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Latino vote may be critical in California recall

A boon for Bustamante?

By Greg Botelho

California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Sen. Joe Lieberman tour a printing class on the Mission Campus of the City College of San Francisco.
California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Sen. Joe Lieberman tour a printing class on the Mission Campus of the City College of San Francisco.

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(CNN) -- In his nine months as California's governor in 1875, Romualdo Pacheco did not make many waves; the state legislature never convened during his tenure. But he did make history, as the state's first -- and to date, only -- Latino governor.

Some 128 years later, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is vying to repeat Pacheco's feat -- if California voters recall Gov. Gray Davis from office October 7.

Statistically at least, Bustamante has many fellow Hispanics to back him up -- 11 million California Latinos, who historically vote Democrat, in a state of 33 million, according to the 2000 census.

A late September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed Hispanic voters backed Democrat Bustamante by a 3-to-1 margin over the Republican front-runner, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But pundits aren't sure what all this will mean to Bustamante come election day -- if his roots will draw large numbers of supportive Latinos to the polls or, perhaps, produce a backlash among non-Hispanics.

"Bustamante's shared ethnic background is helping him with [Hispanics]," said Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Having said that, it's also probably the case that his positions on immigration and the extent to which he is viewed as 'the Latino candidate' will probably hurt with groups that don't identify themselves in that way."

The turnout of Hispanic voters, experts say, could determine the election's outcome -- whether Davis is recalled and, if he is, who his replacement will be.

But it would be wrong to assume that a Latino voter equals a Bustamante vote -- or that all recall candidates don't need to curry favor with Latino voters, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"The fact there is a Latino on the ballot adds a level of excitement to the race, so Latinos will be looking at it," said Vargas. "But they are willing to vote their interest and they are willing cross party lines."

Splicing the numbers

New Mexico, Hawaii and California are the only states in which whites without Hispanic ancestry do not make up a majority of the state's population, according to the 2000 Census.

The number of Latinos in California has risen steadily in recent decades, but Hispanic voters were largely regarded a political afterthought until 1994. That year, 59 percent of state voters approved Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants' access to state-funded education programs, social services and non-emergency health care -- a measure Hispanics resoundingly opposed.

That bill, which was later declared unconstitutional, never became law.

The Latino voting population -- as a percentage of all California voters -- surged to 16 percent by 2000. Of those, 60 percent said they were Democrats and 22 percent Republicans, according a Field Institute poll that year.

But the number of registered Hispanic voters in California pales in comparison to the total number of Latinos in the state.

Forty percent of Hispanics are under 18, said Vargas. Many are not U.S. citizens (only 61 percent of California Latinos of voting age were citizens, according to the 1998 census). Even those registered to vote don't necessarily turn out on Election Day, as demonstrated in the 2002 mid-term elections.

"There has been a steady increase since the 1994 election, except for 2002, ... which was attributable to things like dissatisfaction with the choices in the California governor's race," said Vargas. The state has about 2.5 million registered Latino voters.

start quoteIt is an election where somebody getting as little as 30 percent [of the vote] could be the next governor.end quote
-- Arturo Vargas, executive director, National Association of Latino Elected Officials

"But there is a participation gap between Latinos and non-Latinos, and we're working very hard to change that."

The higher the Hispanic voter turnout, the better for Bustamante, it seems. In the September 21 PPIC poll, which had a sampling error of 3 percent, 49 percent of Latinos backed the lieutenant governor compared to 15 percent for the next closest vote-getter, Schwarzenegger.

"The polls don't show a huge difference among Democrats in how Latinos and non-Latinos would vote on the recall [of Davis]," said Citrin. "Where they do show a difference is their preference among the candidates running, and there Bustamante draws substantially more support from Latino Democrats and non-Democratic Latinos than from other ethnic groups."

Socioeconomics a major factor

In a study of 2002 election results, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) found "no evidence of a Republican surge among Latino voters," while noting that those with a higher income or higher education level would more likely back the GOP.

"One cannot stereotype Latinos as a group," said Citrin, echoing the CIS findings. "There are differences depending on economic background, whether they are foreign-born or not, how long they've lived in the United States."

start quoteOne cannot stereotype Latinos as a group. There are differences depending on economic background, whether they are foreign-born or not, how long they've lived in the United States.end quote
-- Political Science Professor Jack Citrin, University of California at Berkeley

While immigration-related issues are significant, Vargas says, top issues for Hispanics are more mainstream -- jobs, healthcare and, especially, education, given Latinos' relative youth.

Most won't vote for a candidate just because he or she is Hispanic, Vargas added. "I wouldn't assume Bustamante would get all the Latino votes."

Still, Romualdo Pacheco's would-be heir apparent certainly has an advantage.

While calling Bustamante a "completely conventional politician," Citrin said, "The first time a member of an ethnic group runs for a prominent position, that mobilizes voters because it's a matter of not necessarily only sharing a position, but group pride."

The appearance of Proposition 54, which would prohibit the government from using ethnic or racial data and which has drawn Hispanic opposition, may bring more Latinos to the polls. And the recall's intense media coverage -- especially in Spanish-language media, says Vargas -- has heightened awareness among the Latino electorate.

"Latinos are very much engaged in this election because of all the unique aspects of it and the tremendous amount of attention paid to it," said Vargas, contrasting it to 2002 when the percentage of participation Hispanic voters fell.

"And it is an election where somebody getting as little as 30 percent [of the overall vote] could be the next governor."

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