ethnic disenfranchisement.

The media's justification and moral for their hype of the story was that it proclaimed the "news" that, except for Nguyen, Republicans have become wary of offending immigrants in specific and Latinos in general. (And no, despite the media's insistence, the terms "immigrant" and "Latino" are not synonymous.)

Really? Then explain why congressional Republicans recently killed comprehensive immigration reform and passed a bill to construct a big ol' fence along the border?

The truth is, the letter has long legs as a national story because it fits the needs of all the parties involved, not because it's so earthshaking. It's Political Science and maybe even Journalism 101. The media are first influenced by the politicos whom they rely on for information. (Who do you think handed reporters copies of the letter in the first place?) Journalists then determine whether to cover it and from what angle, and ethnic bashing makes for hot-button headlines. Politicians on both sides then respond to the media's portrayal in a way that best serves their interests. In this case, both sides used the incident to position themselves as Latino friendly. The only loser is the rakish yet soon-to-be-forgotten Nguyen. And no one owed him anything, so who cares?

The point is that plenty of politicos on both sides of the aisle got to prove their benevolence, the media got to show off their high-minded indignation and nothing, absolutely nothing, was done to alter the political status quo. A perfect story.

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